AuthorHerron, Adam


"Property rights serve human values." (1) While that maxim continues to hold water, the issue of which human values should be served in a future impacted by climate change is less clear. The path may be relatively self-evident when the competing values are between the right of a landowner to exclude social workers and the rights of a migrant farm worker to access legal resources; (2) however, the arguments muddy when the competing rights implicate food production and drinking water.

In the arid American West, the risk of catastrophic drought has increased significantly under a changing climatic regime due to rising global temperatures brought on by anthropogenic greenhouse gas forcing. (3) Under the prior appropriation doctrine, the allocation of surface waters in this drought prone region grants rights of priority use of surface water in times of scarcity on a "first in time, first in right" basis. (4) In much of the West, agriculture use makes up an overwhelming majority of priority rights holders, often being allocated 80% or more of surface waters in a state. (5) This leaves little water instream for other uses in a region in which urban growth is projected to support a projected population increase of 68%, ninety-four million people, by 2050. (6) Necessarily, there is a significant call to reform the western water allocations to more adequately supply these growing populations with basic drinking water and other municipal needs. (7)

This paper examines the growing tension between municipal and agricultural water users as borne out by the nexus of prior appropriation and climate change. Further, this paper argues that while municipal water use is critical for sustaining the growing urban population in the West, the shift from agriculture to urban may only exacerbate resource issues under the future climate. From the premise that growth should occur in a manner limited by factors including ecology, climate, hydrology, and economics, on both regional and national scales, this paper argues that the systemic growth patterns of the western United States are potentially trapping its populations in a future characterized by socio-ecological degradation under extreme drought. This paper examines the cultural and historical context of present water use tensions through a socio-ecological trap perspective, and posits that the urbanizing West should reconsider large scale transfers of water to meet future demands, as continually feeding population growth may have disastrous costs.

Part I describes the concept of socio-ecological traps in an effort to provide perspective on the development of the urban West. Part II will give background explanation of western water allocation doctrine, a basic history of its development and implementation. Part III will focus on the changing population dynamics of the West. Part IV will discuss projected changes to the climate and what impacts those changes will have on western water supplies. Part V discusses the potential conflict between agricultural and urban water uses and its context. Part VI considers the nexus of the changing urban population and climate change through a modern socio-ecological traps perspective.


    The basic concept of a trap is rather intuitive: something enters the trap and cannot escape. This basic concept is applied across science disciplines through various frameworks, depending on the starting point. (8) Generally, however, all trap frameworks share a basic premise: there is a mismatch between the response of an entity to the social or ecological conditions which triggered the response which is self-reinforcing. (9)

    As applied to wildlife, the basic concept of ecological trap theory is that populations unknowingly choose habitats of low fitness based on habitat cues that are no longer accurate due to human induced rapid environmental changes. (10) These low quality habitats appear highly attractive but are ultimately unable to sustain populations due to their inability to adapt to unforeseen rapid environmental changes, resulting in significant population loss. (11) A classic example of an ecological trap is a hay field attracting nesting birds due to the requisite grassland habitat, only to result in extreme nest mortality when the field is mowed for hay before fledging occurs. (12)

    Pertinent to this paper is the application of the trap framework in social sciences. So called "social--ecological traps" aim to describe social rigidity in the face of ecological processes which leads to trap situations resulting in environmental and social strife. (13) Socio-ecological (SE) traps may be particularly useful when examining "dilemmas of collective action" typified by the "tragedy of the commons." (14) The basic tenant of these dilemmas is that the communal use of a non-exclusive resource will lead to the degradation of that resource so long as the individual gain of using the resource is greater than their share of the collective cost. (15) The understanding of collective action dilemmas has become more nuanced in recent decades and it is now understood that degradation of common pool resources is not a constant but rather a function of social rigidity. (16) SE traps therefore occur when highly rigid social responses fail to solve dilemmas of common action, resulting in the reinforcing of unsustainable social and ecological outcomes. (17)

    The word "trap" may infer a results-based model, as in, the titular "trap" is inescapable resource degradation flowing from reinforced, maladaptive decisions. (18) However, it is more appropriate to consider traps as a process model. (19) SE traps are "unplanned and unintended processes" which involve interdependent human action and environmental changes as well as interdependent phases of social change. (20)

    Socio-ecological traps have antecedent conditions that are ripe under certain conditions to lead to social and ecological degradation. (21) If certain social trajectories--such as policy decisions regarding natural resources, immigration, or food production--are engaged at critical junctions, populations may get locked in to land-use feedback loops which can lead to rapid degradation upon changing ecological conditions. (22) An example of major policy decisions which have interacted in ways that create trap like conditions include the "gilded lobster" trap of the North Eastern U.S. (23)

    First discussed in 2011, the gilded trap of the Maine lobster fishery describes the process in which the Maine coastal fishery was transformed from a diverse multi-species fishery, to a mono-culture, lobster dominated fishery, both economically and ecologically. (24) The term "gilded trap" is used to describe traps "in which social drivers (e.g., population growth, globalization, and market demand) increase the value of natural resources as the ecological state moves closer to a tipping point." (25) Further, gilded traps exist where "the perceived lucrative value of a natural resource drives stakeholders and managers to overlook risks of its unexpected decline and the associated negative social and ecological consequences." (26)

    The fishery in the coastal waters of Maine was historically diverse, reflecting the variety of abundant finfish and mollusks. (27) As demand on the fishery increased, the fishery intensified on dwindling predatory finfish, especially cod. (28) At this critical junction, the U.S. Government decided to meet the rising demand by protecting Maine fisherman through the informal adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Law of the Sea) (29) and through subsidies to modernize fishing fleets. (30) Among its many provisions, the Law of the Sea sets the limits of a nation's maritime enforcement zones, generally 200 nautical miles out from shore, what is referred to as the "Exclusive Economic Zone." (31) Instead of taking a conservation first approach, Maine and other New England states utilized this new exclusive access structure as a means to rapidly increase fishery production amidst historic declining fishery stocks. (32) This led to a overfishing and rapid collapse of predatory finfish stocks, paving the way for the historical prey species, lobster, to become the dominant species and effectively creating a "monoculture" in the Gulf of Maine. (33) The modern fleet then shifted to almost exclusively relying on lobster, which created total economic dependence on the fishery for the coastal region. (34)

    Herein lies the gilded trap, with economic forces making it advantageous to reinforce the system given the high demand and price for lobster. (35) However, the monoculture is highly vulnerable and susceptible to crashing. (36) Evidence indicates that various ecological factors, including ocean warming due to climate change, could lead to disease and mass destruction of the lobster population, along with the economy of coastal Maine. (37)

    The critical elements of Maine's gilded lobster trap are total socio-economic reliance on a singular resource, a resource which grows increasingly fragile as the nexus of reliance and climate change grows. Part VI discusses how these elements are potentially present in the arid west.


    Since 1848, when the California gold rush gave birth to the basic principles of the western prior appropriation system, a right to use water has been acquired by applying water to a beneficial use. The right continues only as long as the beneficial use continues, without waste. Nonuse results in forfeiture, and wasteful use is prohibited. (38) The prior appropriation doctrine, which governs almost all water allocation west of the Mississippi River, was born out of the successive western mining rushes of the 19th century and is anchored in the concepts of chronological priority and "beneficial use." (39) In contrast to the riparian doctrine, (40) which generally informs water law east of the...

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