U.S. Water Policy & Conflicts
Brianna Binnebose binnebbd@uwec.edu
Part of Water is Life, a class website on water privatization and commodification, produced by students of Geography 378 (International Environmental Problems & Policy) at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, USA, Spring 2004.


"When the well is dry, we learn the worth of water."
--Benjamin Franklin

Since the day human beings arrived in the Americas, water has always had an important role in their lives. Whether it was the Native Americans, the Spaniards in the Southwest, or the English in the East, ownership of water supplies became a priority. Someone has always desired to harness water to improve living standards. To alleviate conflicts over water policies, the U.S. government later instituted water policy, especially concerning the areas of surface water resource management and water pollution.

The 2000 US Census showed the population of the U.S. consistently rose during the period of 1990-2000, making it the largest population increase in U.S. history. This growth was especially prevalent in the Western U.S., where the rates have been the highest at 19.7%. This population growth is a pressing reason to resolve current water policy conflicts. Better water policies nationwide need to be made and put into action to keep pace with the growing population and growing industry market in the U.S.

White water rafting adventure on the Colorado River




From purely an aesthetic and recreational standpoint, America's waters offer some of the most beautiful and exciting forms of outdoor recreation available. In order for recreation to continue, policies concerning the proper management of water resources and pollution control are necessary to keep America's water safe and usable for generations to come.

However, conflicts continue to arise in constructing a framework of policies due to the contrasting climates of the Eastern and Western United States. The difficulty lies in a lack of understanding of integrating policies in both sides of the country, while still maintaining a fair amount of regional control. California is one state that is making the attempt, being the first to integrate both types of the traditional policies.

The Colorado River running through the Grand Canyon.



    Federal Water Policy: difficulties, successes and everything else

    "Throughout human history, water resources have played a critical role in the development of advanced societies. In recent years, those involved in the development and use of water resources around the world have become increasingly concerned about the unintended effects of humanity's attempts to use these precious resources. The tough realities of competition for scarce water resoucres around the world have led to diasgreements over goals and the degree to which goals can be achieved through proper mangement of water resources." --Jonathan P. Deason, Theodore M. Schad and George Willam Sherk.

    Part of the reason the federal government is having so much difficulty in making and passing legislation concerning both surface water and groundwater policy is the decentralized organization of water policy. This can best be summarized in the work Water Policy in the United States: A Perspective by Jonathan P. Deason, Theodore M. Schad and George William Sherk, "With regard to institutional considerations in water resources policy development, an apparent oxymoron is true: there are both too many and too few actors." The main water policy maker, the U.S. Congress, only adds to the confusion. Within Congress, there are over a dozen Congressional committees, along with numerous subcommittees, agencies and offices in the White House. All these committees have a say in each piece of legislation, often making the process more muddled.

    Water policy, management and pollution usually tends to fall under the jurisdiction of local and state governments but with major water policy acts such as the Clean Water Act (CWA), first implemented in 1948, the federal government is taking a more active role in the protection of America's water supply, as evident by the following statistics obtained by Cleanwater.gov in 1998:

    In 1972, most estimates were that only 30 to 40 percent of assessed waters met water quality goals such as being safe for fishing and swimming. Today, state monitoring data indicate that between 60 to 70 percent of assessed waters meet state water quality goals.

    Twenty-five years ago, wetland losses were estimated at 460,000 acres each year. Today, wetland losses are estimated to be about one-fourth of that rate.

    Since 1982, soil erosion from cropland has been reduced by more than one-third, saving over a billion tons of soil each year and substantially reducing sediments, nutrients, and other pollutants that reach streams, lakes, and rivers.

    Twenty five years ago, sewage treatment plants served only 85 million people. Today, the number of people who have access to adequate wastewater treatment facilities has more than doubled, to 173 million people.

    Compliance with national standards for discharges from industrial facilities result in the removal of billions of pounds of pollutants from wastewater each year.

