The relentless, punishing California drought has gained a lot of attention from politicians and the media, as the Golden State struggles to deal with a set of problems that only get worse as the warm, dry conditions persist. The State of California has been forced to take unprecedented regulatory actions in an effort to reduce water use, more or less across the board: surface and ground water, agricultural and urban uses. Drought elsewhere in the West has gotten less attention, partly because other western states are not quite as dry (although Nevada and the Northwest are in tough shape), and partly because they are not California. But given that California is often seen as very different from the other states, is California’s experience with drought relevant for the rest of the West? In the big picture, it clearly is.
One interesting result of the drought is that it has raised questions about two fundamental factors– agriculture’s share of statewide water use, and state water law based on prior appropriation–that are hugely important but often seen as fundamentally immovable. The questions are not new, and while they have always been part of the academic literature on western water policy, they have typically had limited relevance in official decision-making about water in the West. But the length and severity of the current drought have more Californians questioning why irrigated farming (even of high-value crops) should take up about 80% of California’s water use, and why their famously forward-looking state continues to divide water among competing uses based primarily on how old those uses are, with the oldest taking priority. As climate change promises to make California generally warmer and drier, these questions grow in importance.
Water users and officials in other western states might be tempted to discount California’s experience, arguing that California is different from the “real West.” They might point to California’s enormous population–roughly 1 in every 8 Americans, very different from the Interior West. They might insist that California water law is different in some ways from that of other western states, and there are indeed some notable differences. And they might argue, also with some validity, that the federal government plays a more important role in California than in the other western states, especially in operating the Central Valley Project and applying the Endangered Species Act. And politically, of course, Rocky Mountain and Great Plains states are more conservative than California, which is left of the “real West” in more ways than one.
I acknowledge all those differences, but I think recent events in California offer some relevant big-picture lessons for the rest of the West, because our basic water challenges are more like California’s than many people would care to admit. Irrigation also accounts for about 80% of the water use, if not more, in most western states. As in California, the water laws of other states give users water rights that last forever, that offer no incentives to use less, that take priority in times of shortage if they are older than other rights, and that are not readily moved to new places or uses. Other states, like California, have fully allocated most of their surface water sources, and allowed groundwater pumping that some aquifers cannot sustain. Many other western states have been growing fast for decades, as California has. Major federal water projects, and water-dependent endangered fish species, are found in every western state. And the entire region should expect to get warmer, and the southern half especially to get generally drier, if climate change plays out as predicted across the West.
California’s water situation is unique in some important ways, and I am not suggesting that recent events in that state will soon repeat themselves in the other states. What I am suggesting is that the “real West” has many of California’s basic problems regarding the allocation, supply, use, and management of water resources, and that these problems figure to get increasingly serious as we get deeper into the 21st Century. The current drought, commonly viewed as the worst in the state’s history, has forced California to dig deeper for solutions than it ever has before. Every western state should expect that coming years will bring droughts longer, drier, and warmer than any living person has seen. Some states are engaging in planning efforts, seeking to prepare for future water supply challenges. As states and stakeholders across the West look ahead, the California drought frames a key question: if we dry up like never before, how can ensure enough water for our most important human, economic, and environmental needs?