International Approaches to Policy and Decision-making
Edited by Jayne M. Godfrey and Keryn Chalmers
Chapter 15: Accounting for Water Rights in the Western United States
Mark Squillace INTRODUCTION The western United States is renowned for its system of allocating water by prior appropriation (Beck and Kelley 2009).1 Under this system, those parties who first acquired the right to use water receive their entire allocation before later appropriators receive any (Sax et al. 2006; Getches 2009).2 When a water source is fully depleted, water deliveries stop. Western US water rights are, however, limited to beneficial use, which means that water users must not waste water and must adopt reasonably efficient practices, both for diverting water from the watercourse and for applying it to the approved use. Two implicit assumptions about water management in the western US are that (1) the amount of water diverted for and consumed by individual uses can be accurately measured and (2) water resources are not diverted in excess of legal rights. Somewhat surprisingly, the validity of these assumptions is rarely questioned. A related problem that is rarely raised unless a water rights owner proposes to sell the rights is how much water is beneficially consumed by the historic water user. As water resources in the western US become increasingly scarce, it is fair to ask that water users and the agency officials who regulate them provide basic information about the accuracy of water diversions and the scope of water use. This chapter offers insights into how accurate information about water diversions and use might be gathered and used to achieve better water resource management, and how regulatory agencies might...
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