Colorado River Water Rights And The Common Good: What’s On The Plate For Who Wins Tomorrow

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In 2014, people were very excited about a trickle of the Colorado reaching the sea. To recap, this should be something normal; not a cause for excitement.

No matter who wins, there are enormous issues that aren’t even around the corner, but are rushing directly at us. That’s why is matters who wins.

It’s very weird, after nearly two years, to say that the election is tomorrow. It’s both an incredibly long and painful time coming, and seems terrifyingly close. After all, we could face a literal worst-case scenario. But if you’re reading this, you already know that. Just about everyone already knows as much as they possibly can.

There aren’t really any more surprises, even the late game-changer that a nonsense non-scandal was, in fact, a non-scandal (and bang-up job by Comey, too: it was imperative to make an announcement that threw the race into a seeming state of turmoil, only to announce a week later that everything was fine). That isn’t to say we can’t still exist in a state of high dudgeon and agitation. I’m with Pierce: Trump’s bizarre and instantly-disprovable lie about Obama “screaming” at a protestor (when the President treated the man with a kind of class and grace Trump could never have) was still enough to make me angry all weekend.

So what’s going to happen when someone wins? What are they going to be facing? What are the kind of issues that don’t come up in even an endless campaign, but that will be pressing, and have long-lasting impact. Well, the first, and possibly the foremost, is going to be water. Looming water shortages in America is a subset of climate change, and along with freakier and more destructive storms, is one of the first ways it will really impact us.

Water shortages aren’t entirely a result of climate change, or perhaps even largely. It’s way more complicated than that. Overuse is the biggest culprit, especially in the West. That’s in conjunction with the cruel coincidence that water levels 100 years ago were at a the upswing of a historic high, and so allowed us to think that there would always be enough water. They would have gone down even without the destruction we’ve wreaked upon the climate.

That said, climate change is going to exacerbate the problems, creating less arable land and accelerating the decline of water tables. Nowhere is this more stark than in the Colorado River basin, which provides water to seven states, as well as a little to Mexico (very, very little). This mighty river, which has been tapped for cities as far away as Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Phoenix, is hitting dangerously low levels. Indeed, John Fleck, one of the leading experts on Western water use, says we’re already in a shortage; we’re just not calling it that yet.

A shortage is where mandatory cuts to usage are enforced, as per compact. Happily, and surprising, several states are enacting voluntary cuts, to avoid the mandatory ones, and to try to maintain some sort of workable level. Indeed, as Fleck notes, there is in the works a major deal from those in the Lower Basin on the table to dramatically reduce usage.

It’s hard to overstate how complex this is. There are competing water rights between states, and within as well, based on a tangled series of laws dating back to pioneer times, with individual usage rights grandfathered and great-grandfathered in. There has always been a fierce competition between the states, and indeed, a lot of the rivalry and animosity can be traced toward old water battles. Hell, California and Arizona almost literally went to war in 1934.

So these negotiations are fraught with historical baggage and heightened by the sheer necessity of what they are discussing. LA and Phoenix couldn’t come close to existing without these diversions. We’ve built a region around the idea of endless and endlessly cheap water, and those days are over.

What happens if it breaks down more? What happens if desertification increases, water levels drop anymore, and careful husbandry turns into hoarding? Right now negotiations seem amicable and filled with mutual self-interest; that might not always be the case. Even though state lines are stupid and arbitrary and largely meaningless, they have a weight and a political heft. As water runs out, will the idea of the state as its own entity, looking out for itself, take more precedent?

Water negotiations won’t always happen at the Presidential level. But as things get worse, a steady hand will be needed. The idea of the “state” meaning as much as the republic is a powerful idea in some quarters, as is the notion that there isn’t, or shouldn’t be, anything like the common good. There’s a powerful political movement based on the idea that stewardship is for jerks, as long as you can get yours.

Both of these ideas are very popular in the states that are most affected. A lot of America’s more poisonous notions, ones that have plagued us for our entire history, and which have seen a striking resurgence as of late.

The very question is if we have a nation with public responsibility to protect a common heritage, or we are 330 million individual entities, which can sometimes group together to form wilding bands, but all with personal gain as the only goal.

These issues–the very real and tangible ones like a disappearing river, as well as the made-up and impractical but still deeply dangerous political ones–will be colliding. Just like hotter temperatures can combine with overuse to cause a megadrought, these factors will increase and exacerbate each other, and how we work as a political entity will in many ways be decided in the next decade.

And just for reference, one candidate doesn’t believe there is a drought, and thinks it is some sort of conspiracy, and if they (avoiding the signifying gender) win, they’ll just turn on the water and it’ll flow free and beautiful forever. Maybe something to keep in mind.

 

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One thought on “Colorado River Water Rights And The Common Good: What’s On The Plate For Who Wins Tomorrow

  1. Pingback: US/Mexico Water Rights and Trump’s Cuba Tweet | Shooting Irrelevance

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