Sunday, January 23, 2005

Understanding Water Rights and Conflicts

The following is the Introduction to my book entitled Understanding Water Rights and Conflicts, Second Edition, (ISBN: 1-893478-05-x, Price $19.95, 320 pages, softcover, call or email me for information or to order).


“We used to think that energy and water would be critical issues for the next century. Now we think that water will be the critical issue.” Mostafa Tolba of Egypt, Former head of the United Nations Environmental Program

The use of water can be separated into three basic ar­eas: physical supply, legal availability and multiple use. Physical supply is the amount of fresh water provided physically in the form of rainfall and snowpack (pre­cipitation) and, as such, is available for use in the rivers and lakes. One recent estimate from the World Resources Institute (WRI) is that the total amount of precipitation falling on the land surface is approximately 45 billion gallons, or 140,000 acre-feet (a-f) per year. Robert Jack­son,, in a report named Water in a Changing World ( estimates that 170,000 Acre-Feet per year is available for terrestrial, freshwater and estuarine eco­systems. Legal availability is that amount of water that an entity is entitled by law to use (take or divert) out of the existing physical supply. Multiple use is the concept of using water for many and often conflicting purposes such as domestic (drinking, bathing, cooking, landscaping), agriculture, recreation, and industrial.

Water Use on a Global Scale

These three concepts apply on a global basis. Water must be available to support life, and water can be denied to the end user based on the lack of physical supply, lack of legal right to use, or having too many conflicting uses for the existing resource. Conflict over water involves at least one, but often more, of these three areas. Rivers provide the majority of the world’s constant water supply. Two or more countries share river systems that drain slightly less than one-half of the world’s land area. At least ten major rivers flow through six or more coun­tries.
One example of an area of conflict is the Euphrates River flowing from Turkey into Syria and Iraq is an area of conflict in several ways. Turkey has built major dams up­stream which withhold water from flowing into Syria and Iraq. Both countries are deprived of otherwise available water in the river (physical supply). The legal compacts negotiated between the countries are in constant dispute (legal availability). Each of the three countries needs ever increasing water supplies for cities and agriculture (mul­tiple use) because of increasing populations.

On the other side of the world, the Colorado River serves seven states and one foreign country (Republic of Mexi­co). This river is governed by a series of federal and state agreements and one international treaty between the two nations. This one river system currently provides water to over 25 million people and several million acres of farmland. Uses include recreation, industry, agriculture and municipal water supply. There is demand for more and more water annually because of population growth and increasing use.

Even in wet regions, where water is seemingly not an issue, disputes arise. Georgia, Alabama and Florida are disputing the flows in the Apalachicola River. One issue relates to the amount of water needed to remain in the riv­er to preserve the Apalachicola Bay oyster beds. Growth in Georgia and Alabama has caused more and more water to be removed from the river (diverted) for municipal and agricultural use, leaving less for the ecosystem down­stream. This impacts both the ecology of the bay and the livelihood of the fishing industry using the bay.

In local regions, water disputes are often complex. In Florida, the majority of fresh water comes from ground­water (wells). Pumping from groundwater for an increas­ing municipal use may be responsible for the decline in surface water and wetlands, affecting ecosystems and rec­reation. At one time wetlands in Florida comprised 54% of the state’s surface area; now they comprise only 30%. News stories about sinkholes affecting roads and build­ings are becoming more and more common. Sinkholes are caused by the erosion and collapse of the limestone, dolomite or gypsum formations when underground water moves. Groundwater pumping not only moves the water upward but also downward and horizontally in the forma­tions.

The majority of the water on Earth’s surface is saline and unusable for human consumption or for agriculture. Some is not in a usable form (i.e. trapped in the pores of solid rock). Conflicts arise because only about one percent of Earth’s total water supply is fresh water and the fresh water supply is not increasing, but the population is. Even more problematic, neither the water supply nor the popu­lation is evenly distributed, and often they are not located in the same place.
The World Bank estimates that eighty nations have water shortages that severely retard agricultural production.

