Michael Brescia crop“Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting.” Mark Twain may or may not have spoken these words, but here in the West they ring true. What’s to fight over? We get water from rivers and groundwater. We open the tap and water flows. The cost of water is for piping it to us, not the value of the water itself. Pretty simple, yes? No.

Our water use is controlled by current law and policy, such as the “appropriation” doctrine common in the West and Arizona law requiring 100 years of assured supply. But history and legal traditions are also controlling – such as Spanish property law and conquistador practices centuries ago, Mexican property law, British common law and Western water traditions and law.

Michael Brescia, associate professor of history at the University of Arizona and associate curator for ethnohistory at the Arizona State Museum (and recently appointed associate director of the Museum), will explain these complexities in a 3:30 p.m. talk next Thursday (Aug. 1) at the Arizona Senior Academy. In his talk, entitled “Whiskey is for Drinking, Water is for Fighting – The Living Legacies of Spanish Water Rights in the American Southwest,” Brescia will discuss why these historical legacies still live and are important. These tensions between common and civil law show that, in his words, water is also “for thinking hard about.”

Brescia recently spent a year as a Fullbright scholar researching for a project, “Water Rights and Competing Legal Traditions in North America; Historical Perspectives.” He is using the Fulbright research for a book project that will identify and evaluate property rights under the Spanish and Mexican civil laws of property during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

Brescia is widely published in English and Spanish in academic and peer-reviewed journals, and he has co-authored several books on North American relations. He serves as expert witness on water rights, shows how history influences present use, and helps educate judges, special water masters and attorneys about these living legacies. He traces how differences between public and private law have been interpreted by Spanish and Mexican officials and American jurists and how earlier pre-Gadsen Purchase decisions affect water use today.

The typical Arizonan’s “water life” is complicated further by growing disconnects between the current water appropriation doctrine, expanding population expecting water (and requiring more prudent use of current water), and shrinking supply caused by the looming effects of global climate change over the desert Southwest.

Submitted by Ted Hullar, Academy Village Volunteer

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There’s Nothing Simple about Western Water Rights: August 2013
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