From ProPublic.org (Abrahm Lustgarten):
A vestige of 139-year-old water law pushes ranchers to use as much water as they possibly can, even during a drought. “Use it or lose it” clauses, as they are known, are common in state laws throughout the Colorado River basin and give the farmers, ranchers and governments holding water rights a powerful incentive to use more water than they need. Under the provisions of these measures, people who use less water than they are legally entitled to risk seeing their allotment slashed.
There are few starker examples of how man’s missteps and policies are contributing to the water shortage currently afflicting the western United States. In a series of reports, ProPublica is examining how decisions on water management and growth have exacerbated more than a decade of drought, bringing the West to the point of crisis. The Colorado River is the most important source of water for nearly 40 million people across California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Wyoming, Utah and Colorado, and supports some 15 percent of the nation’s food crops.
But the river is in trouble, and water laws are one significant cause. Legal water rights and state allocations have been issued for more water than the river, in an average year, can provide. Meanwhile its annual flow has been steadily decreasing as the climate changes and drought grips the region. And so, for more than a decade, states and the federal government have tried to wring more supply out of the Colorado and spread it further, in part by persuading the farmers and ranchers who use the vast majority of the river’s water and have the largest water rights to conserve it.
But in many ways it’s the vast body of often-antiquated law governing western water rights, officials acknowledge, that actively undermines conservation, making waste — or at least heavy use — entirely rational.
“Water is money,” said Eugene Backhaus, a state resource conservationist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, which works to help ranchers use water more efficiently. “The way the current water law structure is, if they don’t use it for the assigned use, they could lose the water right.”
“The whole system is designed towards preserving the status quo,” said Jim Lochhead, the chief executive of the urban utility Denver Water, who formerly represented Colorado on interstate water negotiations. The most pragmatic approach, he thinks, is to build off existing water law while reforming its worst parts. But in a perfect world, he said, “I would abolish Colorado water rights law and start all over again with a clean slate.”
None of the antiquated parts of what across the entire basin is referred to loosely as “water law” play as much a role in stressing the water system — or seem as fixable — as the one known as “use it or lose it.”
Originally devised in part to keep speculators from hoarding water to build wealth and power, the intent of “use it” laws was to make sure the people who held rights to water exercised them. They could keep those rights indefinitely, passing them on through generations or selling them…at great profit, as long as they constantly put the water to what most Western water laws refer to as “beneficial use.”
Denver and other eastern Colorado cities already take 154 billion gallons of water across the Continental Divide from western Colorado each year. Schemes to build more tunnels to divert more water from rural western areas like Gunnison are a constant concern. And last July the utilities and groups that represent the lower river states’ biggest urban areas — including Las Vegas, Denver and Los Angeles — proposed a pilot program to find additional water supplies in the agriculturally rich parts of Colorado, in part by paying people like Trampe to fallow fields, be more water-efficient or perhaps lease or sell their water rights.
“The cities continue to grow and grow and grow … and they expect me — or us as an industry — to give up water,” Trampe said. “Why should I suffer for their sprawl?”
“Do we want to fix it in a way that sends more water to Arizona?” asked [John McClow], the water attorney. “We’re still parochial about that. If we save some water, I think we want to use it ourselves.”