Much of the world still lacks water for basic needs such as drinking and sanitation. In many cases this is due to poor water management or lack of infrastructure re­sources. A recent World Resources Institute (WRI - http: // estimate of the percent of people world­wide with chronic water scarcity (lack of water for basic needs) is as follows.

Estimated Percent of World Population with Chronic Water Scarcity

Water Quality Magazine noted the following in a recent article, “Shortages in nations everywhere are frequently combined with pollution problems.” A 1997 United Na­tions (UN) report entitled Comprehensive Assessment of the Fresh Water Resources of the World concluded that increasing water stress” is largely a result of “poor water allocation, wasteful use of the resource, and lack of ad­equate management action.”

Water use per person per day in 1995 was estimated (USGS) to be 260 gallons globally. The United States in 1995 used an estimated 1,250 gallons per person per day (on a per capita basis). Water use is often expressed on a per capita basis which is the total water consumption divided by the total population. Water use can also be expressed by specific type such as residential, municipal, agricultural or industrial.

Water Use in the United States

The map from the U.S. Department of the Census shows the projected population increase in the United States between 1995 and 2025. There was a 1,400 % increase in homeowner’s associations across the country between 1970 and 1992 (from 10,000 to 150,000) according to the USGS.

The average statewide precipitation for the Western United States is shown on the following table. These statewide averages are obtained as follows: each state is divided into climate divisions and an average precipita­tion value is calculated for each division. These division averages are then weighted by the amount of area within each division.

Average Statewide Precipitation For Western U.S.
Annual Precipitation (inches)
New Mexico

The following table shows the per capita water use by state in the 1995 USGS Water Use report.

Per Capita Water Use by State
State - Population (thousands) - Per Capita Consump­tion Use in gal/d (fresh water)
Alabama - 4,253 - 1,670
Alaska - 604 - 350
Arizona - 4,218 - 1,620
Arkansas - 2,484 - 3,530
California - 32,063 - 1,130
Colorado - 3,747 - 3,690
Connecticut - 3,275 - 389
Delaware - 717 - 1,050
D.C. - 554 - 18
Florida - 14,166 - 509
Georgia - 7,201 - 799
Hawaii - 1,187 - 53
Idaho - 1,163 - 13,000
Illinois - 11,830 - 1,680
Indiana - 5,803 - 1,570
Iowa - 2,842 - 1,070
Kansas - 2,565 - 2,040
Kentucky - 3,860 - 1,150
Louisiana - 4,342 - 2,270
Maine - 1,241 - 178
Maryland - 5,042 - 289
Massachusetts - 6,074 - 189
Michigan - 9,549 - 1,260
Minnesota - 4,610 - 736
Mississippi - 2,697 - 1,140
Missouri - 5,324 - 1,320
Montana - 870 - 10,200
Nebraska - 1,637 - 6,440
Nevada - 1,530 - 1,480
New Hampshire - 1,148 - 388
New Jersey - 7,945 - 269
New Mexico - 1,686 - 2,080
New York - 18,136 - 567
North Carolina - 7,195 - 1,070
North Dakota - 641 - 1,750
Ohio - 11,151 - 944
Oklahoma - 1,278 - 543
Oregon - 3,140 - 2,520
Pennsylvania - 12,072 - 802
Rhode Island - 990 - 138
South Carolina - 3,673 - 1,690
South Dakota - 729 - 631
Tennessee - 5,256 - 1,920
Texas - 18,724 - 1,300
Utah - 1,951 - 2,200
Vermont - 585 - 967
Virginia - 6,618 - 826
Washington - 5,431 - 1,620
West Virginia -1,828 - 2,530
Wisconsin - 5,102 - 1,420
Wyoming - 480 - 14,700
Puerto Rico - 3,755 - 154
Virgin Islands - 103 - 113
Total - 267,068 - 1,280

The United States Geological Survey (USGS) publishes a report entitled Water Use in the United States every 5 years. The last one was published in 1995, and the new 2000 report is being published in 2003. These reports can be downloaded at watuse/.

