OP-ED: New water wars are coming to the American West

Amanda Little
Bloomberg Opinion (TNS)
Highway 97 separates farmland from the Upper Klamath Lake in Oregon. The federal government has cut off annual water flows to family farms. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Water has been generating conflicts and controversies in the U.S. for centuries, but the American West could be heading toward the most severe water shortages and skirmishes in the nation’s history.

The latest clash broke out this month along California's border with Oregon in the Klamath River basin, where drought is decimating wild salmon populations. To minimize the kill, federal officials cut off water to nearby fields growing potatoes and alfalfa, leading to grave concern from farmers and protests from anti-government activists.

Meanwhile, all the other Klamath River stakeholders — Indigenous tribes with ancient claims, utility managers for growing cities in southern Oregon and northern California, dams running hydroelectric plants, golf courses and homeowners — are clamoring for their piece of the river.

The Klamath rebellion is the worst case for now — most Western water resources are peacefully managed during drought years, and many become more efficient and innovative. But it represents the kind of resource wars that could ripple throughout the West in the coming decades — perhaps even the coming months — if the Biden administration and Congress don’t chart a path forward on U.S. water security that helps ensure cooperation, conservation and ingenuity among state and regional water managers. Without swift national leadership, America faces rising water conflicts between regional haves and have-nots.

Alarms: In the weeks since the Klamath dispute erupted, 88% of the American West has fallen into moderate to severe drought, with more than a quarter of the region in "exceptional drought," according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Lake Oroville in northern California has hit literal rock bottom — it’s so low that its hydropower plant powering 800,000 homes is expected to go offline this summer for the first time ever. Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the U.S., supplying California, Nevada and Arizona, is at its lowest-ever levels. The snowpack runoff from the Sierra Nevada mountains is 74% below normal because evaporation and heat-parched land is absorbing the water before it can hit the reservoirs.

Former director of the Association of California Water Agencies and Stanford University Fellow Tim Quinn told me that even the most optimistic Western water managers are shaken: “It’s the first time we’ve ever seen hydrological scarcity matched with such severe high temperatures.”

The crisis is already reaching deeper into the country: Much of the upper Midwest is in moderate or severe drought. The Mississippi River is entering a low-flow state. The Ogallala Aquifer, which underlies eight Midwestern states from Texas to South Dakota, is expected to be 70% depleted within 50 years. In the next 30 years, the severity of widespread summer drought in the U.S. is projected to almost triple.

President Joe Biden and congressional leaders should be sounding a national alarm. Biden is supporting a $973 billion Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework that allocates $55 billion for clean drinking water infrastructure to eliminate lead in the nation’s service lines and pipes — an essential investment. Yet the framework allocates only $5 billion for Western water storage — an inadequate sum for upgrading aging dams, canals and pipelines to improve flows and reduce losses.

A coalition of hundreds of water and agriculture groups has identified a need of $14 billion over 10 years to shore up Western water reserves. The country needs not just one infrastructure bill in the near term, but a sequence of bills over years to safeguard water supplies and reduce conflicts.

'Buy and dry': Biden should also issue an executive order to permanently establish the inter-agency group formed during the Trump Administration known as the “Water Subcabinet.” The group can help state water managers incentivize conservation, invest in new technologies and convene stakeholders within and between states to quell the brewing battles.

In Western states, water resources are generally governed by the “prior appropriation” doctrine, which holds that whomever settled in a region first has senior water rights; Eastern states support a “riparian rights” doctrine stipulating that if you have access to the river you can use it; Midwestern states have a blend of both doctrines, along with laws for drilling wells that tap aquifers.

In all cases, water rights function much like private property rights — they can be bought and sold. In the West, this has led to a buying frenzy over many decades — mostly cities and corporations buying farmers' water rights. The practice became known as “buy and dry” as farms were drained of their water resources to supply growing cities. When mandatory restrictions come into play it inflames these tensions, as we're seeing in the Klamath Basin.

The local clashes could become much larger regional battles. The Colorado River Basin, for example, is divided between the Lower Basin, which spans wealthy, politically powerful and largely urban portions of California, Nevada and Arizona, and the agricultural Upper Basin, reaching across Utah, Wyoming, western Colorado and northern New Mexico. The law technically allocates the same amount of water to both basins, but also grants the Lower Basin priority access. As the Colorado River dwindles (streamflow is 20% less than a century ago) mandatory restrictions could come into play, leading to protracted litigation among seven powerful states and economic devastation on both sides.

The good news is that scarcity can also lead to innovative partnerships and compromises. Recent agreements between Colorado farms and cities, for example, have creative alternative approaches to “buy and dry” transactions. Water managers are applying new technologies and legal strategies that allow a portion of the water supply to be diverted so both farm and city can thrive. Across the nation, better forest and farm management can improve soil health, lock in moisture, and go a long way to protecting our future water supply. Emerging technologies can also play a role in drought resilience: recycled wastewater and desalination facilities can transform ocean water and sewage into hyper-pure drinking water; lining for canals and ducts and faster detection of pipeline leaks and bursts can avoid massive waste. Investors should fund these innovations, as well as efficient agriculture technologies from dripline irrigation to the development of drought-tolerant crops.

Some of the world’s most intractable conflicts, spanning millennia — between India and Pakistan, for example, and Israel and Palestine — have been fueled by disputes over increasingly limited water resources. Water is the lifeblood of any economy — without it, there can be no agriculture (which accounts for more than 70% of global freshwater demand), no food sovereignty, no renewable hydropower and no economic growth. If we don’t plan ahead, many American states in and beyond the West will be embroiled in resource wars.

— Amanda Little is a professor of journalism and science writing at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of a Bloomberg Opinion series on the fate of food after Covid-19 as well as the book "The Fate of Food: What We'll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World."