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Colorado’s Archaic “Use it or Lose it” Rule is Not Helping the State with its Sustainability Goals

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Imagine a water regulation in the West that encourages those with the largest water rights to waste such a precious resource. You don’t have to imagine. The “Use It Or Lose It” rule was created when Colorado became a state, forcing those with water rights to use all the water they are allotted whether they need to or not. If they don’t use their full allotment, they will see it reduced in the coming years. As Colorado farmers can never be certain that enough rain will fall to make up the difference if their allowed amounts are cut, they are forced to use their full allotment every year, even if that means just opening the faucet “all the way and take as much as you can – whether you need it or not.”

According to Scientific American, “Use It Or Lose It” rules are common in the states that depend on the Colorado River basin for water. When these rules were created over 100 years ago, they sort of made sense. A doctrine created the foundation of water law: “First in time is the first in the right.” This meant that the first entities to receive water rights had “primary” rights and could use as much as they desired.  Those who followed were given “secondary” rights, which meant that during drought, they sometimes got no water. As agriculture uses the vast majority of water from the Colorado River, water used by one farmer means the next farmer’s land is forced to stay dry.

Over 100 years later, these rules create environmentally damaging waste. To preserve their allotted water for dry years, entities with primary rights must use all their water, or their allotted amount will be reduced. That means that during a wetter year, they must waste the water rather than letting it flow to people further downstream or much further, thereby benefitting ecology.

If farmers had access to regular, plentiful amounts of water, the Colorado River could largely continue its majestic journey, and they would not be forced to wastewater to ensure they are allotted enough in the future. That’s where innovative new companies like IX Water come in. IX Water cost-efficiently treats water from oil & gas operations, mining, manufacturing, and other industrial activities so well that it can be safely used by farmers and ranchers, eliminating the need to draw on the Colorado River. 

John Grizz, the CEO of IX Water, is an active advocate for changing this outdated water regulation. He notes, “The western water laws were put in place during an era when wasting water was seen as an indication of plenty, not a tragic misallocation of a vital resource. But in this age of climate change and population growth, we must embrace new technologies and policies that allow us to break from the ‘Use It Or Lose It’ mentality. Our goal at IX Water is to do just that. By treating industrial water to a level safe for agriculture, we aim to give farmers more secure, reliable water sources and alleviate the pressure to wastewater simply to protect their rights.”

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