The variation in per capita consumption, in many cases, depends on economic and climatic factors, as well as the population of the area in question. Since per capita use generally includes industrial and agricultural applica­tions, areas with mostly agricultural use and lower popu­lation will have a higher per capita consumption.

Typical of any arid and semi-arid region of the world, population increases in the Western United States have made it imperative that water be made available to the areas where the population is located. Along with the Denver metropolitan area, the metropolitan areas of Las Vegas, San Diego, and Los Angeles are experiencing water supply problems. Logic dictates that either people move to where the physical supply of water is located, or the physical supply of water is to be delivered to where the people reside.

Many areas of the world, similar to the Western United States where water is limited, have growing populations. Because these areas are not populated, they are attractive to an increasing population. Because of the population growth and the finite amount of water, the entire world needs to better manage water.

Water Use in Colorado

The State of Colorado (Figure 1) is divided into two dis­tinctly separate regions: the “East Slope” or eastern 1/3 of Colorado and the “West Slope” or western 2/3 of Colo­rado. The Continental Divide (a line from Montana to Arizona) is the high point where all water either flows to the Pacific Ocean (West Slope) or to the Mississippi River System (East Slope). Mean sea level (MSL) elevations in Colorado vary from above 3,500 feet along the eastern Colorado-Kansas border to 14,000 feet along the Conti­nental Divide. Denver, the state capitol, averages 5,200 feet. In fact, the second step of the state capitol building is exactly 5,280 feet (one mile) above mean sea level.

The precipitation in the state varies from about eight inches annually in the more arid regions to more than fifty inches in the higher mountain ranges. Shown on the fol­lowing table is the Colorado average statewide precipita­tion.
Colorado - Average Statewide Precipitation
Month - Precipitation
Jan - 0.72
Feb - 0.72
Mar - 1.2
Apr - 1.27
May - 1.8
Jun - 1.51
Jul - 2.03
Aug - 1.87
Sep - 1.42
Oct - 1.13
Nov - 0.93
Dec - 0.87
Annual - 15.47
Western Water web site, avgstate.ppt.html

The statewide average is obtained as follows: the state is divided into climate divisions, and an average precipita­tion value is calculated for each division. The division averages are then weighted by the amount of area within each division.

Most water problems are directly related to the variabil­ity of precipitation, its location and the resulting run-off and stream flow. The climatology of the state has a direct impact on the amount and placement of precipitation. The temperature can range from over 100° F to -30° F, with the lowest recorded temperature of -50° F in Fraser, Colorado. The mean date of the last spring frost in the metro Denver area is May 2nd or 3rd, but above 9,000 feet frost can occur any month of the year. The mean date of the first frost in the fall in the Denver metro area is Oc­tober 16. The annual mean humidity is 20 to 30%. Even during winter storms, when much of Colorado is covered by clouds, the metro area typically is only partly cloudy. The winds along the Front Range and in the Denver metro area are generally south, averaging 16 miles per hour. While, in the mountains and western part of the state they are generally westerly.
During the period between 1990 and 2001, Colorado experienced a period of abundant water supply. The reservoirs were typically filled, with storage at 100% of capacity. This was one of the wettest periods in the last one hundred years.

The economy was also very strong, and the population grew, almost doubling in both the state and along the Front Range of the Rockies. As a result, water suppliers, even with abundant water supplies, struggled to meet the demand on the existing water infrastructure.

Just from personal experience, living west of the Denver metropolitan area, in the “foothills”, I have seen dramatic growth. People wanting to “get out” of the city have built large homes in areas often difficult to serve with water. Building sites were chosen based primarily on the beauti­ful location. In times of abundant water, the major con­cern was extending water lines, and increasing treatment capacity, not the actual physical or legal supply. Many large and small communities have experienced major physical and legal water supply problems in the drought of 2002, as the available water supply dwindled.

As a board member of a local water district, one of the most frequently asked questions I heard during the sum­mer and fall of 2002 was, “Do we have enough water?” The reservoir, which has a capacity of over 100 acre-feet, contains just 20 acre-feet in the photo.

