Water wars of the future are here: USC faculty on the battle over water rights in the American Southwest and beyond
February 9, 2023
States across the southwestern U.S. face deadlock in their negotiations to cut back on water consumption as major reservoirs along the Colorado River rapidly shrink to dangerously low levels (see right). USC experts are available to comment on the rising tensions over water security in the American Southwest and beyond and what they mean in the larger fight against climate change moving forward.
Contact: Nina Raffio at firstname.lastname@example.org or (213) 442-8464
States at odds, Native tribes sidelined by “Law of the River”
“The Law of the River, as it’s known, is one of the most complicated aspects of U.S. water law. In the case of the Colorado River, doctrine is based on the idea that there is, on average, 15 million acre feet per year flowing downstream. But this was never true. The original compact was negotiated in 1922 at the height of a record wet period.
“The Upper Basin, which is Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico and parts of Nevada, get 7.5 million acre feet per year and has the legal duty to deliver roughly the same amount to the Lower Basin states, which comprise California, Arizona and most of Nevada. When push comes to shove, the Lower Basin’s argument is basically that the Upper Basin, where the water originates, bears most of the burden of a drought.
“Add to that complication that California gets highest priority rights due to the ‘first in time, first in right’ doctrine and its considerable might in Congress. California gets 4.4 million acre feet per year before anybody else gets anything.
“In the midst of all this change, we’re still dealing with the historical injustice that several Native American tribes — many of whom were dislocated and put on the worst lands in the West to begin with — are entitled to water rights that have never been quantified and certainly never delivered.”
Robin Craig is the Robert C. Packard Trustee Chair in Law at USC Gould. She specializes in all things water including climate change, water and land issues, ocean and coastal law, marine biodiversity and protected areas, eco-resilience and more.
Crisis on the Nile mirrors U.S. water woes
“The story of the Nile is our story, too,” said Essam Heggy, a research scientist at USC’s Microwave Systems, Sensors, and Imaging Lab; a founding member of the university’s Viterbi Arid Climates and Water Research Center; and an affiliate of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
“We are talking about the longest river on the planet and the 300 million people across Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt that share its resources and ecosystem. Mega-dams built upstream, as well as droughts, have short and long-term impacts downstream for Egypt, which relies entirely on the Nile for its water. The mitigation of these risks relies heavily on the level of cooperation between the water research centers of the river riparian, which collectively suffers from decades of low funding and massive migration of scientists.
“Today, the civilization that lived in water abundance for over 7,000 years has to face this new reality and find genuine ways to mitigate it; water science is the answer to the question, not anger and frustration. The last few decades of disbelief in water and climate sciences were enough to bring Egypt from one of the significantly growing African economies to one of the most economically vulnerable nations on the planet.
“Despite being thousands of miles away from California, the story of the Nile is important to America, given its shared challenges. Like California, several parts of the Nile River Basin are highly populated and undergo droughts and climate fluctuations, making it hard to predict precipitation and forecast water budgets. Both deal with climate denialism, lobbies, and special interests groups that minimize environmental impacts of low-cost energy development projects, like mega-dams.”
Hydropower takes a hit as U.S. boosts coal, natural gas production amid dwindling water supplies
“Over the last three years since we’ve had drought along the Colorado River supply and the Southwest in general, it has caused people in the energy markets to rethink our reliance on hydropower as a low-cost, base-load energy source and to pull back on investments. The expectation now is that hydropower will have greater seasonal intermittency with springtime run-off powering us through the summer months.
“The loss of potential energy generated from hydro over the last 3 years has led to an increase in both coal and natural gas. All energy generation has a trade-off; everything has a cost.”
Shon Hiatt is an associate professor at USC Marshall School of Business and an expert in global energy and agribusiness. His research has been published in academic journals and featured in media outlets including the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CBS News and more.
A better way of communicating risk to water security
Wändi Bruine de Bruin is Provost Professor of Public Policy, Psychology, and Behavioral Science at the Sol Price School of Public Policy, and the Dornsife Department of Psychology. Her recent projects have focused on public perceptions of water safety and climate change using the Lloyd’s Register Foundation World Risk Poll.
“It’s easier for people to see that their water is being threatened by extreme weather than by the abstract notion of climate change. If we want to warn people about climate change, we should link it to extreme weather. Communications need to make environmental issues concrete and personally relevant. Scientists haven’t always been good at that.”