The way water is used in the Midwest and West, and elsewhere around the world, exemplifies a nineteenth-century principle called the tragedy of the commons. The tragedy of the commons means that when there is a resource available to everyone, and the resource is unregulated—in the nineteenth century it was the common land for grazing cattle—people will use it to their own advantage until it is consumed rather than conserve it to everyone’s advantage. It is a principle that still applies widely, to overfishing, say, in the North Atlantic, and the disappearance of cod. Several colloquial rules, made at the start of the twentieth century, govern water in the West, and sometimes they contradict one another. Where water is shared, from a river, say, the rule that usually prevails is “first pump, oldest pump” or “first in time, first in right.” These older rights are also called “senior rights” or “pre-1914 rights.” They mean that even if you are upstream of another farm, if the downstream farmer’s rights preceded yours, you can’t have water until he has all he wants. People without senior rights might get paper water.
California farmers who draw from wells don’t deal in paper water, since so long as the wells are on their property, the farmers are entitled to drill as deep as they like. In India, in parts of China, and in the U. S., with groundwater it’s the “law of the biggest pump,” which allows a farmer to drain the water from underneath his neighbor by drilling a deeper well, since groundwater doesn’t observe boundaries. So many treaties and arrangements and agreements govern water use in the West and have for so long that a court in 1861 wrote that the “secret, occult, and concealed” nature of the resource made it impossible to control. Impossible then, apparently impossible now, with voracious use in between.
Whatever is not sustainable, is TERMINAL. Water use globally is not sustainable and thus by definition, there is a terminal end to it all. Nature will win in the end, either via a 100 to 1,000 year drought, or some other event that makes human ‘laws’ and ‘rights’ around water meaningless.