Debate flares over water rights in face of river's shrinking supply
YUMA, Ariz. — The Colorado River begins in the Rocky Mountains and ends in Mexico. It carries water to farms and cities in seven Western states. It helps to grow most of the greens Americans eat in the winter.
The government manages the water in the river. It has built canals to water farms and dams to make electricity since the early 1900s. The river's example shows how tough it is to meet the need for water in the Southwest. Now, a drought has made clear that people in the area cannot keep depending on one river for their water.
Almost 40 million people get their water from the Colorado River. The population could double in the next 50 years, but there has not been enough rain or snow for 16 years. Government officials say soon, they will have to cut back the water supply.
River Serves Many Needs, People
Few rivers work as hard as the Colorado. It takes water to ranches in Colorado and cities like Denver. Las Vegas and other parts of Nevada get nine-tenths of their water from the river. The Hoover Dam turns its flow into electricity.
Arizona would suffer the worst if the water is cut back. Cities in that state, like Phoenix, will have to limit how many new buildings can go up. The farmers in Yuma may not suffer, because the water rules are in their favor.
The drought has opened a debate about how Arizona shares water with six other states. California would not face any immediate cutbacks because it made a deal with Arizona in 1968. The deal means much of Arizona would take steep cuts in water, but not Yuma. Farms in Yuma have the oldest water rights in Arizona. Their special deal gives them the right to more water than Phoenix and Tucson.
Yuma Farmers Fear Future Of Water Rights
All the talk rattles the farmers in Yuma. They know they have rights to the water, but not the power to get state leaders to defend them. The farmers feel they have a target on their backs, and they are right, said Tom Buschatzke. He is the state official in charge of Arizona's water.
The farmers say they will not go quietly. Their families were here before the big cities of the Southwest were built. Mark Smith farms about 500 acres in Yuma. He said the farmers have a legal right to the water from the river.
The water shortage has no easy fix, Smith said. Still, it is important to protect the water, because the farmers grow greens for the whole country, he said.
All sides know they have to work together. Farmers in Yuma say they have cut their water use. The farmers also say cities have been allowed to grow without worrying about how much water they use.
Is The Answer Growing Fewer Crops?
The farmers are doing many things right, said Robert Glennon, a law professor. He warned that they may not have control over what happens. Glennon thinks the farmers should grow fewer crops so they can sell part of their water rights to cities.
Edward C. Cuming arrived in Yuma in 1902. He farmed 160 acres with water from the river. The government improved the canals across Yuma during the 1930s. One canal is called the Cuming Canal. The canal still runs directly in front of fields now owned by Edward Cuming’s grandson, Jim Cuming.
Cuming said farmers were thought of as good guys when there was plenty of water. Now they are called villains because they use too much water to grow fruit and vegetables for the whole country, he said.