A truth often repeated here in the West is “whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting.” No other factor has determined the settling and expansion of the Western United States more than access to water and water rights. Although many movies and books highlight the importance of the railroad in the Westward expansion of this nation, water trumps even transportation.
It’s hard for non-Western natives to understand this axiom. To them water is a fact of life that rarely makes an appearance in the news, unless a potential flood looms on the horizon. This became clear to me when I attended a university in northern Indiana. I walked out onto a damp campus field before an intramural football game and I asked one of the other students if they knew the irrigation schedule, explaining we wanted to play on a dry field.
“What irrigation schedule?” She asked me.
“You know, the one that runs the sprinklers. To water the grass,” I explained.
“We don’t water our grass,” she answered.
“Then how is it alive?” I asked.
Neither of us understood the other because of the role water played in our home states. The lush green lawns of the school’s grounds wouldn’t have been possible in most of the arid West without the aid of a sprinkler system. Neither would the countless fields of corn that surrounded the school. In my home state of Colorado, thriving communities only emerged along river basins that developed complex drainage and irrigations systems (e.g. Fort Collins--The Cache la Poudre River; Loveland--The Big Thompson River, Longmont and Boulder--The St. Vrain River; and Denver--The South Platte River).
Ed Marston, publisher of High Country News argues that the issue of water distribution and rights is as pivotal to Western policy and politics as segregation was to the South in the years following the Civil War.
One thing that makes water issues even more complicated is the difference between riparian rights vs. the prior appropriation system. Most of the Eastern United States follows riparian protocols, which allow landowners to use the water that runs through their property. However, most of the Western United States follows the prior appropriation system, meaning a stream can run through a landowner’s property, but unless that individual owns existing water shares of that river system, he or she may not touch the water. Even rain barrels are considered theft in many municipalities.
Additionally, the prior appropriation system developed on a first-come, first-served policy. In other words, initial settlers were awarded “first dibs” on water supply and many of those rights have been passed down and guarded jealously. If someone came late to the great water grab of the late 1800s and early 1900s, it didn’t matter how reasonable their claim was or how much water ran on their land. They were out of luck.
In part, Western water law developed the way it did because expansion was so rapid and haphazard. There was no existing precedent for doling out a resource that, while abundant in the rest of the country, was often the difference between life or death in arid plains and plateaus. As is so often the case in times of rapid development, chaos reigned and savvy investors snapped up claims to existing watersheds before most people realized what they’d lost.
The complexity of water resources continues today. It is policed by seven bureaus that work with the Department of the Interior and is a field of specialized law. The Western watersheds of the Columbia River Basin, the Missouri River Basin, and the Colorado River Basin supplies water for 17 states and three nations, irrigates approximately 23.2 million acres of land, and has a reservoir storage capacity of 174.9 million acre-feet.
Droughts continue to plague the Western United States and many scientists predict that the situation will worsen before it gets better. Most policy makers and municipalities charge that the archaic water doctrines of the past will not be feasible in the years to come.
Clearly a paradigm shift regarding water rights is coming, but what will the brave new world of water look like? The Atlantic recently featured an article about Disque Dean Jr., a hedge-fund manager, who is buying up as many shares of water as he can in hopes that it will become subject to the free market practices of commodity trading. This buying and selling of water shares, he argues, should correct nearly a century of mismanagement. Similarly, Michael Burry, (portrayed in The Big Short by Christian Bale), is now focusing all his trading power on water.
Agricultural interests, however, who control nearly 80% of all Western water, are hesitant to loosen their grip on this region’s most valuable resource. Crops are thirsty, they argue, and water should be prioritized to America’s farmlands, not urban lawns and golf courses.
Regardless of their stance, most policy-makers agree changes are coming. Water rights and distribution cannot continue as they have. A reckoning is rapidly approaching and the old axiom still holds true: water is for fighting.
For further reading:
Western Water Made Simple from the Editors of High Country News
A Free-Market Plan to Save the Americn West From Drought The Atlantic, March 2016
Water Law: an Overview from The National Agricultural Law Center
Worst Drought in 1,000 Years Predicted for the American West from National Geographic, February 12, 2015
When the Snows Fail from National Geographic--includes wonderful maps of the major Western water basins and their drainages
Bizarre? “Michael Burry is focusing all of his trading on one commodity: Water” from ValueWalk.com, February 22, 2016