Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Want to learn more about prior appropriation?

Hopefully you were able to stick it out to the end of my last blog post.  If you were, and if water rights and prior appropriation are new to you, I bet you want to learn more.  Some historians have done an exception job delving into the history of the West to explain why we divide water the way we do and the impacts of prior appropriation.  I highly recommend the books below, but be prepared for some heartburn. 
Glen Canyon Dam: I had to visit this after reading Cadillac Desert. You can get a tour down inside the dam, which is straight up amazing. 
The best water rights books to date:

  • Cadillac Desert: The American West and its Disappearing Water - Marc Reisner - 1993.  This book covers the characters and the lasting structures and agencies they built that are still powerful forces on the landscape. Even better, there's a Cadillac Desert documentary with powerful interviews from David Brower, Floyd Dominy, and bad ass goddess of the desert Katie Lee (you may cry, it's ok).  
  • Secret Knowledge of Water: The Essence of the American Desert - Craig Childs - 2000.  More of a naturalist's book than strict history, Childs takes you across the desert, explaining how to find water and the amazing ways that water has shaped the landscape.  There's a chapter about flash floods that is seared into my brain.  
  • Where the Water Flows: Life and Death Along the Colorado River - David Owens - 2017.  A story about the most interesting river in the world - the Colorado River.  You get to go on a journey from the start of the river in the Colorado Rockies to the end.  Each chapter along the way dives into a piece of the complexity surrounding the Colorado, which has been called the American Nile (because it's that's important).  I really like the chapter on water conservation because it explains all the ways people and the environment have adapted to prior appropriation, then shows the cascading consequences of making changes that seem good.  
  • Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness - Edward Abbey - 1968.  OK, not about water per se, but a story about living in the desert.  While you're familiarizing yourself with the desert we live in, this is a must read. 

The Bear River is my second favorite river (after the Colorado). I spent 3 years studying how all the water users, especially the wetland water users, are linked to one another through sharing the river. 
If you'd like a slightly drier, academic approach focused on a local watershed and wetlands, you can check out some of my publications. 

  • Keeping wetlands wet in the Western United States: adaptations to drought in human-natural systems.  Yeah, I jumped on the subtitle bandwagon. Everything needs water rights in the West, even ecosystems.  Wetland managers in the Bear River watershed have figured out ways to get water rights and then use that water in a way that meets the requirements of prior appropriation and maintains habitat for migratory birds.  The cool part about it (other than the birds) is that each of the three refuges we looked at chose a slightly different way of obtaining water rights and water shares that was most appropriate for where they are located.  Blog post about it here.  
  • Adaptive management in an uncertain and changing environment.  We took a deep dive into water rights, water management, and the people behind Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge.  Water is constantly on the brains of wetland managers here: how much water is available this month, what new proposals are threatening that water, where on the 70,000 acre refuge is that water most needed?

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Prior Appropriation: the exciting rules we use to divide up water (!!!)

Subtitle: The most interesting subject in the world

Prior Appropriation Water Law is the boring term for the most interesting subject: the rules for how we split up the water in our rivers so it can be used to grow food and people. The rules say the first person to claim water always gets water, and the people who were late to the game are out of luck when supplies are short. Westerners decided on these rules in the 1800’s, but they still affect your daily life: anyone using any water needs a water right.

This scene brought to you by a water right to 125.22 cubic feet per second of water from the Jordan River with an 1862 priority for irrigation.
Water law is a tricky subject.  If you can listen past ‘prior appropriation,’ you’ll be quickly overwhelmed by the injustice of it all and a growing sense of confusion caused by all the exceptions to initially simple rules.  My entire academic career has been driven by my need to talk to people about water rights and birds, because even birds need water rights.  After 13 years of water rights stuff, I still cycle between thinking it’s unfair and really cool. 
Take a look at the map below.  What is the most visible difference between the western (left) half and the eastern (right) half of the country? 