Colorado’s Increasing Population
As with many areas of the world, the location of the population of the state bears no relationship to the avail­able surface water supply. The South Platte River Basin contains more than 65% of the state’s population and produces only 9% of the annual available surface water sup­ply. However, the Colorado River Basin contains about 9% of the state’s population and produces approximately 70% of the average annual surface supply.

Colorado’s population increased nearly 25% during the 1960’s, growing from approximately 1,750,000 to 2,207,000, with recent projections of about 5,085,467 by the year 2015. The largest growth was in the South Platte River Basin, however, in recent years the population in the mountain areas is increasing significantly.
State of Colorado Population
Year - Population - Percent change
1870 - 39,864
1880 - 194,327 - 79.5
1890 - 413,249 - 52.9
1900 - 539,700 - 32.5
1910 - 799,024 - 14.9
1920 - 939,629 - 9.3
1930 - 1,035,791 - 7.8
1940 - 1,123,296 - 15.2
1950 - 1,325,089 - 24.5
1960 - 1,753,947* - 20.6
1970 - 2,209,596 - 26.0*
1980 - 2,889,964 - 31
1990 - 3,294,473 - 14
2000 - 4,301,261 - 49
2005 - 4,250,110** - 47
2015 - 5,085,467** - 76
*U.S. Dept. of Commerce Bureau of Census, 1980 ** From DRCOG, Local Population Estimates.

During the period of 1980 to 2000, the population in the state increased dramatically. In the First Edition of this book (July, 1990), the population estimate for 2000 was 3,800,000. This was underestimated by about 12%.
Colorado’s 63 counties are generally divided into five re­gions. These are the Front Range, Western Slope, Eastern Plains, San Luis Valley and the Southern Mountains. As of 2000, the ten largest Colorado counties were all in the Front Range area: Denver, Jefferson, El Paso, Arapahoe, Adams, Boulder, Larimer, Weld, Douglas, and Pueblo.

When the Denver Water Board made application for a large storage project on the East Slope (the Two Forks Project) in the late 1980’s, a demand area was identified in the Environmental Impact Study (EIS -December 1986). This demand area identified the areas that could potentially be served by existing facilities (owned by Denver and others) in the Platte River basin. Two Forks was a regional project, proposed to benefit many of the water suppliers and users in the demand area. This de­mand area approximates the Front Range Area defined above. It is still an appropriate model and is generally still used in many studies.

This demand area includes all or parts of Denver, Adams, Arapahoe, Douglas, Jefferson, Boulder, and Weld Coun­ties. It extends from Erie, Colorado on the North, to Ev­ergreen on the West, to Castle Rock on the South, and to Parker and Brighton on the East. It comprises the Denver Metropolitan Area, and encompasses the majority of the South Platte River Basin, where 65% of the entire state’s population is centered.

Water and Politics
One very common expression in the “water world” is that “water flows toward money,” i.e. where the most political clout, power and water users are located. This is a very common problem between the municipal suppliers and recreational users. Many times recreational areas are in the least populated regions of a state (like the Colorado mountains and West Slope), and have the least political clout. The cities and municipal suppliers have an obliga­tion to provide water for their residents, thus they have substantial political clout (including resources and mon­ey). However, the paradox is that many of the municipal residents live where they live because they can easily travel to the recreational activities they enjoy and use.

Another good example of “water flowing toward money” is the conflict between municipal users (the cities) and agricultural users (the farmers). In Eastern Colorado dis­putes between an increasing requirement for municipal water supplies (for a growing population) and irrigation water for agriculture are common. Pumping from ground­water may lessen the stream flows, thereby creating con­flicts with users that divert from the stream.

Pumping from groundwater can also decrease the water table, making it necessary to drill even deeper wells. In many areas, where there is no alternative water supply, wells can go dry, leaving water users no way to get water at all.

Because we are all water users and generally choose where we live, the way to make better use of the existing water supply is to become more informed.

The physical supply of water available for use is dis­cussed in Chapter One.

“A Person never steps into the same river twice.”Greek Philosopher