02/14/2014 03:38 pm ET Updated Apr 16, 2014

Water Shock: Design Flaws in the American West

The headlines are already accumulating for the looming water crunch in the West but this is not a single year crisis to simply muddle through; this is a design flaw made long ago that guaranteed problems for Western water in a world of permanent scarcity.

California Governor Jerry Brown called it early this year and declared drought on January 17, 2014. Not because he can forecast rainfall months in advance so much as he can read a measuring stick now. In the 17 states west of the column running from the Dakotas to Texas, we get our water from snowpack in the winter month which melts as the year progresses rather than as precipitation spread throughout the year--so we watch that metric closely. East of the same column, states receive on average 20+ inches of precipitation throughout the year; out West we get way less--maybe 4 inches. Therefore a light snow year--like now where we have in some watersheds only 15 percent of normal snowpack--means we're in for it.

That north-south line, known as the "100th Meridian" by map junkies, holds historic importance for how we settled the American West. And it helps explain why we have more square states out West and more squiggly ones out East.

When the Anglos came to America, they drew lines on the map just as they had for centuries in the King's England. Known as a system of metes & bounds, it was very tied to the land. A surveyor would "start at the large boulder, then follow the stream meander for a quarter mile, then run north by northwest to the forest edge" and so on, and properties followed natural contours. You can look at national and local maps to see the resulting squiggliness. Water on those lands worked under the rule of riparianism, which basically said a landowner had the right to use and enjoy water as it crosses their property, but it must be delivered to the next property in the same quality as it came onto his own.

But in order to settle the West in a hurry, that didn't work.

In 1869, a one-armed Civil War vet, John Wesley Powell, set off down the Colorado River to explore one of the last blank spots on the map. He and his small group of merry men did so and dutifully reported back to Congress that the landscape was dry and should be surveyed before settling the land. Further, he thought political boundaries should be drawn by watershed and managed as quasi-commonwealths to properly manage the finite natural resources within a water 'budget' across all uses. Otherwise, he asserted we would ultimately divert all the water from the streams in an unbridled race to put it to use. His idea was right, but his timing was horrible. His expedition had started two decades after discovering gold in California and two weeks before they connected the transcontinental railroad in Utah. Manifest Destiny was in full effect and America wasn't slowing for anything. Congress effectively laid the map on the table and split it up into squares. Though we'd used this township, section, range method of surveying before in impenetrable places like the swamps of Florida, and we'd begun to survey the country's lands since the 1780s, we had never applied the lines across such a broad landscape sight unseen. The scale of that disregard largely ensured water shortages for the Western states at some point future.

In service to our national ambitions, water law was rejiggered accordingly to settle the lands. We traded the 'use it, but care for it' rules of riparianism to 'take it and put it to use' rules of prior appropriation. The rules allowed water to be taken from the stream and used for mining and irrigation for grazing and farming in the dry lands, regardless of whether it would ever be returned to the stream. Much of it never did. These practices remain to this day, leading to the majority of Western stream miles being dewatered each year, drought or not.

We'll have a bad water year this year, no doubt. But the fault lines to our core problems are less weather-related than the handed-down rules drawn up more than a quarter century before the first New York to San Francisco phone call. And the truth is that until we reorganize around the reality permanent scarcity, our will be unable to secure anything that looks like prosperity.

Too bad our fears preclude real action.

The geophysical landscape is changing. We are seeing the dry months come sooner and stay longer each decade, and this trend will continue to create more and more severe stress on our waters. Disappointing to me is how we have lost our appetite to adapt. At a time when we need it most in issues most central to our survival and prosperity, pioneers we are no longer.