You’re right!  The West is more brown than green.  The differences in color are caused by how much water each half has.  The West gets less precipitation than the East and gets most of it as snow.  Plus the West has deeper canyons hiding their rivers.  Because of these differences, there are different rules for using water use in the East and West.    
Everyone and everything needs water, which is simple and always true. Prior appropriation water law – the rules for dividing up water in the West - starts simple, but gets so complicated that there’s not one thing that is always true (except that people will always fight over their water). I tried to explain prior appropriation using the Up-Goer Five editor, which only uses the 10,000 most common English words (prior, appropriate, and rule are not common words). 
The first user gets all the water can-do's:
1. Everyone has to ask for a water right from the state.
2. Water has to be used for these things: growing food, watering houses, cleaning people, making things, growing some animals, and fun. Usually there is not enough water for animals and fun or for not-white people to grow food.
3. The water right you asked for says where, when, and how much water can be used.
4. The first person to ask always gets all their water.  They don’t have to share ever.
5. If there isn't enough water, the last people don't get their water but the first people still get all of their water.
6. It's very bad to not get water and there is less water around than we need, so some people are trying to change the can do's to be better for all the people and the world.

Under prior appropriation water law in Utah, using water you don’t have a right to (the official term for that is ‘thugging water’) is a felony.  
Want some more details?  Awesome!  (Special terms in italics).

Prior Appropriation Water Law (Utah)
Utah is the 2nd driest state in the US, receiving less than 34.3 cm (13.52 inches) of precipitation a year.  That’s not enough water to feed a lot of people and most of that water comes at a time (spring) and in places where we can’t use it (river bottoms).  Water rights are issued by the state to get water from where it flows naturally to where it’s needed. This is diversion and it requires dams and canals to work.
The things you can use water for are the strictly defined beneficial uses in each state’s laws.  Utah’s beneficial uses are irrigation, stock-watering, domestic, municipal, industrial, wildlife propagation, and recreation. (Note environment is not there)
Rights for some uses can be had year-round; others only during the part of year plants are growing (Period of Use). No one can use more water than is needed to grow or make what their water right is issued for (Duty of Water).
The way we divide up water is based on mining rules – the first to stake a claim is the first to get their water when it is scarce. When there isn’t enough water, the latest to make a claim is the first to get all their water turned off.
First in time, first in right 
If a water right is not used for 7 years in a row or the whole right isn’t used then it is forfeited.
Use it or lose it
Indian Reservations and environmental water needs weren’t considered legal until after most water had been given to others to use. That means that they might have recognized water rights, but no water is actually delivered. 
Paper water vs. wet water

Diverting water from where it naturally flows is a big change from the way water is used in rainier places.  In those places the rules follow Riparian Water Law, which allows anyone who owns land next to a waterbody to utilize a reasonable amount of water for any use. 
The most beautiful canal I know: The Bear Lake Outlet canal
Water rights are an interesting type of property that you can buy and sell, but you can’t keep it.  A water right is usufructuary which means you have the right and obligation to use water.  The state gives out water rights, which come with a lot of specifications:

