Drought in the USA: Why the next civil war will be about water
Digital Collage Artist:
Dana Fortune
Droughts and contests over water rights and water access are pitting states on the west coast against each other. Leaders need to start cooperating before grievances ignite a more serious battle.
Richard Keller

In January 2022, Colorado Governor Jared Polis said his state would aggressively assert its water rights. A few weeks later, Governor Pete Ricketts of neighbouring Nebraska introduced a $500 million plan to harness water from the South Platte River Basin. As this progresses, Mexico is trying to recover much-needed water that the country lost when the U.S. dammed the Colorado River at the border between the two countries. Meanwhile, Nevada is attempting to find ways to replenish Lake Mead to provide water and power to a drought-ravaged area that spans into California.

Moves like these will become more familiar in the coming century, as more droughts induced by the climate crisis will see states running short on water resources. In the west of the United States, continuing La Niña conditions are driving droughts. Writing in The Conversation, Imtiaz Rangwala describes how the Southwest’s 20-year drought is the most severe for 1,200 years

The implications of this are serious. But what does the battle over this precious resource mean for the rest of the United States? While some people believe that gun control or racism could spark the next civil war, in reality, it will come down to clashes over water rights and water access, and who owns and controls each.

Despite their legal backing, these documents could be the fuse for a civil war, as parties across the West regularly dispute their accuracy.

Water rights are a centuries-old set of laws that allow residential and commercial sectors to use surface, ground, or other water resources. Each Western state has its own set of rights established as far back as its admittance to the Union and in many cases states share a water source. For instance, the Platte River flows through Wyoming, Nebraska, and Colorado, while the Colorado River winds down from the Rockies to Mexico.

Parties with official recognition of rights receive “paper water”, documents which essentially say how much water a state can legally use. Despite their legal backing, these documents could be the fuse for a civil war, as parties across the West regularly dispute their accuracy. The issue isn’t new for an area that uses 80% of the country’s water

Control and distribution matters go back to when the Spanish colonized the area. They found ways to distribute water sources to towns for navigation, fishing, and drinking. However, the Spanish Crown would also often rule there in favour of businesses instead of civilians when it came to allocation.

When the British colonized the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S,, they maintained the Crown’s long-standing riparian doctrine. People whose land bordered a body of water had the right to use it. Since there were ample water sources for residents and industrial areas, there was no reason to strengthen or update the rules. 

The situation shifted significantly with the 1841 discovery of gold in California. The lack of federal control in the area allowed prospectors to claim rights to waterways without official approval. Eventually, California’s legislature enacted the law of prior appropriation in 1851. In other words, the first person to take water from a source for beneficial use had the right to continue that use. The state’s Supreme Court validated the law in 1855 to establish the West’s first prior-appropriation doctrine.

This government policy in particular is the focus of continuing frustration and tension in the region. Some argue that prior appropriation contains biases toward water uses that differ drastically from the population’s needs. Others feel large transactions under the doctrine strain market regulations and don’t factor in the loss of supply and jobs.

Snow droughts today, caused by atmospheric heating, cause more rain to fall earlier in the year, and in turn more water is lost from the soil to evaporation, as land is turning green much sooner.

The effect on the West’s Native Americans is also a factor. Many tribes consider prior appropriations by state governments an encroachment on their lands. Although the Winters Doctrine requests Congress provide adequate water supplies to reservations, continuing drought conditions put that law into question.

Everything is in play now because the water in the West isn’t constant like land. In years of heavy snow and rain, water is abundant, and prior appropriation guidelines remain the same.

But dry, hot summers and below-average rainfall during winter affects water usage for all interested parties. Snow droughts today, caused by atmospheric heating, cause more rain to fall earlier in the year, and in turn more water is lost from the soil to evaporation, as land is turning green much sooner. During severe drought, state and federal governments reconsider established doctrines to allocate water to communities that need it. 

These situations aren’t new in the history of America’s West. Those who settled in what was to be Utah, Colorado, Nevada, and California knew about their semi-arid environment. Thus, they prepared as best they could for times without water. 

However, western population growth has changed these dynamics. According to the 2020 U.S. Census, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, and Nevada saw double-digit population growth over the past few decades. In turn, communities and industries require large amounts of water in dry areas.

