Thursday, Oct. 4, 2007 | 7:30 a.m.
Seizing on a hot-button issue in the desert state of Nevada, Democratic presidential candidate Bill Richardson is calling for a national summit on water to address needs in the parched West.
If elected, Richardson said , he would bring states together to talk about a way for water-rich northern-tier states to help with shortages in the Southwest. He also said he would elevate the Bureau of Reclamation to a Cabinet-level post. The bureau within the U.S. Interior Department manages water resources in the West .
"I believe that Western states and Eastern states have not been talking to each other when it comes to proper use of our water resources," Richardson told the Sun . "I want a national water policy. We need a dialogue between states to deal with issues like water conservation, water reuse technology, water delivery and water production. States like Wisconsin are awash in water."
Las Vegas faces a water shortage, but the issue has received short shrift in the presidential race as Democratic candidates campaign in Nevada looking for support in the state's second-in-the-nation caucus es .
The national Democratic Party last year sandwiched Nevada between the traditional early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire in the hope that candidates would address Western issues.
Richardson, the governor of New Mexico and the only Westerner in the Democratic field, says he sees a natural advantage in staking out positions on Nevada issues - perhaps none more pressing than water.
He said he would direct the newly elevated top water official to host negotiations between rural and urban areas when conflicts ari se over water rights. The talks, he said, would ensure a balance between environmental protection and economic development.
The Colorado River is in the midst of an eight-year drought, and no state is feeling the squeeze more than Nevada. In 1922 the river's water was divided among seven Western states in the so-called Colorado River Compact, with Nevada receiving the smallest allotment. Despite Las Vegas' booming population and sprawling development, the state's share of the river has remained the same, forcing the Southern Nevada Water Authority to find alternatives.
In the short term, the water authority plans to install an $817 million third intake valve at Lake Mead, the main source of water for Las Vegas. Without the intake, if water levels continue to fall as projected, taps across the valley could run dry by 2010, the authority says.
Beyond that, the agency appears to have abandoned the idea of reopening the river compact, settling instead on plans to build a multibillion-dollar, 285-mile pipeline that will carry water from rural Nevada to Las Vegas.
Told Wednesday of Richardson's proposals after a Las Vegas City Council meeting , Pat Mulroy, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, dismissed them. On the national water summit, Mulroy said she doubted negotiations would bring more water. She recalled being greeted by protestors in Ohio with signs showing Southwestern states sinking giant straws into the Great Lakes. "They are as emotional around this issue as every Western state is," she said.
As for making the Bureau of Reclamation a Cabinet-level agency, Mulroy said she doubted it would do much good, given that the Interior secretary, the nation's point person on water, already has a Cabinet seat.
Richardson declined to comment specifically on the controversial pipeline to Las Vegas.