LAS VEGAS -- Should thirsty California be allowed to drink from Wyoming's plentiful water bowl? If so, how big of a sip should the Golden State get? And who decides how much needs to be set aside for future Wyomingites?
Governors from across the West sparred over water and how to make sure everyone is getting their fair share Tuesday during a policy conference designed to drive consensus.
Federal experts urged state leaders to weigh water needs over water wants, while state leaders pleaded for less federal oversight and new flexibility on water agreements that detail how much water states get from a limited pool of resources.
"Clearly for those of us in the West, water is a very significant issue," said Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert, a Republican. "It's an emotional topic and sometimes so emotional that reasonable thought goes out the window."
The discussion opened the Western Governors Association's two-day conference in Las Vegas. Governors from 19 states, Guam, American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands were invited.
Water conservation and efficiency remained favorite solutions among government leaders eager to lap up the most use from fresh water sources.
Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter said Colorado is exploring agreements that allow farmers to lease excess water to governments. "A little bit of conservation goes a really long way."
James Horne, Australia's deputy secretary for water, offered solutions from his homeland, where he said facilities in major cities help convert rain into usable water and farming communities thrive around efficient irrigation systems. "People have to stop thinking of it as a free good. We must recognize it as a scarce commodity and price it accordingly."
But Anne Castle, assistant secretary for Water and Science at the U.S. Department of the Interior, said protecting the world's water supply from unnecessary growth could yield better results than simply urging people to turn off the faucet. For example, she said government should weigh the projected water cost of any proposed development before approving construction.
"You know that when you are in a hole and you want to get out, the first thing you have to do is stop digging."
In the West, few issues are as important as taming natural water sources, which has allowed cities to flourish in dry, landlocked places.
Despite the common goals, the policy conference at times exposed tensions between federal water officials and state leaders.
"I look forward to your assistance, but not too much of it," Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal, a Democrat, deadpanned to Castle at one point.
Herbert said Utah is working toward reducing its water use by 20 percent by 2020 despite a growing population. But he said conservation won't help in dry years if the federal government does not allow states to build dams and reservoirs to control water.
Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter complained that plans to protect his state's prized Eastern Snake River Plain Aquifer by creating wells or other infrastructure to keep the water from leaking toward the Pacific Ocean requires wrestling for permits with federal land managers.
"We've got Lake Erie, only Lake Erie is actually the Eastern Snake River Aquifer," the Republican governor said, referring to estimates that the aquifer contains as much water as the great lake. "Yet in order to maintain a healthy level of that, we have got to get across a lot of government ground. ... The question is, have we created a monster here?"
Some states also expressed frustration with each other.
Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons said changing consumers' perception of water availability has helped moved policy in the right direction. "There is nothing more difficult in any state, in any political arena, than talking about something that people feel is their constitutional right, and that's water, that's clean water."
But Gibbons said water efficiency means little if water agreements between smaller governments and powerful interests such as Mexico, California and the federal government are not updated to reflect modern consumption needs.
He highlighted the Colorado River, which provides water to Utah, California, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Nevada, with the fastest growing states demanding more than their sparcely populated neighbors.
"It seems we are nibbling away just at the edge of the antiquated laws that we created along the river that we always have to struggle around because we are so afraid to deal with the politics of the river," the Republican said.