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 Our self-imposed water crisis signals a need for change

Michael Schaus
Michael Schaus

Given our water crisis in the West, it’s difficult to imagine a time when the Colorado River overran its banks on a regular basis.

When the river flooded in 1905, it resulted in the creation of California’s largest lake — the Salton Sea. And during the Great Depression, to limit floods and encourage population and economic growth in the American Southwest, the federal government began construction on what was, at the time, the largest dam ever built — and eventually named after President Hoover.  

Today, the Salton Sea is an environmental disaster as its inflows have trickled down to virtually zero — a visual reminder of the devastation drought can bring to a region. Similarly, on the Nevada-Arizona border, Hoover Dam is now holding back less water than any time since it first became operational in the 1930s. 

Clearly things have changed dramatically since the early 20th Century. 

As the dwindling shoreline of Lake Mead and Lake Powell reveal long-lost submerged artifacts, the federal government has instructed the seven states belonging to the Colorado River Compact to cut a dramatic 2-4 million acre-feet of water from their usage or face draconian federal intervention. 

And it’s not just this main waterway in the West that is facing such challenges. The story is much the same throughout the entire region. Even underground aquifers are approaching historically low levels. 

Just last week, the Nevada Supreme Court gave the greenlight for Eureka County irrigators to move forward with an emergency plan to address the sustainability of groundwater. The contentious conservation plan was noteworthy for its departure from the traditional way water rights have been handled — and it underscores the degree to which the West is, quite simply, in need of changing how we approach water supply.  

It also demonstrates just how responsible government is for the crisis in the first place. 

Certainly, there are plenty of factors playing into the water shortage facing the West — climate change, population growth and the region’s historically arid environment among them. However, government has over-allocated water rights for generations, leading to much of today’s scarcity. 

In Diamond Valley just outside of Eureka, for example, state officials have long allowed irrigators to pump more than twice the amount of water that is sustainable from aquifers. Likewise, the Colorado River Compact was negotiated at a time when river inflows were at historical highs — and the changes to the agreement that have been adopted since then pale in comparison to the changes seen in the yearly snowpack levels of the Colorado Rockies. 

Making matters worse, the world of water rights is largely one of centrally-planned bureaucracy and legal frameworks — not exactly the kind of regulatory landscape that encourages innovation, adaptability or the type of market-flexibility seen in other areas of the economy. 

Indeed, unlike most commodities or resources, there simply isn’t a working “market” for water or water rights. For example, rights holders who are lucky enough to have more water than they need, are rarely free to sell or transfer that excess water without permanently forfeiting their right to it in the future. Likewise, water that isn’t put to a predetermined “beneficial use” is at risk of being taken from rights holders — creating a “use it or lose it” set of incentives, even as the region struggles with lack of conservation.  

It doesn’t take an economic prodigy to realize that such policies put further strain on water supplies by creating an environment where, as population grows, so too does the overall demand for “new” water supplies. 

Unfortunately, much of the traditional structure for water regulations is based on similarly counter-intuitive frameworks. Rights holders even face restrictions and prohibitions on recharging depleted aquifers throughout much of the West. In California, using surface water for such a worthwhile purpose is not, on its own, considered a “beneficial use” and is therefore not a legally valid way for one to use the water to which they might otherwise have rights. 

Even where attempts have been made to introduce new supply into our water market, as opposed to merely cutting back on current usage, governmental red tape has managed to frustrate progress. An ambitious attempt to harness proven desalination techniques to keep water flowing in California was recently shutdown by authorities after more than 20 years of regulatory scrutiny and a hundred million dollars in private investment.  

Such absurdly prohibitive regulatory hurdles hardly create a robust market for brave new innovations — leaving entire communities to keep draining the same finite water supplies in the meantime. 

At the heart of much of our water woes is the intractable and overbearing manipulation, if not outright control, of the market by central planners and political interests. Even prices — the simplest of all market forces — have long been mismanaged by local authorities. 

Utah, for example, has the highest per-capita usage of water in the nation — despite the fact that it faces the same dire drought-induced shortages faced by the rest of us in the West. Unsurprisingly, it also has some of the cheapest water rates nationwide, thanks to heavy subsidization by local governments — resulting in little economic incentive to adopt the kind of conservation practices seen in water efficient cities like Las Vegas

Allowing water markets more flexibility to respond to population, usage and environmental changes should be considered a crucial component of addressing the slow-motion crisis of water scarcity. And while the Nevada Supreme Court’s recent decision regarding groundwater in Diamond Valley will undoubtedly generate its share of critics, at least it indicates a willingness to scrutinize some of the inflexible ways we have traditionally handled water throughout the region. 

For many, the environmental disaster of the Salton Sea and the receding shorelines of Lake Mead are among the many uncomfortable visual reminders that a lot has changed along the Colorado river and throughout the West in the last 100 years. However, if we expect to refill those lakes, reservoirs and aquifers any time soon, we’re going to have to do more than simply wait for snowmelt from the Rockies or install new low-flow showerheads.  

Reducing our dependence on those who have so badly mismanaged our water in the past, while freeing up the market for new ways to appropriate it moving forward, seems like a pretty good place to start. 

Michael Schaus is a communications and branding consultant based in Las Vegas, Nevada, and founder of Schaus Creative LLC — an agency dedicated to helping organizations, businesses and activists tell their story and motivate change. He is the former communications director for Nevada Policy Research Institute and has more than a decade of experience in public affairs commentary as a columnist, political humorist, and radio talk show host. Follow him at or on Twitter at @schausmichael.


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