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Know the West

Water Sharing in the Over-shared West


If you were to trace the dips and rises in water sales across the American West onto a graph, the line would fall in synch with basic economics.  In a recession, when dollars are scarce, water transactions are few and far between. But when a region booms, freeing up cash for all kinds of development, water becomes the limiting resource; individuals, companies and governments, scrambling to secure access to water, will pay big money to own someone else’s right. More often than not, it's a farmer who sells it to them. And once a right is sold, the land to which it was attached loses a good deal of its full value -- because land without water, in essence, if not literally, is a desert.

West WaterIt’s the "buy and dry" phenomenon, and it's been irking irrigators and environmentalists for decades.  As water becomes scarcer and cities grow, water rights are diverted permanently into the hands and wells of urbanites. In many cases, this transfer means less water for ecological purposes, such as habitat for fish, birds, and other game.

In 2008, the Western Governors Association challenged its states to come up with innovative ways to transfer water from agricultural to urban use without jeopardizing ecological habitat or threatening agrarian economies.  Since then, a collaboration among stakeholder groups, managed by the Colorado Water Institute at Colorado State University and funded by the Walton Family Foundation, has investigated best practices in water sharing and assembled a list of policy recommendations.  Earlier this year, they released a report called Agricultural/Urban/Environmental Water Sharing: Innovative Strategies for the Colorado River Basin and the West, and in April, the Western States Water Council met to review the recommendations.

Here are some of the highlights -- the first is an obvious one:

  • Work with all stakeholders -- agricultural, urban, and environmental -- from the outset to tackle issues of water rights transfers and reservoir construction.
  • Consider water use on a basin scale, allowing users to share infrastructure and coordinate water delivery and management.
  • Expedite permitting processes that often cause water-sharing projects to stall, particularly when they have the broad support of agricultural, urban, and environmental stakeholders.  This might involve setting up a "one-stop shop" for permitting, combining federal and state approval entities into one.

Save for this last one, the recommendations are rather vague, but by far the most interesting parts of the report are the success stories of various stakeholders interviewed for the project. Among them: farmers and cities in Arizona trading surface and groundwater resources in times of scarcity; ranchers in Oregon accepting payments from environmental groups to reduce hay harvests and leave more water in stream for fish; a ditch company in New Mexico selling water shares to Audubon for bird habitat; and irrigation companies in Colorado forming a "Super Ditch" to pool their excess water and lease it to cities, rather than giving up ownership.

States, councils, and stakeholders will continue to do a fair share of recommending and negotiating when it comes to water rights, but it's stories like these that might actually inspire some creative thinking.

Sierra Crane-Murdoch is an HCN intern.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user, Vic Sharp.