The first thing we do, let’s kill all the water lawyers…

Let me preface this by saying I am fond of lawyers. We kid because we love! Please don’t sue!

I had a bright light epiphany yesterday when talking to a smart water policy friend who works both in the United States and internationally. He was hosting a group of Australians here learning about Colorado River management who observed thus. To paraphrase: “Y’all sure have a lot of lawyers involved.”

I spend a lot of time reading and talking to water lawyers. I am fascinated by water lawyers, and like some of them. (I kid! I love you all!) But it occurred to me that there is no other political or policy domain I work in that is as dominated by lawyers as western water.

Why is that?


  1. Some of my best friends are lawyers, including my wife. When she was in UNM’s law school, I wore a t-shirt with that quote — it was a big hit. One lawyer informed me that the context of that quote is, in effect, what to do after taking power to keep that power. // “no other political or policy domain I work in” — are you sure? Lawyers are everywhere in government, and I’m glad. I’ll take a lawyer over a non-law-pol any day. They study reasoning.

  2. It’s our prior appropriation system with its system of water rights and the fact that the Western USA is basically water-short when compared to the humid East. So if you have a water right, you want to protect it. If you want one, you need a lawyer. And don’t forget we have something like 1,000,000 lawyers in the USA and each needs to make a living.

  3. 1. We are a rules-based society right from the adoption of our Constitution.

    2. The states are co-equal sovereigns, and the feds have not invoked federal supremacy. So much of the Law of the River functions essentially as a treaty between independent states.

    3. The River is one of the (if not the most) over-allocated significant rivers in the world, in an area where there are few alternative sources of potable water.

    4. California is a top-10 worldwide economy. This gives it power. That power makes other states nervous and litigious.

    5. Western water law leads itself to disputation. Prior appropriation limited by beneficial use is a great way not to have long-term tranquility. (You’re wasting water; I want some. No I’m not! etc. See a kindergarten recess for similar behavior.)

    6. The allocation of rights to sub-units within the various states made matters much worse, especially with regard to intra-state transfers.

    Those are probably the key reasons, but I’m sure I could think up some more.

  4. I’m more in line with Francis, but in the spirit of maintaining pithiness:

    The reason why there are so many lawyers is: too many people, not enough water in the right places.



  5. Pingback: Fighting for Atlanta’s water: what was it I was saying about lawyers? : jfleck at inkstain

  6. I think part of the reason is that the rules and institutions are so complex that a legal education helps in managing water resources. It doesn’t hurt that disputes often end up in court. But as a water lawyer, I spend very little time actually in court or doing tasks that a “normal” lawyer would recognize. It’s a mix of strategy, law, policy, economics, business and management. So as many water lawyers as there are involved, it helps to remember that their role isn’t strictly legal in nature.

  7. According to the ABA, there are 1.1M practicing attorneys in the US. They all need to do something and we live in a litigious society. ‘Nuff said!

    If you have a Western water right, you will likely need a lawyer if someone proposes a sale, lease, change in POD, use, etc. So one potential transaction could generate the need for scores of attorneys.

    I find it interesting that I run into more lawyers, who in the latter stages of their careers, have abandoned the adversarial system and get into facilitation and conflict resolution/management.God bless ’em!

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