Yale: Water management strategies key to Southwest's resilience

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Yale's Climate Connections reported that in the arid Southwest, residents are surviving drought by relying on each other.

Questions of who gets to use water, how often, and when are complicated. Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University's Morrison Institute says it all dates back to when settlers arrived in the arid region and started to parse out water rights.

“They developed this doctrine called prior appropriations, which means the person who got there first and diverted water had the senior rights,” Porter said.

Today, rights to water from rivers and reservoirs are managed between states and localities. For major rivers like the Rio Grande and the Colorado, rights are managed through agreements between states called compacts. When resources are strapped, like in the case of prolonged drought, disputes often crop up.

Last March, the Supreme Court heard and decided a case involving a dispute between New Mexico, Colorado and Texas.

Porter said that getting stakeholders on the same page in water policy can be complicated, but that finding common ground is possible. Among the Colorado compact parties, the sustainability of resources has been one of those common ground issues.

“There are disagreements, but among the seven basin states and Mexico there has been a sincere commitment to negotiate and collaborate to ensure resilience,” Porter said.

Porter points to Arizona’s water user hierarchy as an example of resilient policy. In Arizona, residential users are considered high priority and agriculture is considered low priority. When there is a strain on water resources, the state limits the amount of water agricultural users can use, saving more for needs like drinking water and sanitation.

“We still have a lot of give in the system, a lot of ability to move water supplies from one use to another,” she said.

Porter said that in her experience, conservation is just one piece of the larger puzzle of building water-resilient communities, and that higher-level management strategies like Arizona’s hierarchy and maintaining reservoir levels are the most effective policy.

READ: When the river runs dry