Western water strategy shifting from ‘use it or lose it,’ to ‘waste not, want not’

Western water strategy shifting from ‘use it or lose it,’ to ‘waste not, want not’
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In recent weeks, federal officials have warned residents of the southwestern United States that their two major lifelines — the Colorado River and the Rio Grande — will deliver alarmingly low water supplies in the coming months.

This summer, the Rio Grande may actually run dry through Albuquerque, New Mexico, a rarity. Meanwhile by 2020 the Colorado’s biggest reservoir, Lake Mead, stands a 52 percent chance of dropping to the level at which an official shortage is declared, requiring cuts in water deliveries to Arizona, Nevada and Mexico. 

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As snowpacks dwindle, temperatures warm, and periodic drought dehydrates the West, unprecedented levels of cooperation will be needed if farmers, ranchers, tribal communities, cities and rivers are all to have a degree of water security. That cooperation, in turn, requires some reframing of the water mantra embedded in the minds of just about every producer in the western United States: “Use it or lose it.”

 

The phrase stems from state laws that say if a water right is not fully put to beneficial use, the owner risks forfeiting the unused portion.

Historically, states considered farming, mining, manufacturing, and supplying drinking water to cities to be beneficial uses of water. Providing water to a river itself was a lower priority, and often considered a waste. 

One irrigator in central Arizona describes this traditional thinking as, “divert all you can and use all you can.”

Agriculture accounts for 80 percent or more of water consumption in the western states. While many farmers and ranchers agree on the need to conserve water, existing policies make it hard to do so. 

As a result, for decades, thousands of miles of rivers and streams in the West have run low or completely dried up at critical times of the year, decimating fish populations, bird and wildlife habitat, and recreational activities that support rural economies.

In Montana alone, more than 4,000 miles of streams are chronically or periodically de-watered.

But thanks to innovative policies, new collaborations, and smart technologies, zero-sum stalemates are giving way to more flexible water management, benefiting farmers, rivers and local economies at the same time.

In western Colorado, for example, ranchers have partnered with a non-profit water trust to curtail diversions from Colorado River tributaries when streamflows drop dangerously low. This is made possible by a 2013 Colorado law that loosens up the use-it-or-lose-it rule by allowing a water user enrolled in an approved conservation program to forego some water use without losing any water rights. The ranchers still get the water they need, the program protects the rights of other water users, and the river gets more flow to sustain its trout fishery.

In a similar vein, a 2003 Colorado law allows farmers, ranchers and other entities to temporarily loan water to rivers and streams without risking the loss of water rights.

Arizona’s Verde River Valley, a ribbon of green in the desert and a hotspot for migratory birds, is becoming a poster child for smarter water management. Farmers, conservationists and the business community are collaborating to upgrade century-old ditch systems, convert fields from flood to efficient drip irrigation, and shift some acreage to barley, which requires less water in the summer months when the river is hurting most. 

As a result, portions of the Verde and its tributaries now flow stronger, enhancing habitats and recreational opportunities, a local beer-maker gets a supply of grain, and irrigators receive all the water they need from a modernized irrigation system. 

Another tool gaining popularity in the West is the split-season agreement, whereby a conservation organization or public agency compensates an irrigator to forego water use in the late summer, when rivers are most depleted. A five-mile section of Colorado’s Little Cimarron River will benefit permanently from such an agreement, turning a stretch of previously dry riverbed into a flowing stream, while maintaining the agricultural use of the water right during the most-productive part of the growing season.

Strategies like these can preserve streams while sustaining agriculture and rural economies. 

It is time to build on lessons learned from farmers, ranchers, businesses, and conservationists who are moving beyond the win-lose battles of the past and are working together to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes for agriculture, the environment, and local economies. 

Before long, the “use it or lose it” mantra may give way to “waste not, want not.”

Sandra Postel is the author of “Replenish: The Virtuous Cycle of Water and Prosperity” and co-creator of the water restoration campaign Change the Course.

Lesli Allison is executive director of the Western Landowners Alliance.