Renewable Natural 

Resources Foundation

Congress on Sustaining WEstern WAter

December 1-2, 2015

American Geophysical Union Conference Center
2000 Florida Ave NW

Washington, DC

Click here to download the congress report.

Program      Further Reading     Delegate Affiliations      Program Committee

Colorado River at Moab  

Water is scarce throughout much of the western United States. West of the 100th meridian, average annual rainfall is less than 20 inches. Regardless, population in western states has increased rapidly and agricultural production is significant in some areas. From 2000 to 2010, the population of the West grew by 13.8%, or 8.7 million people. California's $2.2 trillion economy is the seventh largest in the world; population in this state increased from 15.7 million people in 1960 to 38.8 million today. California agriculture generates roughly $37.5 billion annually, more than any other state.

The population growth and shaping of the West during the later half of the 20th century occurred during an anomalously wet period in the region's history. Analysis of tree rings indicates that western states have experienced many droughts lasting two decades or longer, including two megadroughts that lasted over a century.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, 11 of the past 14 years have seen drought in much of the American West, from California to Texas and Oklahoma. The past four years in particular have seen extreme drought in this region with no relief in sight. Sierra Nevada snowpack, critical to California's water supply, is at historic lows - just 6% of the long-term average. The water level in Lake Mead dropped 4 feet from May to June 2015; at 1,075 feet and 37% full, the Lake has not seen these levels since it was created in the 1930s. Finally, between 2004 and 2013, the amount of groundwater within the Colorado River Basin decreased by approximately 49 cubic kilometers, representing 75% of the total water lost for this time period. 

In the American West, water is allocated based on a system of prior appropriation. In this system, water-right holders have access to the resource based on seniority, not the quantity used or for what purpose. Cities account for approximately 20% of total water withdrawals; agriculture consumes the remaining 80%. Strategies for coping with drought - including irrigation and water conservation - have a long history in this region. However, it will be a challenge to adapt these strategies and apply them to the severe droughts projected for the future.

RNRF congress delegates assessed the challenges of managing scarce water resources within the economic and regulatory framework of the western states. The congress featured discussion of methods and opportunities to sustain water resources including water transfers, land-use policy tools, and future scenario planning. The importance of conserving water for forests, wildlife and ecosystems were addressed as well.

Summaries of presentations, findings, and recommendations of participants are presented in a special edition of the Renewable Resources Journal available here.


David Cleaves
U.S. Forest Service
Ellen Hanak
Public Policy Institute
of California
Thomas Harter
University of California,
Carly Jerla
U.S. Bureau of
Kurt Johnson
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Sharon Megdal
University of Arizona
Doug Parker
California Institute for
Water Resources
Adam Schempp
Environmental Law
Buzz Thompson
Stanford University
Reagan Waskom
Colorado Water Institute


Tuesday, December 1

8:00 am – 8:50 am
Registration and Continental Breakfast

9:00 am – 9:15 am
Welcome and Opening Remarks

Richard Engberg
Chairman, RNRF Board of Directors
North Bethesda, Maryland

9:15 am – 9:45 am
The Western Water Landscape

An overview of historical water management in the West including water allocation and infrastructure development. Why is water availability an issue today?

Doug Parker
Director, California Institute for Water Resources
Strategic Initiative Leader, University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources' Water Quality, Quantity and Security Strategic Initiative
Oakland, California

PowerPoint Slides

9:45 am – 10:15 am
Questions and Discussion

10:15 am – 10:30 am

10:30 am – 11:00 am
Federal, State and Constitutional Law Influences on Water Ownership, Management and Regulation in the West

Barton H. "Buzz" Thompson, Jr.
Robert E. Paradise Professor of Natural Resources Law
Perry L. McCarthy Director, Woods Institute for the Environment
Stanford University
Stanford, California

PowerPoint Slides

11:00 am – 11:30 am
Questions and Discussion

11:30 am – 12:30 pm

12:30 pm – 3:00 pm
Panel: Pathways to Sustainable Water Use
As we plan for future population growth, water-related infrastructure investments and environmental needs, how are estimates developed to predict how much water will be available for use on a sustainable basis, particularly in light of climate change? How can surface and groundwater be managed in a holistic and sustainable way? What monitoring, data and regulatory mechanisms are required for sustainable water use?

