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Counting Every Drop: Measuring Surface and Ground Water in Washington and the West


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Virtually every region of the United States has experienced a water shortage within the last five years and at least thirty-six states anticipate some sort of water shortage within the next five years. Although water shortages have long occurred in the United States, especially in the West, evidence suggests these shortages will continue to worsen due to climate change. Inadequate implementation of the doctrine of prior appropriation, the most popular water system in the western United States, exacerbates water shortages by failing to measure the amount of water a user diverts, a process known as “source metering.”

States have taken differing degrees of interest in source metering. In 1993, Washington became the first western state to statutorily require the measurement of virtually all surface water withdrawals. Kansas and Texas have implemented some form of source metering and Oregon has attempted to implement it, although unsuccessfully. Although Washington’s statute appears to have made the state’s management of water more efficient, no other western state has successfully followed in Washington’s footsteps. In fact, the western states, notoriously plagued by water shortages, seem the most resistant to source metering laws, even though they have the most to gain from efficient management of water resources.

This Article examines the implementation of Washington’s source metering law, beginning with water consumption and waste issues in Washington and throughout the western United States and continuing through the enactment of the source metering law as part of Washington’s water code. The Article moves on to explore the relationship between Washington’s source metering law and actions in Texas, Kansas, and Oregon before ultimately proposing that other western states should adopt a statutory model similar to Washington’s source metering statute to aid in the effective management of the their water supplies, especially in light of the risks posed by climate change. 

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