Square Pegs in Round Holes

Posted on February 7, 2014 by Richard Glick

The Western states face two reciprocating and overarching problems in water resources policy.  First, water is an increasingly scarce resource facing sharply competitive needs. Climate change is projected to put even more strain on water supplies. Second, most streams listed as water-quality impaired in the West are designated as such for issues related to the biological integrity of the waterway. The combination of aggressive human use of waters, manipulation of stream channels, and failure to control agricultural runoff has resulted in widespread degradation of aquatic habitat.

The primary impediment to addressing these related issues arises from dated legal constructs designed to achieve different objectives in eras with markedly different economies. In other words, trying to apply these constructs to today’s problems is like attempting to fit square pegs into round holes.

The doctrine of prior appropriation governs water rights everywhere in the West.  It was developed in the 19th century to promote mining and agriculture—both water intensive enterprises—in arid climates. The doctrine provides that the first to physically take control of the water and put it to beneficial use has priority over later comers. Thus, the oldest water rights with the highest priorities are mostly agricultural, and many streams have become over-appropriated during the past century. So where does a growing community go for new water supplies? And what about maintaining sufficient high-quality flows instream for healthy fisheries?

The problem is made more acute by the formidable costs and regulatory uncertainty of developing major water storage projects. Many cities seek to acquire or share in old agricultural water rights through direct payments to water right holders or they finance irrigation system improvements for more efficient use of water. Such water marketing approaches free up water for municipal use, while reducing pressure to remove still more water from oversubscribed streams. But if a legislature could have anticipated then what we know now, might it a century ago have considered systems that allocate water based more on maximum public value and efficient use, rather than simply priority in time?

The Clean Water Act was enacted over 40 years ago to address toxic discharges of industrial and sewage wastewater to rivers and lakes.  Dramatic events like the spontaneous ignition of the Cuyahoga River drove public demand for government intervention, leading to the new law. The Act has done a remarkable job of cleaning up end-of-pipe discharges (point sources), but has largely failed at controlling more diffuse sources of pollution (nonpoint sources) from stream channelization, devegetation of riparian habitat and agricultural runoff. Thus, many streams today are impaired by turbidity, nutrient loading, and higher temperatures.

Since the Act does not provide enforcement tools for nonpoint sources, regulatory agencies use the authority available to them to ratchet up controls on point sources. One solution to this problem is water-quality trading, in which a point source permittee can take watershed-restorative action upstream to correct a nonpoint pollution problem in order to meet escalating permit requirements. This approach can yield better ecological outcomes at lower cost. But if Congress were drafting the Clean Water Act today, any rational approach would address the problem of diffuse sources of pollution.

It seems unrealistic to expect substantive changes to either the law of prior appropriation or the Clean Water Act any time soon. Aside from the politics, changes to prior appropriation raise significant constitutional questions to the extent property rights are affected. In the meantime, we’ll have to continue looking for creative workarounds. This circumstance makes interesting work for lawyers, but is hardly the optimal approach to effective water resource use and protection.