US water scarcity – Vitriol and Cartography not the answers

US water scarcity, drought-driven and otherwise, is in the headlines in the Colorado, Pecos, Rio Grande, and Tennesee River basins. A recent flurry of news dispatches has caught my eye, not only because of the headlines of “water restrictions”, “worst drought” and “water right”, but because of the conflict-oriented nature of the responses.

Here is the summary of my post:

Farmers will lose to cities in the game of water claims. States that try and play games with borders to appropriate more water will also lose. Only with policies that reflect the scarce reality of water (i.e. Australia’s Murray-Darling), will effective management of the resource succeed.

Read on for the full post…

It is, after all, a desert

From Wikipedia

From Colorado to California, and Texas to New Mexico – less precipitation has fallen than people would like in the past few years. This is nothing new to the water-wonk community, and it is not surprising to the once sheltered urban centers, and not-so-insulated-anymore burbclaves throughout the American South. What is interesting to me is that there has been a rather early (mid-March) and wide-ranging (across the American South) flurry of news dispatches regarding impending water scarcity.

California is already planning to limit deliveries of water throughout the state. The Bureau of Reclamation said:

…agricultural contractors on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley will only receive 20 percent of requested water deliveries, a 5 percent decrease from the allocation announced last month. Municipal and industrial water contractors will also see a 5 percent decrease, receiving a water allocation of 70 percent.

These are significant reductions.

In Colorado, last year’s dry weather coupled with the extremely severe wildfire season, has combined with this past winter’s low precipitation. This has caused Denver, Windsor, and Fort Collins to already initiate water restrictions, most by April 1st. Boulder, though it hasn’t called them yet, is likely to once May rolls around and their glacier doesn’t seem to have as much snowpack as it should.

These are all relatively normal stories though – Like I said earlier, the American Southwest is, after all, a desert. What has really caught my eye though is not the water scarcity headlines but the conflict-oriented nature of the responses.

Vitriol and vice in the Southwest

New Mexico farmers are seeking a ‘priority call‘ – this means they are aiming to flex their historic claims to water, and draw attention to the archaic Western water law of ‘first in time, first in right’. That is to say, “our ancestors used water before you did, so that means we get water and you don’t.” This law has never made much sense to me, but nonetheless it persists throughout much of the Western United States.

The endgame seems pretty obvious – farmers will lose to ‘Vegas’. There’s no way that such a small portion of the economy is going to be able to supersede the much more densely populated urban centers – embodied by the giant drain that is Las Vegas.

From Wikipedia

Why am I so sure of this? Because the law reflects a frontier mentality, where private ownership and use of a public good doens’t really matter because there’s so much of that public good. Thats not the case anymore and the public (which is increasingly urban) minds less and less that their produce and grain comes from far flung locations. Moreover, this public is less and less willing to compromise their own wellbeing and happiness for a few farmers that are clinging to Western water law.

Cartographic creativity in the Southeast

A really interesting story that popped up last week was a story about the Georgia legislature that, rather than address internal water inefficiencies, conservation options, or more effective water pricing – opted to simply revisit their cartographic forbears and engage in some interstate erasing.

From Wikipedia

Thats right, Georgia wants to re-draw the state boundary with Tennessee. This is pretty silly, but it illustrates the key point that increasing scarcity is leading to more drastic, in some cases ridiculous, measures to appropriate more water supply.

Actions reveal desperation

What these actions by farmers in New Mexico and lawmakers in Georgia reveal is desperation – a desperation born out of shrinking water resources relative to the demands being placed on them. I strongly doubt that either the farmers in New Mexico or the lawmakers in Georgia will actually be successful, but it is a window into the future where increasing scarcity drives actions that are on their face a little silly, but when aggregated and extrapolated, are potentially very dangerous.

Addressing water scarcity and water insecurity now with real solutions, such as a water trading market e.g. the Murray-Darling in Australia, the problems will continue to fester until we are too far along to fix them.