water vigilantism

June 22, 2009

(image credit: Science Progress)

(credit: Science Progress)

The U.S. Global Change Research Program recently released a study, which, among many daunting scenarios, projects the change in precipitation between 1961-79 to 2080-99. Needless, to say, there’s going to be a good bit less water falling over the coming years in the the southwest. This oncoming drought threatens both the future of agriculture and domestic and commercial water use in the area.

The politics of water rights in the West are fascinating and far to complicated to describe here. But the idea is that people who were “first in line,” so to speak, to sign up for the right of a certain amount of water from a river or other source get first dibs. What this translates into, though, is that preventing water from going into those natural channels is in effect “stealing” from the large pot that eventually gets divided along various lines.

I might be more sympathetic to this “crime” were it not for the following:
1) the way in which water rights are divided is incredibly complicated and often outdated;
2) it’s much more efficient to capture water on your own property, for your own use, than to let that water flow into natural channels only to have it pumped back to your house or building.

In April, Colorado passed a limited measure allowing people off the water grid to collect their own water for use in watering lawns and gardens. While a step in the the right direction, it’s not clear that other states will follow suit and/or expand water collection rights to those on the water grid.

Many homeowners have taken matters into their own hands regarding water usage, breaking the existing water laws. I support these measures both because I think they’re simply more efficient and because they set the stage for future improvements in water usage.

Some (mainly homeowners) have taken to collecting their roof water in barrels or cisterns. Others recycle greywater from washing machines, sinks, and showers (note, not toilets or sinks with garbage disposals) back into their yards. Allowing this kind of intelligent recycling promotes conservation on a local level as well as prevents us from wasting potable, treated water for things that don’t need it.

What’s more, in these two systems, the water not sucked up by the plants simply goes back into the natural aquifers.

We need to move to a more efficient and smart way of using this ever-dwindling resource in the West. Everyone acknowledges water shortage is a large problem, which may explain why many authorities sometimes look the other way over these types of infractions. When enough people embrace a technology or behavior that aims to ameliorate a serious problem, it becomes acceptable and can then become law.

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