As water scarcity becomes a growing threat to global food security, falling groundwater levels have prompted farmers in a Nevada community to share resources despite laws that distribute water rights less equally.
“The prevailing system for allocating water in the western United States is known as prior appropriation,” said Philip Womble, a postdoctoral scholar at the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University. “This is a priority-based system where older, more senior water rights get their entire water allocation before newer, more junior water users get any water.”
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The agricultural water supply in Diamond Valley, Nevada relies heavily on irrigated groundwater. But regulators allocated 126,000 acre feet of rights to that groundwater where only 30,000 acre feet existed. The water consumption resulting from that error has caused groundwater levels to fall two feet per year for more than half a century, reports Inside Climate News.
With water levels declining, some farmers were faced with losing their water rights entirely, while those with more senior rights may not have been affected at all. In response, farmers in the community opted to share resources more equally to avoid state regulators cutting off supplies for at least half of the state’s farmers.
Negotiations to develop the approach took years and were heated at times. Some farmers with senior water rights are still not onboard with the plan.
“This basically overturns 155 years of Nevada water law that people have set themselves up economically,” said Carson City-based attorney David Rigdon, who represents Sadler Ranch and two other farms in a lawsuit opposing the groundwater plan. “They’ve made investments on the basis of this principle of prior appropriation.”
But the plan’s supporters say it not only supports sharing resources, but creates incentives for water conservation where the previous regulations did not, Inside Climate says. The new approach—which was given the go-ahead by the state in 2018—requires all irrigators in the area to reduce their water use, with cuts spread out over a 35-year period.
Despite the legal opposition from a few, the Nevada Supreme Court upheld the groundwater management plan in June, even though it has a significant impact on the state’s water distribution. “The plan “is a community-based solution to the long-term water shortages that befall Diamond Valley,” wrote Associate Chief Justice James Hardesty in the court’s majority decision.
Water scarcity is a growing threat to farmers beyond Nevada, with climate change increasing the frequency and severity of droughts at the same time that rising demand for water from growing populations limits access to clean water, groundwater, and sustainable irrigation. A new report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization says that because of these combined factors, water scarcity will be the biggest threat to food security in the next two decades, reports SciDevNet.
Offsetting this threat will require collaborative governance not only within communities, but between countries, say the report’s authors.
“We need to start asking questions like ‘what does governance for resilient food systems look like?’,” said Zia Mehrabi, lead author of the study and an assistant professor of environmental studies in the Mortenson Center in Global Engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder.
“This is an unpopular idea, but the reality is in the long-run everyone will benefit. We need policies that focus on building trust between actors within and between countries, trust that enables the big problems to be tackled in earnest.”