    12:30 pm – 1:00 pm
    Sustainable Water Use in California

    Thomas Harter
    Robert M. Hagan Endowed Chair, Water Management and Policy
    Cooperative Extension Specialist (Professor), Groundwater Hydrology
    Department of Land, Air and Water Resources
University of California, Davis
    Davis, California

    PowerPoint Slides

    1:00 pm – 1:20 pm
    Questions and Discussion

    1:20 pm – 1:50 pm
    Sustainable Water Use in the Arid Southwest

    Sharon Megdal
    Director, Water Resources Research Center
    University of Arizona
Tucson, Arizona

    PowerPoint Slides

    1:50 pm – 2:10 pm
    Questions and Discussion

    2:10 pm – 2:40 pm
    Sustainable Water Use in the Rocky Mountains

    Reagan Waskom
    Director, Colorado Water Institute
    Chair, Colorado State University Water Center
    Colorado State University
    Fort Collins, Colorado

    2:40 pm – 3:00 pm
    Questions and Discussion

3:00 pm – 3:20 pm

3:20 pm – 3:50 pm
Water Transfers
Water transfers enable movement of water to where it is needed. How can water transfer mechanisms be made more effective and useful?

Adam Schempp
Senior Attorney and Director, Western Water Program
Environmental Law Institute
Washington, District of Columbia

PowerPoint Slides

3:50 pm – 4:20 pm
Questions and Discussion

Wednesday, December 2

8:00 am – 8:50 am
Continental Breakfast

9:00 am – 9:30 am
Land-Use Policy Tools
Can land-use policies and zoning foster sustainable use of freshwater resources by conditioning development upon water availability? Can regional land-use mechanisms be effective?

Ellen Hanak
Senior Fellow and Director, Water Policy Center
Public Policy Institute of California
San Francisco, California

PowerPoint Slides

9:30 am – 10:00 am
Questions and Discussion

10:00 am – 10:15 am

10:15 am – 11:55 am
Panel: Drought and Natural Resources Management
What are state and federal agencies doing to adapt management of forests, wildlife and ecosystems to changing climate conditions on federal lands in the West?

    10:15 am – 10:45 am

    David Cleaves
    Former Climate Change Advisor
    U.S. Forest Service
    Washington, District of Columbia

    PowerPoint Slides

    10:45 am – 11:05 am
    Discussion and Questions

    11:05 am – 11:35 am
    Fish and Wildlife

    Kurt Johnson
    National Climate Change Scientist
    U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
    Arlington, VA

    PowerPoint Slides
    PowerPoint Notes

    11:35 am – 11:55 am
    Questions and Discussion

11:55 am – 1:00 pm

1:00 pm – 1:30 pm
Future Scenario Planning

How can scenario planning best be used as a tool for implementing sustainable use of freshwater resources? What role does it play in stakeholder engagement and buy-in, as a planning tool, and for public education?

Carly Jerla
Operations Research Analyst
Study Manager, Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study
Lower Colorado Region
U.S. Bureau of Reclamation
Boulder, Colorado

PowerPoint Slides

1:30 pm – 2:00 pm
Questions and Discussion

2:00 pm - 2:15 pm
Congress Wrap-up and Discussion

Robert Day
Executive Director
Renewable Natural Resources Foundation
North Bethesda, Maryland

Further Reading

Drought in the United States: Causes and Current Understanding. Congressional Research Service. June 2015.

National Drought Forum Summary Report and Priority Actions: Drought and U.S. Preparedness in 2013 and Beyond. National Integrated Drought Information System. December 2012.

Shopping for Water: How the Market Can Mitigate Water Shortages in the American West by Peter W. Culp et al. The Hamilton Project and Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. October 2014.

Unprecedented 21st century drought risk in the American Southwest and Central Plains by Benjamin I. Cook et al. Published in Science Advances. February 2015.

Water Governance and Climate Change: Drought in California as a Lens on Our Climate Future. Prepared by Jacqueline Peel and Janny Choy, Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. December 2014.

