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.