But the most urgent concern is the climate crisis, which has caused regular droughts in the region. A recent report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture reveals that more than 20% of the western U.S. is experiencing extreme or exceptional drought. Conditions in the summer of 2021 exceeded previous situations going back to 2000. Unfortunately, hot and dry conditions could continue throughout 2022.

These adverse conditions should precipitate the region’s leaders to join together and formulate a plan to allocate available water. However, several are steeling themselves for a fight over the water that is left. Recent actions by Nebraska’s Governor Ricketts show how states can escalate these disputes.

Ricketts fired a warning shot across Colorado’s bow this past February over the Platte River Basin. While he touted his state’s efforts to prepare for drier conditions, he claimed its neighbour was trying to void the terms of the 1926’s South Platte River Compact. He said that Colorado is “acting as if Nebraska’s non-irrigation season water rights under the compact don’t exist.”

More than 20% of the western U.S. is experiencing extreme or exceptional drought.

As a result, the governor introduced a multimillion dollar project to build a canal on the South Platte to conserve Colorado’s legal water rights. According to Ricketts, the compact even permits them to perform construction on land owned by Colorado. The statement stuck in the craw of Colorado legislators.

During Colorado’s 2022 session, a bipartisan group of the state’s senators and representatives introduced a bill to stake a claim to their share of the Platte. Its purpose was to “prioritize water storage in the South Platte river basin in choosing projects to finance with money from the Colorado water conservation board construction fund.” Although postponed, it revealed an escalation in tensions between the states.

Colorado isn’t the only western area dealing with strife from a neighbouring state. In 2021, similar tension arose between California and Oregon along the Klamath River Basin, due in part to the actions of federal officials.

To minimize the loss of the wild salmon population in that area, the U.S. government cut off water rights and supplies of the Klamath to nearby agricultural areas. The decision not only angered farmers and anti-government protectors in the area. It also invited the question of what else could or would the government do to the river? 

For instance, the region’s Indigenous tribes have prior appropriation claims to the Klamath that are older than any state or U.S. law. Additionally, municipalities and utilities are also asking for their share of use in California and Oregon. 

If drought conditions don’t let up, it could be a key ingredient in future unrest, as it was in Syria. (You can read more about this in a piece from Sliced’s War and Conflict issue: How Syria’s Kurdish rebels started an ecological revolution on liberated land.)

The Middle Eastern country faced severe drought between 2006 and 2010 and 60% of its land became too dry to farm. Thousands of agricultural workers, mostly young men, became unemployed, and often migrated to urban areas in search of work. In 2011, inspired by neighbouring countries’ revolts during the Arab Spring, protests spread across the country and were severely repressed by the Syrian government. The state tortured teenagers to death and killed scores of protesters across the country: this horrific civil repression would escalate into a war that is now more than a decade old and has killed hundreds of thousands of people.

While the western states are at little risk of such a rapid and brutal armed escalation, conflicts over water rights and dwindling water resources could be the starting point for a nationwide dispute, if those affected by drought begin to leave western states.

If current studies are correct, the West’s megadrought could last years or centuries. 

People relocating to more fertile areas of the country could place further strain on their new state’s water resources. As water is diverted away from industry and agriculture into municipalities, business leaders and farmers will raise protests. If the state or federal government doesn’t act, these protests could get louder and more violent. 

Should the government decide to divert water from another state, border rights and prior appropriation come into question. Then, like Nebraska’s Ricketts, it might dam up a portion of the water to protect it for its citizens. This continuing escalation eventually leads to some form of strife as water resources diminish.

State and federal governments have to do more to conserve water as the climate shifts. If current studies are correct, the West’s megadrought could last years or centuries. 

Desalination plants are a start. So is the storage of a small percentage of agricultural water for back-up. However, states have a lot to do to prepare the West for its coming transformation. But, it seems that federal and state governments are finally starting to address this dire situation.

In April 2022, thanks to an agreement between the U.S., Mexico, and environmental groups,  water began to flow from an irrigation canal along the Colorado River. In turn, formerly parched areas along the border are seeing small but measurable changes in their ecosystem.

Simultaneously, federal officials have called on seven Western states to commit to the conservation of two million to four million acre-feet of water by the end of August 2022. The goal is to save Lake Powell and Lake Mead from falling to critically low levels. 

In the end, continued cooperation will help save the West from total devastation and the potential for conflict. If not, it could affect the entire country.

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