Colorado River would be in better shape if we followed these old Spanish rules

The Central Arizona Project canal near the New River siphon northwest of Phoenix.
The Central Arizona Project canal near the New River siphon northwest of Phoenix.

The water rule that governs the current division of Colorado River waters is called prior appropriation, or “first-in-time, first-in-right.”

This rule originated in the California and Colorado gold fields, where fortune-seekers needed water to extract gold ore from rock.

Before they sank their sweat and treasure into deep mineshafts and long flumes, miners needed a rock-solid claim to water with which to extract their gold.

They posted signs along creeks claiming a specific amount of water for their use.

The first to post had the first and best right to the creek’s water, with the second and third person to post getting whatever was left after the others before them had taken theirs.

Acequias were built around shared water

For the Anglos who settled the arid West, this first-in-time rule exactly fit their extractive mindset. Huge amounts of sweat, treasure and water were needed to build their towns and agrarian economies.

They needed rock-solid claims to water before paying shovel crews to cut miles-long irrigation ditches in 1860, or before pledging millions to build the Hoover Dam in 1931.

Over the last 175 years, prior appropriation has become the water law of the West.

But long before the Anglos settled the West, the Hispanos brought their own water rules to settlements in New Mexico, Colorado, California and Arizona.

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Hispanic water rules come from the arid Arab world and govern acequias (irrigation ditches) in New Mexico today. Rather than treating water as something to extract the earth’s resources with, the acequia tradition sees water as life, a community asset upon which everyone depends.

During a drought, acequias rotate scarce water between all users, giving priority first to people, then animals, and then human-food crops.

Under acequia rules, irrigated pasture and industry are usually the lowest priority and may not get any water during a severe drought.

Colorado River water should be shared similarly

The acequia water-sharing tradition guided one of three options the Bureau of Reclamation proposed — and shelved, for the time being — for how to distribute Colorado river-water cuts.

It was the ideal option.

Reclamation’s other two considerations, doing nothing or following prior appropriation rules, would have decimated water supplies for Arizona and Nevada, drying up the cities of Las Vegas, Phoenix and Tucson.

The approach of distributing water cuts equally among all member states flies in the face of prior appropriation law, but it recognizes that everyone needs water to live, just as acequia traditions do.

Under the bureau’s third option, California, Nevada and Arizona would have each faced less painful cuts, since cuts would have been spread between all of their users, including senior water users in the Imperial Valley and junior water users in the Central Arizona Project.

Voluntary plan bodes well for future talks

The Bureau of Reclamation has put the three options on ice, after the submission of a consensus-based proposal from California, Arizona and Nevada.

Although their joint proposal shares water cuts of 3 million acre-feet over three years among the three Lower Basin states, that is only half of what federal officials said was necessary to cut.

Nevertheless, that the three states could come to an agreement over shared cuts bodes well for future negotiations over additional water cuts, as well as for the looming renegotiation of the Colorado River Compact in 2026.

That California has backed away from its steadfast devotion to prior appropriation rules is surprising and hopeful.

The current water crisis on the Colorado River calls for reevaluation of our modern attachment to prior appropriation. An Anglo extractive mentality may no longer be appropriate in the face of climate change and megadroughts.

Rather, the older Hispano acequia rules for water sharing during droughts will better protect people, communities and food supplies when there is no longer sufficient water to fulfill everyone’s claims.

Elizabeth Black runs the Citizen Science Soil Health Project and farms Christmas trees in Boulder, Colo. She produced The Ditch Project, a show and website about Western water and Boulder’s irrigation ditches at https://boulderdata.org/repository/a/ditchproject.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Colorado River cuts should follow these old Spanish rules