Years of hot, dry conditions and population growth across the Southwest have brought painful reductions in Colorado River water flow allocations to Arizona, California, Nevada, and Mexico. Based on a 1920s multi-state pact, the Department of the Interior sounds an alarm when the river’s reservoirs fall to extremely low levels, leaving states with no choice but to severely cut their water use, limiting consumption by agriculture, industry, and citizens.
At present, whatever water one state gets, another can expect to lose. And each state has its own body of water law that generally gives priority to historic withdrawal patterns. That body of law is important, but unfortunately, the times have changed. Maybe we should look at some past experiences with extreme water scarcity and consider institutional changes that could make things better for people in the dry southwestern states.
What if, for example, there were clearly established pathways for an Arizona community to profit by replacing plans for its new, beautifully maintained golf course in favor of a “browner” course and selling the water foregone to California farmers? Or, instead of a water district paying homeowners with tax money to plow up their lush lawns – the largest “irrigated crop” in America – homeowners could sell grandfathered lawn rights to other users who value the water more?