Water Rights Debate Can Be Intense and Contentious

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From Cotton Grower Magazine – July 2014

 

If you think the politics surrounding elections are tough, consider the politics of water.

At one point this spring, the U.S. Drought Monitor showed that more than 30 percent of the U.S. is currently experiencing moderate drought conditions. And drought conditions over more than half of the land area in seven states – California, Nevada, New Mexico, Kansas, Arizona, Oklahoma and Texas – were categorized as severe, extreme or exceptional.

Blame it, if you choose, on El Niño, La Nina, global warming or even the Bossa Nova. But the political arguments and haggling over water rights in some areas have become intense and often contentious. In some cases, old treaties and grandfathered agreements have been dusted off in the search for solutions:

  • A 1944 International Water Treaty between the United States and Mexico was cited last year during debate over water supplies to the Rio Grande Valley. That treaty outlines the use of common water resources along the Texas-Mexico border, including the Rio Grande River and its tributaries, and specifies that Mexico is to deliver 350,000 acre-feet of water to the Valley each year. Mexico has fallen behind in deliveries over the past five years, leading to involvement from the U.S. State Department.
  • California’s Friant Water Authority manages surface water supplies for cities and farms along the eastern side of the San Joaquin Valley. This year, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation diverted that water to fulfill contractual obligations to the Exchange Contractors, who hold some of the oldest water rights in California and are guaranteed by federal contract to receive at least 75 percent of their annual surface water allotment. A U.S. district judge denied the water authority’s request for a temporary restraining order, meaning that many farms will receive no surface water this year.

Agriculture obviously suffers under these conditions, as do municipalities and industries that rely on reservoir, lake and river levels for water. There’s a human toll, too. A University of California, Davis economic study predicted that up to 14,500 full time and seasonal workers could lose jobs as farmers take land out of production due to the drought. Similar situations can also be found in other local economies throughout the country.

Recent rain events in parts of the country have brought some temporary relief and a bit of optimism, especially for agriculture. But the reality remains – water will remain both a precious commodity and political hot potato.

Jim Steadman is Field and Online Editor for Cotton Grower magazine. He has spent more than 35 years in agricultural writing and marketing.
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