    These successes in recent years have been made possible through the proper enforcement of the Clean Water Act (CWA). Amendments made to the Act in 1972 have made it the leading program of legislation, in regards to water pollution control. The CWA focuses on the areas of:

  • Title I - Research and Related Programs
  • Title II - Grants for Construction of Treatment Works
  • Title III - Standards and Enforcement
  • Title IV - Permits and Licenses
  • Title V - General Provisions
  • Title VI - State Water Pollution Control Revolving Funds
  • One of the 1972 amendments, Title II, stated that federal grants were to be given to states for construction of new and better sewage treatment plants. The states received up to 55% of the total cost, but if they were using more leading edge technology, that figure could be increased to as much as 75%. As a result, in times of budget deficits, conflicts have arisen as to the amount of federal funding states could receive for the construction of municipal sewage treatment facilities. In 1987, Congress found a way to alleviate this problem with Title V, having states match federal funds and the money is then placing the money in a revolving loan fund so the federal budget will be under less strain and states can still have the funds to construct sewage treatment plants.

    The Clean Water Act is the most comprehensive piece of legislation that can be applied to both Eastern and Western U.S., unlike many other water policies, as will be illustrated later on. This nationwide application of policy covers the pollution aspect of water, not just the management of resources.


    Dried up river bed, Paria Canyon


    Water Policy and Conflict in the West: Past and Present

    "Imagine trying to sip water through a straw from a glass across the room. That's essentially what is being proposed to quench the growing thirst of the bustling Colorado cities on the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains." --Mary H. Cooper, CQ Researcher

    Water policy in the Western United States has traditionally followed the course of the Prior Appropriation Doctrine. The doctrine began during the Gold Rush when scores of miners and settlers rushed out west in hopes of land and gold. In the semi-arid climate of the West, water itself is a resource as precious as gold, as the miners and settlers would soon discover. Miners realized that they would need water to pan and extract the gold, so the desirable stream locations were quickly snatched. For those not fortunate enough to get a spot on the water, they needed to obtain water in a different manner. Water needed to be diverted to accommodate the needs of everyone and so streams were subject to diversion in order to meet the growing demands. Water diversion would turn out to be a problem that would haunt the Western U.S. for over 100 years.


    US precipitation in cm/year


    As indicated in the precipitation map above, the Western U.S. receives well below the average amount of precipitation that the Eastern U.S. receives. The West cannot rely on rainfall as a means to replenish its water reserves, so the need for adequate water management is greater. Growing populations in Western states also increase the need for water and better water management policy.

    Much of the legislation concerning surface water supplies in the Western U.S. is based on the Prior Appropriation Doctrine. This doctrine is based on the old miners' mentality of "first in time, first in rights," meaning that whoever owns the land and water supply first has the greatest rights. Landowners can control the flow of the river by diverting if they so choose, regardless whether it affects others. However, this can only be done if the party choosing to divert the river is of senior status compared to the complaining party. If the complaining party is of junior status, then there is nothing it can do about the other party diverting the water. The status was established in the order of who first acquired the land rights adjacent to the river. However, traditionally these rights were only guaranteed to those who used their water regularly and in a way that was considered beneficial.

    A current concern of Western water policy is the Colorado River. It provides water for over 25 million Americans and works its way through eight states until emptying into the Gulf of California in Mexico. It is also one of the most heavily diverted rivers in the country and during dry times is more like a stream than a powerful river. However, according to the US Water News, the Colorado River is listed as the most endangered river of 2004, suggesting the impacts this could potentially have on the millions of people who depend on the river.



    The East, Water Policy and Conflict

    "Water links us to our neighbor in a way more profound and complex than any other."--John Thorson


    Eastern water policy traditionally follows the path of the riparian doctrine. Because of the humid climate and annual rains, free-flowing rivers are an excellent resource. Landowners can use the rivers as they see fit, as long as they do not disturb the natural flow. Under this doctrine, domestic purposes are generally the only reason landowners can remove water from the rivers. Also, unlike in the doctrine of appropriation, diversion is not a primary way of managing the water.