Water in the West by Andrew Fahlund et al. Published in California Journal of Politics and Policy. 2014.

Delegate Affiliations

American Association for the Advancement of Science
American Forest Foundation
American Geophysical Union
American Geosciences Institute
American Meteorological Society - Policy Program
American Society of Civil Engineers - Coasts, Oceans, Ports and Rivers Institute
American Society of Landscape Architects
American University - Global Environmental Policy
American Water Resources Association
American Water Works Association
American Wind Energy Association
Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies
Booz Allen Hamilton - Environmental Domain
California Institute for Water Resources
Cleaves Consulting, LLC
College of the Atlantic - Law and Public Policy
Colorado State University - Colorado Water Institute
Congressional Research Service - Resources, Science and Industry Division
CropLife America
Environmental Law Institute
Geological Society of America
Georgetown Climate Center - Georgetown Law
International Water Association
Kelly Design Group, LLC
National Wildlife Federation
New York Academy of Sciences
Office of U.S Senator Michael Bennet
Office of U.S. Senator Jeffry Flake
Office of U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch
Office of U.S. Senator Harry Reid
Public Policy Institute of California
RAND Corporation
Renewable Natural Resources Foundation
Royal Netherlands Embassy - Office of Science and Technology
Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry
Society of Wood Science and Technology
Soil and Water Conservation Society
Stanford University - Woods Institute for the Environment - Stanford Law
Strategic Conservation Solutions
Swiss Re
Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership - Center for Water Resources
U.S. Agency for International Development
U.S. Bureau of Reclamation
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
U.S. Forest Service - Research and Development
University of Arizona - Water Resources Research Center
University of Arizona UMI-iGlobes
University of California, Davis - Water Management and Policy
University of Nevada, Reno - Academy for the Environment
USDA Economic Research Service
USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture
USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service
USDA Office of Environmental Markets
USDA Office of the Chief Economist
Walton Family Foundation
Washington State University
Yale University - School of Forestry and Environmental Studies

Congress Program Committee

Richard Engberg, RNRF Chairman; Former Technical Director, American Water Resources Association

Tom Chase
, Alternate Director, RNRF Board of Directors; Director, Coasts, Oceans, Ports & Rivers Institute, American Society of Civil Engineers
Robert Day, RNRF Executive Director
John E. Durrant, RNRF Vice-Chairman; Sr. Managing Director, Engineering & Lifelong Learning, American Society of Civil Engineers
Sarah Gerould, RNRF Board Member; Former Board Member, Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry; Chief of Staff to the Associate Director for Ecosystems, U.S. Geological Survey
Erik Hankin, RNRF Board Member; Program Manager, Student Programs, American Geophysical Union
John W. Hess, RNRF Board Member; President, Geological Society of America Foundation
Paul Higgins, RNRF Board Member; Director, Policy Program, American Meteorological Society
Howard Rosen, RNRF Board Member; Former President, Society of Wood Science and Technology
Nancy C. Somerville, Alternate Director, RNRF Board of Directors; Executive Vice President, American Society of Landscape Architects
Barry Starke, RNRF Board Member; Former President, American Society of Landscape Architects; Principal, Earth Design Associates, Inc.
Kasey White, Alternate Director, RNRF Board of Directors; Director for Geoscience Policy, Geological Society of America

Staff Liaisons:
Melissa Goodwin, RNRF Program Director
Jennee Kuang, RNRF Research Associate

Special Thanks To:
Charley Chesnutt, Coastal Engineer, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Institute for Water Resources
Taryn Finnessey, Climate Change Risk Management Specialist, Colorado Water Conservation Board
Doug Parker, Director, California Institute for Water Resources
Robert Pietrowsky
, Director, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Institute for Water Resources

Individuals attending Renewable Natural Resources Foundation events may be videotaped, audiotaped or photographed during the course of a meeting. By attending the RNRF Congress on Sustaining Western Water, delegates grant RNRF the right to use your name, photograph, biography, and the content of any comments, if any, in RNRF educational, news, or promotional material, whether in print, electronic or other media, including the RNRF website.