A water right for Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, the right is 3 pages long
“First in right, first in time’ is just the skeleton of a hefty body of laws and policies (The Law of the River).  For the Bear River right pictured above, all policies below also apply:
  • This is just one of 29 water rights the Refuge maintains
  • Lower Bear River water users meet to plan how water will be divided between the locals every year
  • The Bear River Development Act will require pulling water out of the Bear before it reaches this diversion (in the future)
  • Court cases from the 1900’s direct PacifiCorp to manage water is Bear Lake (which will eventually make it to GSL) to prevent flooding in Idaho
  • The Bear River Compact says how much of the river each state (UT, ID, and WY) can hand out; each state has different beneficial uses
The Refuge is the last user on the Bear River and in most summers there’s not enough water in the river to meet to their needs because that water is being used upstream.  While they have a right to 1,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) of Bear River water, there is only 200 cfs actually in the river during the summer when crops need irrigated.  A 1928 priority seems old, but in the history of Utah settlement it’s not, so there isn’t anyone with a younger right the Refuge could ask to turn off their water.     
The month water needs for the Refuge are written in their water right.  Any time on of the colored lines dips below the solid black line, it means there is less water available than the Refuge needs.  
The rules about water in the Western US are unfair, especially for Native Americans and the environment.  The reason for all the unfairness (aside from the history of shorting native people and the environment) is that the goal of prior appropriation is efficiency, not equity.  The harsh landscape of the West supports billions of people who don't worry about where their water comes from.  That’s insanely efficient, given how little rain we get.  Efficiency is an unsatisfying explanation for injustice, but it’s helped me interpret history better. 
Laws are tortuously slow to change, but they are changing to better reflect the values and understanding we now have about water.  Did you know storing rain water wasn’t legal in Utah until 2010?  It is now.  And I’ve been hearing rumors of finding a water right for Great Salt Lake (GSL), which is suffering even more than the wetlands around it.  If water law never changed, that wouldn’t even be considered because keeping water in GSL doesn’t require a diversion (a key component of prior appropriation) and staying great and salty isn’t one of Utah’s beneficial uses (yet). 
But how does prior appropriation affect you? News about snow, water-based recreation, fish, and even dust is ultimately about water rights.  When we have a bad ski season everyone (farmers, boaters, and asthmatics) suffers because it means there won’t be enough water to irrigate farms, fill reservoirs, or prevent dust storms at the same time. 
Farmington Bay of Great Salt Lake in August, 2013. Most of the Jordan River’s water was used for other things before it got to Great Salt Lake. 
Do you recreate in boats? Bodies of water with a dam on them are reservoirs that were built so people with water rights could save up their water until it’s needed. Powell, Strawberry, Pineview, and parts of Bear Lake are reservoirs. 
Dam it! Jackson Lake, WY is a reservoir
Do you eat food?  If it was grown west of the Mississippi River it was probably irrigated, which requires water rights. 
Cow food (i.e., alfalfa) accounts for a lot of our water use
Even the desert, defined by lack of water, is shaped by it.  Deep canyons are cut by rivers. Those stunning cliffs make it hard to access water, which necessitates the reservoirs mentioned above.

This is a lot of info, and I haven’t even gotten to groundwater, the link between water quality and water quantity, or the federal government and water.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones But Pokey Plant Parts Leave Psychological Scars

It’s Invasive Species Week 2018 (February 26 – March 2), which is a great opportunity to learn more about plants by looking at vegetative villains.  Last year we covered what an invasive species is and why they’re so good at being everywhere (there are levels of invasive-ness and invasive species have plant superpowers).  This year we’ll look at one superpower in particular: pokiness

Nothing says DO NOT DISTURB like a thicket of thorns
Several years ago I was on a field crew tasked with surveying a random selection of wetlands across the entire state of Utah and somehow ended up visiting the same pokey wetland on the Little Bear River twice.  Measuring that wetland was like getting a piggyback ride from a porcupine: we were poked by mosquitoes, stabbed by barbed wire and thorny trees, and carried out a lot of burdock (twice!).  Invasive species were invading my personal space and making me bleed.  That was just one unpleasant day, but it got me wondering, why are so many soggy, neglected places like disturbed wetlands and roadside ditches full of stabbing weeds?   
This is not the pokey site, instead here's a undisturbed wetland
I don’t have time to conduct my own scientific study on the prevalence of pokey plants in disturbed wetlands, but I can review other scientist’s research for answers to my question.  It’ll be a blogging and learning adventure.  

Research Question: Why are disturbed wetlands full of invasive and pokey plants? I’ve got some ideas about what might be happening, because I know stuff about plants, so we can formulate a couple hypotheses to test. 

1.  Disturbance Hypothesis: disturbances that leave bare ground (e.g. flooding, road building) make great opportunities for pokey plants to invade. 

2.  Pokey Hypothesis: once established on bare ground, pokey plants grow big and dense (pokier) because they aren’t eaten by animals.

Methods: Looking at the research others have completed on common northern Utah wetland invaders that are also pokey species to see if they support our hypotheses or not.  Our invaders of interest in order of pokey length: Russian olive (thorns), Bull thistle (spines), Common burdock (hooks), Roses (prickles), and Stinging nettle (hairs). 

Russian olive - Elaeagnus angustifolia - bigly pokeys called thorns  
Before we gently step into the world of pokey plants I should explain what we’re talking about.  My trusty plant dictionary [1] doesn’t define ‘pokey,’ it skips from ‘podogyne’ (a structure that supports an ovary) to ‘pollen’ (male gametophytes).  However, it does define spines, thorns, horns, hooked, prickle, process, and many types of hairs (short, long, stiff, soft, straight, or branching).  

