The Political Cultures of Irrigation and the Proxy Battles of Interstate Water Litigation

73 Pages Posted: 16 Jun 2018

See all articles by Burke W. Griggs

Burke W. Griggs

Washburn University School of Law

Date Written: May 31, 2018


Groundwater depletion ignores the political boundaries of western states, the legal boundaries of western water codes, and the jurisdictional boundaries of western water federalism. In the wake of the groundwater revolution, it is becoming apparent that certain interstate lawsuits derive essentially from deeper conflicts rooted in the clash between surface-water and groundwater irrigation communities — and their respective political cultures. The interstate divide may be yielding to the hydrological divide.

This article attends to that deeper relationship between irrigation agriculture and political culture across the Great Plains. Part I provides a brief history of its surface-water irrigation communities, to compose a recognizable image of their political culture: one that is rooted in classical western water law and cooperative water federalism, and depends upon interstate compacts and federal irrigation projects. Part II surveys the groundwater revolution and the distinct political culture it has generated: one that doubts the merits of classical western water law, and suspects the power of western water federalism.

Part III describes a revealing theater of the conflict between these political cultures: the Republican River Basin. On the surface, the conflict is a legal casus belli between sovereign states. But beneath that conflict lies a deeper and more intractable conflict, where interstate litigation becomes recognizable as a proxy battle between surface-water and groundwater irrigation communities. How the states and the United States resolve this deeper conflict may determine the future of water federalism across the Great Plains — and the fate of the rivers upon which its communities depend.

Suggested Citation

Griggs, Burke W., The Political Cultures of Irrigation and the Proxy Battles of Interstate Water Litigation (May 31, 2018). Natural Resources Journal, Vol. 57, No. 1, 2017, Available at SSRN:

Burke W. Griggs (Contact Author)

Washburn University School of Law ( email )

1700 College Avenue
Topeka, KS 66621
United States
(785) 70-1666 (Phone)

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