Water scarcity in the American West: Unauthorized water use and the new future of water accountability (Castellano, 2020)

Denielle Perry

HDCastellano, I.M. 2020. Water scarcity in the American West: Unauthorized water use and the new future of water accountability. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 978-3-030-23152-1 (softcover), 212 p., 51,99 €.

(URL: https://www.palgrave.com/gp/book/9783030231491)

Denielle Perry

Assistant Professor and Director Free-flowing Rivers Lab, School of Earth and Sustainability, Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff; denielle.perry@nau.edu

To cite this Introduction: Perry, D. 2020. Review of "Water scarcity in the American West: Unauthorized water use and the new future of water accountability", Palgrave Macmillan, 2020, by D. Perry, Water Alternatives, http://www.water-alternatives.org/index.php/boh/item/172-scarcity


The premise of this text is that climate change and population growth in the American West will force decision-makers to consider “the possibility of the impossible” (p.179) when combating illegal water acquisitions in this arid region. Isaac Castellano draws on the neo-Malthusian work of Homer-Dixon (1999) through the lens of environmental security to illustrate the slippery slope between scarcity and increasing conflict. With a focus on accountability, he addresses the capacity, or lack thereof, for water managers to protect water rights as scarcity intensifies. If institutions are weak, he argues, scarcity can serve as a “threat multiplier” sparking violent conflicts across scales (Hough 2014). Castellano offers, however, that politically mobilized stakeholders can curtail conflict by creating regulatory systems to provide needed accountability. Through theoretical and empirical investigation, he reveals causes and consequences of institutional inadequacies and possible solutions to accounting for unauthorized water use, and in so doing addresses a lacuna in the literature on the enforcement of water rights.

Introducing ways people steal water, Castellano sets the stage for examining how states regulate water and how they often fail to account for unauthorized use (Chapter 1). He then explains the complicated nature of water rights (Chapter 2) and use (Chapter 3) in the American West. Here, unlike in riparian systems, water rights are dictated by the Doctrine of Prior Appropriation. This law is predicated on seniority rule, a reality reflected in its colloquial name, “first in time first in right.” Castellano emphasizes a poignant reality in the landscape of western water governance–many water sources are already fully or over-appropriated. Depending on where an owner is situated on the timeline of rights, Prior Appropriation can lend to waste or shortage as this policy emphasizes “use it or lose it” for the intended beneficial use. This antiquated mandate is problematic as water is often not allocated to the most beneficial use. Instream flows for fish habitat, for example, may be the best use but instead water is often earmarked to produce alfalfa livestock feed. Castellano suggests crop changes and reduced beef production could alleviate pressures on dwindling water resources while ensuring the vitality of aquatic species, a notion echoed by Richter et al. (2020).  While some small-scale crop change has occurred in the region, they are slow changes that require much advocacy. Any large-scale conversion would require more directed structural change, a challenging undertaking this monograph does not detail.

In the West, agriculture is the principal water use driver, followed by industry and municipalities. Castellano highlights how regional water storage and distribution infrastructure is not designed for climate induced snowpack declines and increasing winter rains. Water supplies available to meet irrigation and energy demands will decrease, he argues, while droughts and populations increase, compounding demands. As access to surface water dwindles whether by regulation or drought, groundwater has become a stopgap solution to scarcity. However, Castellano rightfully signals, groundwater is no panacea to scarcity problems as aquifer recharge rates fail to match withdrawals in some cases and in others, deep aquifer fossil water is in finite supply. Moreover, ground-surface water interactions complicate surface water scarcity through intensifying groundwater withdrawals (Swanson et al., 2020). As junior water rights holders are hindered in times of shortage, scarcity situations elicit unauthorized uses. According to Castellano, unauthorized water users fall into two broad categories, those who do not know they are breaking laws, and those who do –and repeatedly do so. Regardless, from tanker trucks blatantly siphoning water from fire hydrants to virtually undetectable pumping of unregulated well water to unsanctioned diversions into irrigation canals, unauthorized water use in the West is real.

While all states have some mechanism for recording complaints, Castellano shows, the mere act can deter people from doing so. Filing a report can be a multi-step process requiring time, motivation, and unavailable technology. Meanwhile, even if filed, fiscal policies may undermine capacity to address complaints. For instance, state budget cuts can reduce the human resources necessary for investigations. In rural communities, complaints may result in retribution while lack of metering technology makes proving theft uncertain. In some cases, complaints are handled locally and never reported, curtailing the state’s ability to account for the theft. Against that backdrop and focusing on the next 50 years, Castellano next illuminate how states, interest groups, and the federal government may deal with scarcity issues and address unauthorized uses.

