James Wescoat on “The Duty of Water”

James Wescoat, at MIT, has a new paper out that looks at the irrigation concept known as the “duty of water” to see how different social norms have changed over time. It’s open access, here is the PDF.

Here is the abstract:

This paper assesses changing norms of water use known as the duty of water. It is a case study in historical socio-hydrology, a line of research useful for anticipating changing social values with respect to water. The duty of water is currently defined as the amount of water reasonably required to irrigate a substantial crop with careful management and without waste on a given tract of land. The historical section of the paper traces this concept back to late-18th century analysis of steam engine efficiencies for mine dewatering in Britain. A half-century later, British irrigation engineers fundamentally altered the concept of duty to plan large-scale canal irrigation systems in northern India at an average duty of 218 acres per cubic foot per second (cfs). They justified this extensive irrigation standard (i.e., low water application rate over large areas) with a suite of social values that linked famine prevention with revenue generation and territorial control. Several decades later irrigation engineers in the western US adapted the duty of water concept to a different socio-hydrologic system and norms, using it to establish minimum standards for water rights appropriation (e.g., only 40 to 80 acres per cfs). The final section shows that while the duty of water concept has now been eclipsed by other measures and standards of water efficiency, it may have continuing relevance for anticipating if not predicting emerging social values with respect to water.