Water Shortages Spark Fights Over H2O

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 A mud-covered boat is seen in an area that was until recently underwater. July 26, 2007 in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Nevada.
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Water is one of the world's most precious resources, but also it's most scarce. States around the country—from California to Texas to Colorado—are experiencing severe water shortages.

Drought conditions create serious local challenges, testing the limits of creative responses, and illicit a whole set of legal questions over who has the rights to water. Much of the battles pit rural communities against urban centers.

In southern Texas, the state has cut off water deliveries for rice farmers in order to support the booming Austin metropolis. Over in Colorado, Rocky Mountain officials are restricting Denver's access to water.

For a historical look back at water shortages in America, we speak with David Sedlak, co-director of the Berkeley Water Center and author of "Water 4.0: The Past, Present and Future of the World's Most Vital Resource." 

"In the early part of the 20th century, importing water from long distances was a viable strategy because you could share it with everyone who needed it," says Sedlak. "But as cities have continued to grow, as agriculture has become more intensive, and as we've recognized the need to leave more water in the environment to support ecosystems, there just isn't enough out there. If water is the essential ingredient for life, than a water supply is the essential ingredient for a civilization."

Sedlak says that America's water supply first became an area of focus after World War II. During that era, there was a period of tremendous growth across the country, and agriculture machinery became more sophisticated.

"Suddenly you needed a lot more water to supply people with everything that they needed for a growing economy," he says.

Though water used to be imported to different localities, Sedlak says that method is no longer secure, leading to a heavier emphasis on local water supplies.

"The developments in new technologies over the past 30 years makes it possible for large cities in the West to break their reliance on imported water from these huge federal projects," he says. "The people who are furthest ahead in figuring out this problem of a local water supply are the people who are under the biggest stress—the cities with junior water rights who've grown after all of the water in the West was claimed."

Water supply issues vary across America. Sedlak says that in the Western United States, a large amount of water is dedicated towards agriculture, adding that the source can be funneled off to cities if a drought become drastic. However, places in the Southeast like Tampa or places like Dallas, Texas are even more vulnerable than the American West because there aren't large federal resources for these localities to access if things get desperate.

Access to clean drinking water is absolutely necessary, however, so even in the face of desperation places like Texas are getting creative.

"It's starting to do a lot on its own—last year the water utility in a place called Big Spring near Odessa opened up a direct potable water recycling plant," he says. "They started treating their sewage effluent and putting it directly into the drinking water reservoir. That project and a project in El Paso, which has been treating sewage effluent and using it to recharge the drinking water aquifer, are examples of the kinds of things that Texas can do to make for a more secure water supply in the future."

While Texas and California may not be in a true crisis—yet—Sedlak says the type of water infrastructure projects needed to provide clean and reliable drinking water in the future are not built over night. 

"With the continued population increase, with the effects of climate change and the need to use water sensibly in agriculture and to support the environment, the cities have to find another way," he says. 

Water Rights & The Courtroom

When it comes to fights over water, much of the conflict comes down to the laws around ownership and usage. Water rights across the Western United States are a hodgepodge of different state and local rules, many of which are still in flux.

How have drought conditions throughout so much of the country changed what's happening in courtrooms? Sarah Klahn, a water-rights lawyer based in Colorado, and Stuart Somach, a water-rights lawyer based in California, help us break down the legal battles over water. 

"What drought does, is it creates a kind of frenetic activity," says Somach. 

Somach says he has taken water cases all the way to the Supreme Court. He filed an action on behalf of the state of Texas against the states of New Mexico and Colorado to ensure that Texas was able to get its share of Rio Grande water across the state line.

"The drought clearly was among the things that pushed the state into deciding that it needed to file the lawsuit to protect its sovereign interests," adds Somach. 

Similarly, Klahn says that city governments will seek her legal counsel after spending millions of dollars to build up water supplies only to find themselves at odds with groundwater pumpers.

"The groundwater pumpers want to pump the water without keeping the river whole," she says. "The cities will say, 'You need to protect our water rights, or we're going to have customers who turn on the tap and discover that there's no water or see massive increases in their water rates.' You're looking at cities that have built a portfolio of water rights in order to be good stewards of the public, and they're being challenged by agricultural irrigators who either didn't plan or came to the game late. It's an unfortunate fact of life that both sides have a lot to lose. It's a zero sum game."

The arguments that are now being heard in courtrooms around the country are changing. Historically, Somach says disputes used to focus on agricultural interests versus urban interests, or senior water rights versus junior water rights. Nowadays, however, things have changed.

"(Today) you have a third, significant and major player in the fight, and that's the environment," says Somach. "Since the last large drought that we had in the 70s and we had another significant drought in the 90s, the amount of water that is dedicated to the environment either through the Endangered Species Act or through other legal mechanisms has increased greatly. That has happened in California without any additional water supplies being developed. The pie hasn't grown, but those folks taking water from the pie has increased."

As a consequence, Somach says that tensions over water really focus on the delicate balance of providing water for agriculture, providing water for cities and ensuring that the environment is protected. 

Should we scale back on environmental protections during periods of long droughts? Tell us in the comments.