Why fighting over water isn’t a bad thing

As I learn about the development of large-scale water management institutions in regions other than my own (the southwestern United States), I’m increasingly convinced that our oft-discussed tradition of conflict – Marc Reisner famously described the Colorado as “the most legislated, most debated, and most litigated river in the entire world” – may really be viewed as a strength rather than a weakness.

Why? Because all that messiness has in fact led to the creation of set of well-established and relatively effective institutions for managing conflicting demands for scarce resources. (I lay out the argument in more detail here.) I was reminded of the issue today by some comments in an excellent piece by Tom Henry of the Toledo Blade about the development of similar institutions around the Great Lakes:

The lakes’ usage has drawn more attention in recent years from politicians and legal scholars, such as those who attend the University of Toledo college of law’s renowned Great Lakes water-law conference each fall. They have stated on numerous occasions that Great Lakes water-management laws pale in comparison to those of the American Southwest, where political battles over water rights have been fought for decades.

Scholars believe this region’s legal framework is evolving into a stronger one as water controversies and more political battles heat up, as evidenced by intense negotiations that resulted in the Great Lakes region’s first binding water-management compact.