IWRA Proceedings

< Return to abstract list

Agriculture-urban Water Transfers: Will Scarce Water Resources Reshape Agricultural Production?reshaping The Western United States, From Ag To Urban During The Drought

World Water Congress 2015 Edinburgh Scotland
9. Water allocation among competing uses and users
Author(s): Therese Ure (Reno
Laura Schroeder

Schroeder Law Offices P.C.1

Keyword(s): Sub-theme 9: Water allocation among competing uses and users,


Reshaping the Western United States, from Ag to Urban During the Drought


In 2014, the drought facing the western United States continued causing several impacts to water users. One of the largest irrigation districts in the United States, California's Imperial Irrigation District, faced this problem head on by negotiating contracts with its agricultural producers to fallow certain fields, thus leaving water available for other urban uses. In Nevada, movement to take water from agriculture and restructure river systems modifying federal decrees was seen through federal litigation and modification of delivery contracts. Likewise, cities like Las Vegas continued their fight against rural Nevada's agriculture producers towards installation of a major pipeline to bring drinking water to Las Vegas' demands.

This abstract and paper will focus on an analysis of these three approaches used in the Western United States, all moving water out of agriculture production in favor of urban uses. Each of these examples take different approaches and their effects on the food and fiber industries are likewise different.

Methods & Discussion

Southern California:

Imperial Irrigation District located on the California-Mexico border is one of the largest irrigation districts in the United States with approximately 424,000 acres of land in agricultural production. The District holds the oldest water rights along the Colorado River. These rights are governed in part by the Colorado River Compact which allocates water between seven states and Mexico.

Like other areas in the west, the District continues to face impacts of water transfers out of its basin moving water from agriculture to urban use. The unique location of the District allows a year-around irrigation season with the ability to continuously grow both vegetable and forage crops. Through settlement negotiations with the United States, State of California and California's urban water utility entities, in 2003 Imperial developed a fallowing program with its farmers. In 2014, 12,970 acres were placed into the fallowing program resulting in a savings of over 69,000 acre-feet of water at the river. Through this fallowing moving into a conservation program, the District's water allocation from the Colorado River can remain whole while water can be used for mitigation and the urban areas across the mountains to the San Diego area. Both the fallow and conservation programs are voluntary even though the District has made contractual obligations to deliver a certain volume.

Northern Nevada:

In the last few decades the natural population growth in Nevada has forced a move from servicing the demands of agriculture water use to urban water use. One of the first federal agriculture reclamation projects to entice people in the United States to move out west, was the Newlands Project. This century old project is facing severe water shortages as those in urban areas ask the federal courts to change water law and move water away from the project for use in the urban areas.

In September of 2008, the United States, Pyramid Lake Paiute Indian Tribe, State of Nevada, and the municipal water purveyors in the areas surrounding the City of Reno executed the 2008 Truckee River Operating Agreement ("TROA") without the inclusion of the Newlands Project water users. In order to implement TROA, a federal court water decree, must be re-opened and modified. TROA changes the focus of water rights from ag to urban in an attempt to provide more water to meet demands the greater Reno metropolitan areas, potentially to the detriment of the agriculturist.

Under this example, settlement without all interested parties ensued court litigation to move water away from the farmer and rancher. The farmers and ranchers in the project produce hay for livestock production (both beef and dairy), milk (for local dairies and dry milk to export to other countries), fruit including the Hearts of Gold cantaloupe, and wine grapes among other things. Using litigation to move water has not only stunted growth to the local economy by reducing water availability, several families are moving away from this area that will only see additional water shortages in the future according to Environmental Impact Studies.

Las Vegas:

In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the Las Vegas metropolitan area saw exponential urban growth. This growth prompted the formation of the Southern Nevada Water Authority ("SNWA") in 1991 to address the unique water issues in the desert climate. Among other things, SNWA forecasted the need for additional secure water sources and thus began looking at groundwater development to the areas north of the urban population. Specifically, four ground water basins were targeted and SNWA began purchasing water rights of use from agriculture producers as well as filing new applications for permits under the state's system.

Here, SNWA attempted the cooperative approach to purchasing water or seeking water that was otherwise available. Unfortunately, moving groundwater across several basins requires the installation of a 306 mile pipeline that crosses state, public, and federal lands. SNWA's applications for permits as well as rights-of-way applications sparked an unrest in the communities along the pipelines causing several protests and conflicts. Here, while SNWA attempted to avoid litigation, like in the example above, it became unavoidable.


A clear and present movement exists in the Western United States to move water out of agriculture to urban and municipal uses. A definite impact is occurring on food and fiber production, however, at what point will we prioritize agriculture to ensure sustainable food production without increase reliance on imports. Cooperation and rotation must be considered in lieu of spending resources in court and litigation.

IWRA Proceedings office@iwra.org - https://www.iwra.org/member/index.php