    The climate of the Eastern U.S. is far different than that of the West, which implies a different attitude towards water resource management and in particular, the management of surface water. The much more humid East does not find itself in drought as often and comes to rely on the annual rainfall to replenish its water supply, making its attitude towards water management less stringent. "The riparian doctrine of water rights originated in lands with humid climates where precipitation easily supported agriculture and plentiful water supplies made conflicts between water users infrequent and ther legal tradition was based on English riparian use."

    Distribution of water policy doctrines in the U.S.


    The above map depicts water policy doctrines in the US. The states in green follow traditional the riparian doctrine; states in orange follow the traditional prior appropriation doctrine;blue states following a modified riparian doctrine, and the gray states integrate both policies. As shown, states on the eastern side of the country favor the riparian doctrine, while the western states primarily use the prior appropriation doctrine.


    Native Americans and

    U.S. water policy


    "We're looking to get the land back, and we want to restore it," says Klamath Tribes' vice-chairman, Joe Hibbs, commenting on the Klamath River Basin controversy in Oregon



    Under the Prior Appropriation Doctrine, it would seem that the West's first inhabitants would have the strongest claim to water, but in reality the Native American tribes have had to fight for their claims in federal court.

    Kib Jacobson, Native American Affairs Program Manager for the Upper Colorado region, writes in the piece, Native Americans and the Colorado River, "In the 1800s, many Western Indian tribes gave up most of their lands and agreed to settle on reservations set aside by the U.S. government as permanent homelands for the tribal people. Unfortunately, when the Indian reservations were established, Congress did not include provisions establishing Indian water rights for the reservations."

    Native Americans in the Colorado River watershed also face difficulty in the use and mangement of water supplies. Water policy along the Colorado River is based the prior appropriation doctrine so one would assume that since the Native Americans were there first, they would have the most appropriation rights. Jacobson notes that after a Supreme Court decision (Winters vs United States) Congress finally granted priority rights to water to Native Americans. This led Native Americans in the Colorado River watershed to take on a more central role in water policy and especially trying to gain a foothold in the the changing of the Glen Canyon Dam operations for better management of the river environment.

    Also in an effort to help tribes regain their water rights, the Department of Interior: Bureau of Reclamation, which concerns the construction and management of powerplants, dams and canals, has established a Native American Program. The federal government has a trust responsibility to the tribes, anelates to them in a government-to-government relationship.


    Water Policy overall

    "Water helped ancient man learn those first lessons about the rights of others and responsibility to a larger society.... It became part of the moral and mental legacy parents passed on to their children."
    M. Meyer, "Water in the Hispanic Southwest"

    Overall, U.S. water policy has been progressing in the direction of better water management. It is not yet perfected but with the attempt to integrate eastern adn western policies, and integrate the rights of Native Americans into these policies, it is an improvement upon the previous policies. With pressing concerns due to water contamination and population growth, water policy will continue to remain important issue in the years to come in U.S. policies.

    Water rights and responsiblity are certainly important lessons for U.S. water policy to learn and practice. If they don't, future changes and improvements to water policy will be difficult. However, there is hope yet that better policies and attitudes towards water management can and will develop in the future.



Bureau of Reclamation: Native American Program . http://www.usbr.gov/native/

Chehalis River Council. http://www.crcwater.org/

Cleanwater.gov: restoring America's watersheds http://www.cleanwater.gov/

Deason, Jonathan P., Theodore M. Schad, Georege William Sherk."Water Policy in the United States: A Perspective." Water Policy 3 (2001) 175-192.

Dravnieks Apple, Daina. "Evolution of U.S. Water Policy: Emphasis on the West. Women in Natural Resources 24.3, 2003-04. http://www.cnr.uidaho.edu/winr/applewater.htm

Environmental Protection Agency: www.epa.gov

Hamming, Edward. "Water Legislation." Economic Geography 34.1 (January 1958) 42-46.

Mono Lake Website http://www.monolake.org/waterpolicy/waterlinks.htm

US Water News http://www.uswaternews.com/archives/arcpolicy/arcpolicy.html

Water Quotes - Pausing to Think: http://www.gmd4.org/quotes.html