Academic journal article UCLA Journal of Environmental Law & Policy

Water Transfers: The Case against Transbasin Diversions in the Eastern States

Academic journal article UCLA Journal of Environmental Law & Policy

Water Transfers: The Case against Transbasin Diversions in the Eastern States

Article excerpt


Water policy in the western states consistently has embraced a nineteenth century, supply-side mentality, requiring cities and other water providers to satisfy an ever-growing demand for water at virtually any cost. As a result, the western states rely upon thousands of engineered water transfers--even siphoning water from one side of mountain ranges to the other--in an unsustainable attempt to support growth. This article challenges the conventional reliance upon transbasin diversions as a response to shortage. It argues that importing water from distant watersheds lulls growing communities into a false sense of security, subsidizes unsustainable growth, and exacts significant social, economic, and environmental costs. Although this article recognizes the infeasibility of reducing western reliance upon existing large-scale transfers, it offers an alternative paradigm for the eastern states, as many of them begin to face the limits of existing water supplies. This article argues that communities could achieve water independence by shifting to a demand-side model and by nourishing the living rivers essential to both human and natural ecosystems.


     A. Transbasin Diversions Defined
     B. Water Markets Compared
     C. Bottled Water Compared

     A. The Human Drama
     B. The Myth of "New" Water
     C. Feeding an Addiction
     D. Winners and Losers
     E. Deconstructing Watersheds

     A. Changing the Default Presumption
     B. Living Within Our Means
     C. Nourishing Living Rivers




"[A watershed] is that area of land, a bounded hydrologic system, within which all living things are inextricably linked by their common water course and where, as humans settled, simple logic demanded that they become part of a community."

John Wesley Powell (1)

For more than a century, the default presumption among American planners has been to bring water to the people, wherever the people decide to build their cities or cultivate their farms. Ignoring the advice of John Wesley Powell, water suppliers have relied heavily upon transbasin diversions, pumping or siphoning water from its natural source for use in distant watersheds. When some of the nation's most arid cities such as Los Angeles and Denver experienced explosive growth, they welcomed their ever-expanding populations with "new" water wrestled from rural communities on the other side of the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountain ranges, respectively. According to one journalist, California has engineered a water infrastructure so complex that it resembles something that "might have been invented by a Soviet bureaucrat on an LSD trip." (2)

Transbasin diversions are ubiquitous, perhaps surprisingly so to the casual observer. There are literally thousands of transbasin diversions in the United States. (3) Although more numerous in the western states, (4) transbasin diversions also occur in the east. New York City, for example, relies upon pristine, upstate sources for its water supply, collecting water from a 1,972 mile watershed spanning eight counties in New York and one in Connecticut. (5) Although eastern riparian doctrines such as the "watershed rule" purport to forbid the separation of land and water, (6) those rules are riddled with exceptions, particularly in the case of securing urban water supplies. (7)

Despite heroic efforts, many American cities have not secured reliable water supplies, and continue to seek more water. (8) Increasingly, cities have turned their thirsty sights toward agriculture, transferring water rights from irrigation to urban uses. (9) But this may not be enough. From a global perspective, water shortage is not simply a problem that happens somewhere else. …

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