Building the World

WATER: Rivers and Rights


Colorado River, Horseshoe Bend in Arizona,” by photographer Charles Wang, 2023. Creative Commons 4.0. Included with appreciation.

Colorado River Basin states are working together to agree upon water use and rights. Source of drinking water for 40 million people (7 U.S. states, Mexico, and 30 Tribes of original Americans), the Colorado River has recently seen lower levels of water. Drought has plagued the area, with prospects for recharge by melting seasonal snowpack now questioned by warming related to climate change.

Upper and Lower Colorado River Basin states supplied by Colorado River. Mexico, and 30 Tribes are also participants in the Compact. Courtesy of U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, 2012. Public Domain: CC0. Included with appreciation.

In 2026, present agreements on water allocation among stakeholders will expire. Rather than wait for political change, Colorado River Compact states are drafting their own new regulations. Working with the Bureau of Reclamation, agency in charge of administering the Compact, states will submit their draft plan by March 2024.

Lawns may soon get a “thumbs down” as watering non-functional turf laws take effect to conserve water. Image: “Lawn Doctor” by Lawn Doctor, Inc. CC4.0. Included with appreciation.

Water use restrictions are expected. Water recycling will be important: many communities are developing systems for reuse. Southern Nevada Water Authority announced that water may not be used on “non-functional turf’ – that means lawns. It was the first permanent regulation on lawns and grass: the new law will take effect in January 2027.

Whanganui River of New Zealand was granted legal personhood rights. Will other rivers follow suit? Image: “Whanganui River” by photographer Felix Engelhardt, 2009. Creative Commons 2.0. Included with appreciation.

Another option? Legal personhood for important bodies of water. In New Zealand, the Whanganui River was granted legal personhood. In India, the Ganges, of sacred importance, and the Yamuna, River of the Taj Mahal, applied for legal personhood status. In the United States, the City of Toledo, Ohio sought legal rights status for Toledo’s Lake Erie harbor. Could the Colorado River seek such rights, protecting and securing its ability to recharge and renew?

Water laws have progressed through three stages. Image: 123 numbers gif. Public Domain, CC0. Included with appreciation.

In the past century, water laws have progressed through three stages. Early laws established rights to use water. Next, with environmental awareness, laws addressed rights of water itself to health, renewal, and sustainability. Now, with climate change, laws have begun to concern access in times of drought and water scarcity.

How will climate change affect water agreements, regulations, and treaties? Image: “Judge’s Gavel” by photographer Chris Potter, 2012. Creative Commons 2.0. Included with appreciation.

Interested in the evolution of water laws? Explore this database of global water laws.

Eckstein, Gabriel, et al., “Conferring legal personality on the world’s rivers: A brief intellectual assessment.” 2019, Water International, 44: 6-7, 804-829. DOI: 10.1080/02508060.2019.1631558

Eckstein, Gabriel. “Buried Treasure or Buried Hope?” The Status of Mexico-US Transboundary Aquifers under International Law.” International Community Law Review 13 (2011): 273-290.

Estado Plurinacional de Bolivia. “Ley de Derechos de La Madre Tierra.”

Flavelle, Christoper. “Colorado River States are Racing to Agree on Cuts Before Inauguration Day.” 6 January 2024. The New York Times.

Permanent Forum of Binational Waters/Foro Permanente de Aguas Binacionales.

Ramirez, Rachel, with Drew Kann. “First-ever water cuts declared for Colorado River in historic drought.” 16 August 2021.

Sankarasubramanian, A., Upmanu Lall, Naresh Devineni, and Susan Espinueva. “The role of monthly updated climate forecasts in improving intraseasonal water allocation.” Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology, Volume 48, Issue 7, 1464-1482, 2009.

Stone, Christoper D. “Should Trees Have Standing? – Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects.” Southern California Law Review, 45 (1972): 450-501.

Water Laws Global Database. Renewing the World.

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