Bull thistle - Cirsium vulgare - pretty spine pokeys
Prickles are small and sharp growths of the epidermis or bark.  Sharp parts that come from below the epidermis are spines and small spines are called spinulesThorns are woody, sharply pointed modified stems.  Short, hair-like poking things are called bristles.  Not all pokey parts are straight: barbed plants have fish hook-like rigid barbs, which shouldn’t be confused with hooked plants, whose pokey parts are bent like hooks, but not as stiff as barbs.  All of this is separate from plant surfaces that aren’t pokey but aren’t smooth, they can be scabrous, siliceous, ribbed, hirsute, or exasperate.  In plant terminology spikes are a shape flowers grow in, not at all involved in the world of pokeys.  Pokey is my term for plant parts like bristles, prickles, spines, thorns, or hooks.  Pokey plans are armed plants and the pokeys are their armature

Thorns – the biggest of the pokeys

Well, Russian olive info supports our second hypothesis that being thorny prevents animals from eating you, but fails to support our first hypothesis about disturbance.

Spines – trouble all over

Promising results: Bull thistle is a disturbance-friendly plant that isn't grazed.  Both hypotheses supported.  Except for bears. 

Hooks – able to reach out and grab you

Hmmm.  Burdock grows well in disturbed places, but also gets chewed on.  Only the first hypothesis on disturbance is supported.  

 Prickles – adorable term for a painful poke

Shoot.  Roses don't support either hypothesis, they don't need disturbance and they're plenty tasty to animals.  

Stinging hairs – you won’t even see what’s causing so much pain

Similar to Russian olives, Stinging nettles aren't often chewed on because of their pokeys, but they don't sprout on disturbed ground.


Common burdock - Arctium minus - hooked pokeys hitch rides on anything with fur
Turns out, invasive species are complicated.  While we found some support for both hypotheses, only Bull thistle supported both because it establishes quickly on disturbed soil and then grows densely because animals will not graze it.  Burdock will grow well on bare ground, supporting the first hypothesis, but grazing mammals are willing to chew it and help disperse seeds.  Wild and livestock animals won’t graze Russian olive or Stinging nettle, allowing them to grow tall and dense, but neither establishes on bare ground.  Invasive roses supported neither of my hypotheses: they are deliberately introduced and are eaten by many animal groups. 

Sweetbriar rose - Rosa rubiginosa - a prickle by any other name would still hurt
In conclusion, pokey plant parts are just of the many features of invasive species that allow them to grow in places they don’t belong. But now we know some fun facts about invasive species that aren’t Phragmites.   

Stinging nettle - Urtica dioica - don't walk there!  The stinging hairs have histamines in them

Literature Cited:

[1] Harris, J. G., & Woolf Harris, M. (2009). Plant Identification Terminology: An Illustrated Glossary.  Spring Lake Publishing, Spring Lake, Utah.
[2] Katz, G. L., & Shafroth, P. B. (2003). Biology, ecology and management of Elaeagnus angustifolia L. (Russian olive) in western North America. Wetlands23(4), 763-777. Available:
[3] Zouhar, Kris. 2005. Elaeagnus angustifolia. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer). Available:
[4] Zouhar, Kris. 2002. Cirsium vulgare. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer). Available:  [2018, February 26].
[5] GROSS, R. S., WERNER, P. A., & HAWTHORN, W. R. (1980). The biology of Canadian weeds. 38. Arctium minus (Hill) Bernh. and A. lappa L. Canadian Journal of Plant Science60(2), 621-634. Available:
[6] Province of Manitoba. (2017). Common Burdock. In: Weeds, [Online]. Available: (
[7] Richardson, D. M., & Rejm├ínek, M. (2011). Trees and shrubs as invasive alien species–a global review. Diversity and distributions17(5), 788-809. Available:
[8] Munger, Gregory T. 2002. Rosa multiflora. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer). Available: [2018, February 27]. 
[9] Wikipedia. 2018. Urtica dioica. [Online]. Available:
[10] Carey, Jennifer H. 1995. Urtica dioica. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer). Available: [2018, February 27]