Dividing the Waters

Water is a limited resource. It is also important that people live near or can access water. The west does not have as much rainfall as the east. The lack of rainfall means that states have to give water rights to each western state.

Water Rights

Even using dams and irrigation ditches, there wasn’t (and still isn’t!) enough water for everyone to use all they wanted. A complex system of water rights and laws determined who received water and how much. The first people to start using water from the stream had priority water rights. People who came to an area or started using water later had secondary water rights. This meant that these water users only received water if it was available. 

A flume to carry irrigation water near Ogden, Utah

People could get very upset if they thought someone was stealing their water. Sometimes people got into fights over water use.

Colorado River Compact

Disputes over water also broke out between states. After Congress passed the Federal Reclamation Act in 1902 and began building big dams in the West, Utah and other western states wanted to secure their “share” of water in the region–especially water in the Colorado River Basin. They wanted to store water and divert it for agricultural and urban uses.

The seven states that used water from the Colorado River–Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona and California–worked out an agreement for water sharing. It was called the Colorado River Compact and the states signed it in 1922. In 1948, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona signed an additional Upper Basin Compact.

Water Debates Will Continue

In prehistoric times, Utah was a wetter place. But it’s probably going to be a desert for a long time to come. And as long as the West remains dry, people will always argue over water.

A big controversy right now is whether to pipe water from Lake Powell to Washington County so that area can have more people, houses, golf courses, lawns, industries, and businesses.

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