Updating infrastructure to meet new challenges is an issue in numerous areas, including in securing water. The current case of the Colorado River illustrates how updating is needed:
The 1922 compact overestimated how much water was in the river system to begin with. And now there’s even less. On top of that, the rules about divvying up the water – whether you’re a city, an irrigation district, or a rancher – essentially operate like dibs or calling shotgun in a car.
The phrase that people like to use in the West is “first in time, first in right.” The water users who arrived first in these places where the water is used and claim the water when they got there, hold the most senior water rights, and their water rights remain senior no matter who comes after them. Those senior water rights trump junior water rights even to this day, with an exception: The law says that if you don’t use those senior water rights to their full extent every year that they could be confiscated and given to somebody with more junior water rights…
Why has the frontier mindset survived to 2021 in the way we think about and legislate water?
Part of it is cultural. The culture of the West survives. In the north, in the mountains, it’s a culture of rugged individualism, and in the south, it is still a bit individualistic and conservative. The rights to the water track to the history of the place, not to how it has evolved in more modern times. [These] cities didn’t exist in the mid-1800s, so they have very junior water rights now, even though that’s where most of the people are. So literally the largest volume of water goes to the people in places with the deepest historical roots.
Future battles about access to water will be fierce, particularly in places where less water is available than in the past.
Will this slow growth in states where growth has been a feature of life for decades? This could affect communities, metropolitan areas, states, and a whole region.
Does this help break the obsession Americans have with green grass lawns? The drought in California half a decade ago could have been just a taste of the future.
Does this become a major issue in elections? How exactly does a water distribution renegotiation occur, particularly if elected officials have little direct influence?
What would a more collectivist mindset to water look like in the United States compared to a more individualistic approach or one rooted in history in the area? I could imagine a quick switch of systems would be difficult but phasing in changes over time might be possible.