What happens when it runs out?

The New York Times summarizes the challenges facing much of the Western US:

Preparing for worst-case outcomes, the seven states that draw water from the Colorado River — Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico in the upper basin and California, Arizona and Nevada in the lower basin — and the United States Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the river, are considering plans that lay out what to do if the river cannot meet the demand for water, a prospect that some experts predict will occur in about five years.

Wallace Stegner has written that "it is not the arbitrary 98th meridian that marks the West's beginning, but a perceptible line of real import that roughly corresponds with it," the line beyond which annual rainfall is typically less than 20 inches. "The West," he writes, "is defined … by inadequate rainfall, which means a general deficiency of water." It is long past time, a century or more past time, that we recognized that.

The western two-thirds of Kansas fall beyond that line, and the aquifers under western Kansas are running dry as quickly as the Colorado river is, and the state of western water law only make that worse.

A few days ago, I was talking with a conservation group that focuses on waterways, and they were talking about having to work to change laws to allow a simple solution to river conservation: retirement of water rights. As it stands, western states generally follow the Colorado doctrine, that access to water is allocated on the basis of who arrived and laid claim to the water first. Thus, a large water user downstream from a later arrival can forbid later arrivals upstream from using a stream flowing through their property, or at least can block any use beyond what the downstream user has a claim to.

That doctrine means that every cubic foot of water has a line of people with later claims lined up waiting for water rights. Or as Stegner writes, "in the dry West, using water means using it up." When the water runs out, so does farming, fishing, and wilderness.

Individual land-owners who want to surrender their claims can't just let the water run past, because the rest of the queue still has claims to fill out. So a farmer who wants to protect trout streams may not be able to just let the stream flow freely.

The Kansas legislature is working to protect the aquifers by buying up and retiring water claims. A bill that just passed will give the state Water Office a million dollars for that purpose, and allows the state/federal CREP to rent and retire water rights on 20,000 acres of irrigated land in 2007 and in 2008.

The situation faced by western Kansas is different from the struggles faced by Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, etc. The population of Kansas is pretty stable, so the water in question there is needed to sustain agriculture, the water is needed to sustain the existing economy of the state, and bread pantries of the world.

Other western states have growing populations, and are trying to grab more water rights in order to build more houses, which will in turn necessitate even more water rights in order to sustain yet more growth. Ed Abbey referred to this practice, this growth for growth's sake, as "the ideology of a cancer cell," and Stegner refers to the ever more elaborate schemes to bring in more water as "pipedreams… arrogant pipedreams." For too long, western water policy has involved thinking big – big dams, big irrigation, big cities. It's time to start thinking small.

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There is another difference between these river users, and the users on the great plains. The later are essentially mining aquifers, which have very long recharge times. So for Kansas reaching a sustainable level of usage would be primary. The river users have a time varying supply, so hopefuly the law can be fixed so that for any given season the allocations don't exceed the supply. Of course with some reservoir storage capacity you'll have some users clammering to draw down the water during a dry year, and some that want to be sure there will still be some next year.

Josh -

Have you read Marc Reisner's Cadillac Desert? If you haven't, you might consider it. It's a pretty fascinating history of water policy in the US, particularly in the western and midwestern states. It's a few years old now, but I think still relevant.

Here in Seattle, we're of course not in the same boat as much of the western US right now. But as the climate warms and population increases, it's only a matter of time before that changes.


There is one other (human) consumer of water from the Colorado River: Mexico.

As I recall, the USA has a treaty(?) obligation with Mexico, albeit I cannot adequately recall details.


There is one other (human) consumer of water from the Colorado River: Mexico.
As I recall, the USA has a treaty(?) obligation with Mexico, albeit I cannot adequately recall details.

That's true. There is a treaty with Mexico, dating back to 1944, that guarantees an allocation of 1.5 million acre-feet of water from the Colorado River annually to Mexico. It's been amended at least a couple of times since then, including once in the early seventies to specify the allowable salinity levels of the water reaching Mexico.

In fact, there's a desalination plant in Yuma, AZ that was built in 1992 to meet the US treaty obligations with Mexico. However, it wasn't put online for over a decade, and I'm not sure whether it's running even now. Operating it gives fresher water to Mexico for agriculture, but it also will heavily damage the Colorado River Delta due to reduced inflows.


Cadillac Desert has been on my to-read list forever, but other things keep bumping it down, and the list keeps growing. I think I caught a PBS special based on it in the '90s, but most of my reading about water policy has been in Ed Abbey's books. Dams were his bete noir, and I don't know of any western nature writer who hasn't tangled with the fundamental failure of western water policy.

It's true that I didn't mention Mexico, but mostly because I'm most concerned with the allocation of water rights within states. Oversubscribed water rights already mean that the Colorado river doesn't reach the ocean, and the struggle to allocate water that doesn't exist is a problem that will only get worse regardless of treaties between nations or compacts among states.

And don't forget about the approaching peak oil crisis making the distribution of water over great distances even more expensive.

I suspect Las Vegas is going to be a much smaller place in 20 years.


In fact, there's a desalination plant in Yuma, AZ that was built in 1992 to meet the US treaty obligations with Mexico. However, it wasn't put online for over a decade, and I'm not sure whether it's running even now.

I read they are just now firing it up again.

While I appreciate the reference to the Legislative Action concerning the appropriation for voluntary retirement of water rights in the targeted area, the appropriation is for the State Conservation Commission, $1million and 20K acres for FY2007 and FY2008.

The key for the way this is represented is that it is not a limited program, intent is to receive approval for additional funding and acres in future Legislative Sessions to a goal of 100K acres with up to a $5million of funding *(not using State General Funds -or- regular tax dollars, but capitalizing on damage monies received from Colorado for violations to the Arkansas River Compact).

Additional CREP programs can be established, but that will ultimately be decided by the Legislature and whatever the 2007 Federal Farm Bill includes...

JLF, thanks for the clarification. I was working from a very brief description of the compromise.

There are many areas of the U.S., actively destroying their watersheds via pollution ,development channelization,and deforestation to name just a few. I give the Army Corp of engineers top rating in channelization, and de-provements, (as opposed to improvements) to our aquifers over the years,(the natural ones). Second billing goes to the federal government for not staying on top of the problems of water resource management. They wrote the first water resources amendment to the constitution some time around 1841, and have ignored it ever since.
No A`s ,and only a few B`s, for report card grades in the 20th century, in water resource management. 21st century begins with a c-, for The continent.
I live in Tennessee and got to observe, first hand, some ideal hardwood water sheds in the midst of the extreme drought in the summer of 08. They work... hardwood forests kick azz as watersheds go. Where the forests were intact, the streams flowed. As little as 5 miles away, or even next door, where the forest was broken, or worst case, clear cut, the streams and springs dried up. ANY QUESTIONS ?
By the way Florida gets the B+ for trying to undo the channelization that nearly killed the Everglades. East Tennessee... FAIL... for deforestation, and trying to substitute hardwood with ,"Lumber Pine". Georgia was begging for water. They should have been begging for a watershed restoration effort, and a change in forestry practices.I moved here to fish ( you know..."in the water"). There are signs on the Cumberland river that say,"Do Not Touch the Water, Fecal bacteria in the Water May Cause Illness".
Just east of the seven states mentioned in the article above is an aquifer known as the "Oglala". I read recently that we are pumping it dry. How Long ? I don`t know, but its time to ask that question on behalf of those who enjoyed the "dust Bowl". of the 20s and 30s.
Keep your arguments to yourselves, I`m Right! My frustration here is with people who think " all pollution is gone", and "the planet is a limitless source for all our needs", and greed.