SEATTLE — Researchers believe climate change will impact the availability of water across the West, and when that happens conflicts among farmers, ranchers and other water users can only increase, an expert in water law predicts.
Janet Neuman, who practices water law with the Tonkon Torp law firm in Portland, said the historical and ongoing disputes around the Klamath River Basin are an example of how convoluted water issues can become.
“It’s a train wreck,” she said. “A social, political problem. A legal disaster.”
The different elements of a physical infrastructure — dams, reservoirs, ditches, pumps, pipes, wells and even snowpacks — fall under different authorities, whether federal, tribal, state or local, and each authority has its own priorities, like water supply, flood control or hydropower.
The legal infrastructure mirrors the physical. Each structure has a different statute and different legal operator.
“They’re interdependent, but not interwoven,” Neuman said.
Water use in the Western U.S. will become even more critical, because most of the country’s food supply now comes from west of the 100th meridian. West of that line, which bisects the Oklahoma Panhandle, most agriculture uses irrigation. East of it, most farming doesn’t need irrigation.
State water laws are commonly built around the prior appropriation doctrine: “First in time, first in right” and “Use it or lose it.”
To avoid future train wrecks, she said, “We have to get serious about water conservation and look at integrated, strategic water planning.”
Getting the most out of available water includes putting energy-generating turbines in whatever waterways are available, recharging aquifers and constructing more decentralized, off-channel facilities.
Paul Fleming, who leads the Seattle Public Utilities’ Climate Resiliency Program, said those investing in new facilities will need to envision the needs decades down the road and to consider the different conditions those assets will be exposed to.
Municipalities, for instance, must try to forecast the impact of rain on certain parts of the city when planning for combined sewer overflow. Also they must take into account parts of the city that would be affected by a rising sea level, another expected impact of climate change.
“Climate change is not the realm of wild-eyed radicals,” he said, “but cold-blooded business people.”
Fleming and Neuman were among the speakers at a recent climate change seminar presented by the University of Rhode Island’s Metcalf Institute and the Seattle Times.