Time to Lose 'Use It or Lose It' Water Laws

Time to Lose 'Use It or Lose It' Water Laws

Water in the western United States is governed by a system of highly controversial water laws, some of which actually encourage overconsumption in times of scarcity (and plenty). ProPublica's “Killing the Colorado” series explores water management decisions which have exacerbated the drought. While there are plenty of laws which contribute to water management issues, “there are few starker examples of how man's missteps and policies are contributing to the water shortage currently afflicting the western United States,” than a group of  “Use It or Lose It” laws common throughout the Colorado basin which incentivize farmers and ranchers to use more than they may actually need. Under “Use It or Lose It” laws those who use less water than they are legally entitled can see their water allotment reduced, encouraging heavy use of water.

Scientific American explains:

Originally devised in part to keep speculators from hoarding water to build wealth and power, the intent of "use it" laws was to make sure the people who held rights to water exercised them. They could keep those rights indefinitely, passing them on through generations or selling them, attached to the land, at great profit, as long as they constantly put the water to what most Western water laws refer to as "beneficial use.”

Now those same laws are incentivizing ecological destruction. They put incredible stress on the system. “The effects of ‘use it or lose it’ laws are so significant that policy experts warn that western states won't be able to begin untangling larger issues of drought and conservation without dealing with it first,” explains Scientific American. Luckily, they could also be the easiest and some of the least politically-charged, laws to fix.

Many farmers and ranchers say they would welcome a change that would incentivize them to save water in certain years, but still ensure they access to their allotment in the future.

Changing the laws would have to occur state by state, but it’s high pastime state’s begin to reform their laws. Reforming “lose it or use it” laws could replenish much needed water supplies, protect property, is politically popular among many ranchers and farmers, and would open the door to begin addressing other pressing water management issues.