Mar 4 2014
“Whiskey Is for Drinking; Water Is for Fighting Over” is historically true,
particularly in the Western US. It is usually attributed to Mark Twain, but
not confirmed. Now as the drought deepens in the West, the crazy patchwork
of agreements, water laws and rights is set to create even more dissention.
So what is the answer? Don’t we all wish for a silver bullet to win the day?
Yes, but don’t hold your breath.
There have been two major attempts. One was the Newlands Act in 1902
creating the Bureau of Reclamation and the second was the Colorado River
Compact signed in 1922 by seven states; Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada,
Colorado, California and Arizona. Are they both hopelessly out of date?
Absolutely. The “Bureau” has spent billions of taxpayer dollars, and the
result is the total land irrigated in the west is about the size of Vermont.
In the process the Act hcreated an ecological disaster that has not come
full circle yet. The Compact was put together in 1922 in a haphazard way,
reportedly by a clerk in Imperial County, California. It is also said the
Compact was considered so minor to officials in Nevada they didn’t attend
the initial meetings. As a result, when the population of Las Vegas
exploded, their portion of the Colorado River was woefully small.
As populations expand and climate change happens (it always does), the
Afterword in Water Shock was never truer:
“In the span of just over 100 years in the area west of the
one-hundredth meridian, government, politicians, and private industry
altered the ecosystem in the West. But in future centuries, the land will
likely return to the equilibrium of the past, driven by none other
The inhabitants of a society have no other choice than to move where
sustainable crop production is possible. Forcing the production of food
where two to four inches of precipitation occurs naturally, when it takes
twenty to twenty-four inches, is simply not sustainable, especially as
population growth occurs.
We can replace fossil fuels with renewable energy sources. We cannot
replace the finite supply of water with anything else. We can transmit
energy over thousands of miles; we cannot move water, weighing 8.35 pounds
per gallon, very far without incurring huge energy penalties that can only
be economical if subsidized by creating massive government debt. We can pump
fossil fuels out of the ground and not worry about replenishment; we cannot
pump water placed there millions of years ago without replenishing the
aquifers from whence it came.
This story is about how little control we really have over our
ecosystem when we view it from the perspective of history. The
too-often-used metaphor of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic
applies here. As James Lawrence Powell said so succinctly in his book Dead
Pool, “Irrigation societies have three enemies, silt, salt, and their own
internal and political weakness.”
Over thousands of years, humans have made the same mistakes over and
over again. And judging from history, we will continue to make the same
mistakes. The learning curve is as flat as a table top. While all of this
may sound fatalistic and hopeless, we can learn from the past. But those who
have the power to control the destiny of finite water resources must do
something that is entirely against human nature-they must set aside their
personal agendas and actually work in harmony with the hard fact that the
hydrologic cycle is like the law of gravity. It cannot be repealed.”
Resolution of the West’s water problems can happen. A new Compact among the
seven states is the answer. How that is put together and who the players are
is critically important, but it can be done. People like Pat Mulroy,
recently retired, would be typical of the kind of movers and shakers who
could handle it. After twenty years working water in Las Vegas she
successfully brought that community of two million to 100% recycled water
and a per capita water consumption of 75 gallons per day, half of what
Californians consume. An interview in 2012 is included in the following
link. It is well worth reading. If you have difficulty with this link, please copy and paste it into your browser.