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Published March 29, 2011, 10:32 AM

Common ground on water

Water is among the most important issues in agriculture. It’s often one of the most controversial, too.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

Water is among the most important issues in agriculture. It’s often one of the most controversial, too.

But a recent regional meeting sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found some significant areas of agreement on the issue, says a North Dakota State University professor who spoke at the meeting.

Participants “came from different backgrounds, but we identified some commonalties,” says David Saxowsky, an associate professor of agribusiness and applied economics.

Saxowsky spoke March 3 in Rock Island, Ill., at the first in a series of six regional meetings seeking public input on natural resources policy issues. USDA’s goal is improving conservation services for landowners and communities, as well as expanding participation in conservation programs.

Water security, climate variability and landscape integrity are the three areas under discussion.

Saxowsky, who teaches a class on water law at NDSU, was among the people invited to speak at the meeting.

Most of the other participants who looked at water security came from Iowa, where soil erosion is the prime water-related concern, Saxowsky says.

He says he talked about North Dakota, where water conditions vary greatly from east to central to west. In the eastern part of the state, for instance, the flat terrain and soil types rule out large-scale water storage.

The meeting identified four areas of agreement, or “principles,” on water, he says. They are:

n The people who use water should bear some, though not necessarily all, of the expense associated with it.

n More research on climate and water use is needed.

n Research, once conducted, should be used to educate everyone involved with water.

n “Flexible solutions” reflecting regional conditions, rather than one-size-fits-all national policies, are needed.

One Iowa farmer at the USDA meeting said he received 55 inches of rain in the past year, compared with about 30 inches in a typical year, Saxowsky says.

Water policies for that farmer need to be different than ones designed for western North Dakota, which might receive 16 inches of rain annually, he says.

Two different approaches

Water policies can get complicated because the eastern and western halves of the United States operate on two different water law principles, Saxowsky says.

In the eastern United States, the law generally allows people with access to a body of water to benefit from it.

In the western U.S., where water is less common, the law generally gives water rights to people who first brought the water to beneficial use.

The last of the six regional meetings will be held March 22 in Columbiana, Ala. Information gathered at the regional meetings will feed into a national conference April 7-8 in Washington.