Castellano presents his theoretical argument that water accountability stems from adaptive capacity and the threat of securitization (Chapter 4). In the US federal system, water allocation and distribution decision-making are largely devolved to states, a power reluctantly and rarely relinquished. As such, states may take accountability challenges on proactively in attempts to keep federal entities out of water matters. Adaptive capacity enters the equation when actor interactions across scales influence agencies to protect water rights. From permitting, metering, and collaborative agreements to education initiatives and compacts, states have policy solutions available to contend with water theft while providing some positive externalities. Metering, for instance, is one technical solution that can reduce unauthorized usage and help identify infrastructure leaks.

Whatever policy solutions used, Castellano contends states must act as climate change and population growth bring uncertainty to entrenched practices and the hydrologic cycle. Yet, he exposes the problematic landscape of accountability capacity variations from one state to the next. Through empirical data analysis (Chapter 5) he finds a major challenge for accountability capacity is the outright lack of data, data access, and/or details within data to make appropriate decisions. He suggests funding data collection, publishing annual water theft reports, and developing groundwater management plans can facilitate accountability, thereby reducing unauthorized uses. Through a case study in Idaho, Castellano demonstrates how interest groups responded to groundwater scarcity through adaptation interactions that pushed the state to create a new water district. The new governance structure ensures senior water rights while providing a market mechanism to transfer rights. Here rights could be transferred to the highest bidder, but in other cases rights might be transferred to instream flows for species habitat and water quality needs.

Other possibilities (Chapter 6) include implementing or increasing penalties, improving record-keeping, expanding budgets to support investigations, and educating on user rights and responsibilities. Food security and food costs, Castellano suggests, may drive federally mandated change through Farm Bill amendments further requiring conservation technologies or accounting for drought. Building or augmenting infrastructure to increase surface water storage is an option both federal and state governments are already investigating (Perry & Praskievicz, 2017). Castellano notes these projects come with a hefty price and strong opposition due to potential environmental, and I add, social concerns. Expanding beyond the low-hanging fruit, Castellano posits that beneficial use could be redefined during crises to channel water from low nutritional value or high-water consumption crops to less thirsty, healthier crops. In the same vein, export bans and regulations on crop choice may prove effective. Such a change, however, would likely come with opposition due to the implications for free-market economics. The most radical option Castellano presents is ending Prior Appropriation in exchange for a centralized water rights system, though no clear road map for such a change exists. Notably, Castellano emphasizes that failing to act will undoubtedly spur increasing unauthorized uses that incite conflicts from the local to national scale. Juxtaposing this scenario with a more hopeful outlook, Castellano suggests scarcity may yield coalitions of interest groups seemingly at odds such as conservationists and senior water rights holders in what Hillis et al. (2020) call an unlikely alliance in resource management.  

In this text the reader is called upon to consider the “possibility of the impossible” regarding changes in Western water governance that could curb unauthorized uses. This is an apt request considering the complex political and economic processes that affect the way water is allocated, distributed, and used in the West, though the text does not take on these points in depth. Further, one may wonder if Castellano missed opportunities here to present even more radical solutions such as a degrowth agenda (Stuart, Gunderson, & Petersen, 2020) and national public awareness campaigns about water and beef consumption. Despite increased accountability, efficiency and conservation alone are not enough. Ultimately, without curbing unchecked production and demand, water scarcity concerns will never cease as long as populations grow and the climate remains unstable.


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Grafton, R. Q., Williams, J., Perry, C. J., Molle, F., Ringler, C., Steduto, P., … Allen, R. G. (2018). The paradox of irrigation efficiency. Science, 361(6404), 748–750. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aat9314

Homer-Dixon, T. (1999). Environment, Scarcity, and Violence. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. doi:10.2307/j.ctt7pgg0

Hough, Peter. 2014. Environmental security: An Introduction. New York: Routledge.

Perry, D. M., & Praskievicz, S. J. (2017). A New Era of big Infrastructure? (Re) developing water storage in the U.S. West in the context of climate change and environmental regulation. Water Alternatives, 10(2), 437–454. http://www.water-alternatives.org/index.php/alldoc/articles/vol10/v10issue2/363-a10-2-13/file

Richter, B. D., Bartak, D., Caldwell, P., Davis, K. F., Debaere, P., Hoekstra, A. Y., … Troy, T. J. (2020). Water scarcity and fish imperilment driven by beef production. Nature Sustainability. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-020-0483-z

Stuart, D. Gunderson, R., & Petersen, B. (2020). The degrowth alternative: A path to address our environmental crisis? New York: Routledge.

Swanson, R., Springer, A., Kreamer, D. Tobin, B., Perry. D. (2020). Quantifying the base flow of the Colorado River: its importance in sustaining perennial flow in northern Arizona and southern Utah. Hydrogeology Journal.



Additional Info

  • Authors: Isaac M. Castellano
  • Year of publication: 2020
  • Publisher: Palgrave-MacMillan
  • Reviewer: Denielle Perry
  • Subject: Water policy, Water politics, Irrigation, Water rights, Water allocation, Climate change
  • Type: Introduction
  • Language: English