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Will Western Water Bring Us Together or Drive Us Apart?

By Patricia Nelson Limerick

The passage of time can take a toll on such a state of cheer. A quarter century into this line of work, and the phrase burn out becomes a scary one. What if this whole business of planning lectures, giving assignments, grading papers, answering questions evolved into tedious, dreary routine?

If this semester is any sign, tedium and dreariness will have to wait a while to get their chance at me. A program for students of outstanding academic merit needed a course that would involve every imaginable discipline. A natural scientist and I would team-teach it. But where would we find this inclusive, unbounded topic, capable of catching young people by surprise and showing them unexpected connections among very different ways of studying the world?

Western water to the rescue! Burn-out will have to wait.

One of the compelling questions swirling around our classroom this semester has been: Will Western water bring us together or drive us apart?

Consider two equally persuasive answers to that question:

  1. The more people care about a resource, the more inclined they are to find ways to collaborate in planning for its use.
  2. The more people care about a resource, the more inclined they are to fight over it.

Examples from history support both propositions. Case studies of conflict are abundant: Western history is well--supplied with water disputes leading to physical threats, and to bitter and prolonged lawsuits. And, when the claims for Pueblo Indian water rights run head on into Hispano water rights, as they did in the famed Aamodt case, the dream of the "solidarity of the oppressed" becomes thin and worn.

And yet case studies of collaboration are also abundant. Rituals and religious belief led Pueblo Indian people to treat water and the forces of the universe that made rain with respect and care. If something thing went wrong with the way people treated each other, disharmony brought the penalty of drought. Reasons for getting along were self-evident, and urgent.

Non-Indians have also recognized the appeal of negotiated peace over direct conflict. The law of colonial Spain recognized community well-being as a goal of water allocation. Anglo-American miners and farmers used prior appropriation as a way to contain endless conflict over limited supplies of water. Perhaps most strikingly, out of a recognition of the crucial role of water in their lives, Mormons in Utah accepted Church authority to assign and secure individual rights to water.

These examples notwithstanding, the decisions about use of an over-allocated Southwestern water supply unmistakably offer a great opportunity for a fight. With lower rainfall and higher evaporation rates, the Interior West's comparative scarcity in water supply imposes one rule for human enterprise: seemingly unlimited demands must contend and compete for a limited resource. The basic question "How shall we allocate the region's water?" presents an enormous challenge to our ingenuity as well as to our commitment to justice and equity.

But does this have to mean a future of fighting? Is there a chance that water scarcity could bring Westerners together in unexpected ways? In a recent article in Harper's addressing worldwide issues of freshwater scarcity, the journalist Jacques Leslie notes that "water has often been the goal, tool, or target of conflicts that fall just short of war . . . " Far more unexpected and striking is his observation that "countries usually manage to cooperate about water, even in unlikely circumstances," citing the example of the Mekong Committee (composed of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and South Vietnam), which "exchanged information" on the river basin "throughout the Vietnam War." Nations can afford to go to war over matters like oil or territory, but water, Leslie implies, is just too important to jeopardize with a fight.

This semester, at the University of Colorado, eighteen students, me, and my biologist team-teacher Mike Grant have had the luxury of discussing these issues at a comfortable distance, removed from the fray of adjudication, litigation, and heated public debate. Called "Water in the West," the course has given us a wonderful chance to value our university faculty's various specializations and areas of expertise. Our guest presenters have included a painter, a law professor, two archaeologists talking about water use in both the ancient Southwest and the ancient Mediterranean, a world-renowned expert on flood plain management, a historian of photography, a scholar of watershed coalitions, and a pianist who knocked our socks off with a talk and performance on representations of water in music. In this case, at least, water brought us all together, as we have explored everything from why it is so hard to eliminate the exotic, water-sucking tamarisks from streamside sites to why it is so difficult to find examples of minorities, or women of any ethnicity, exercising power in the history of Western water development.

As a group and as individuals, we have become wildly water-preoccupied. We do not take for granted faucets, and their compliant willingness to give us water when we want it. We are surprised, when we look outside our classroom window, to see so many exotic, irrigation-dependent plants filling the view. When it rains or snows, we think about hydrologic cycles, and about the unmistakable record of episodes of prolonged drought in this region's climatic history. And we are attentive to the fact that, with the rarest of exceptions, every resident of the West today depends on the water and electrical power provided by the water infrastructure, including those activists who devote their lives to denouncing the injuries inflicted on ecosystems and wildlife by the builders of dams. To be an unrestrained, wholehearted condemner of the manipulation and exploitation of Western rivers, a certain gift for hypocrisy may be a prerequisite.

The dilemma of self-contradiction also comes to a focus in matters of race and ethnicity. For its first century, white men led, implemented, and profited from federally sponsored water development. Now two elements of change threaten to collide, or, at the least, to get in each other's way. People of color, and poor people in general, have received few of the benefits of dam-building, and yet the rise of environmental concern over the environmental damages and unjustifiable expenses of dam construction may keep the inequity of this situation from being addressed.

The situation is uncomfortably similar to the issues raised by world-wide conservation: after exploiting its own resources with little restraint, the United States then sent out environmental ambassadors to tell Third World countries to restrain their resource use and hold back on their own economic development. In a similar way, the environmentalist critique of the dam-building enterprise may well obstruct the development of Indian water rights spelled out in the famous, under-applied Winters doctrine; the ever-under-modification Animas/La Plata dam is a case in point.

When I was a student myself, I believed that the professors had it all figured out. When they asked us questions, I thought that they knew the answers. In this case, we ask the students the questions, as indeed I ask them now, in hopes that we might all pitch into the project of arriving at the answers.

  • To what degree do we have the power to change the habits and laws that make collaborative solutions so difficult to arrive at and execute?
  • Can individualistic privilege yield a little ground to issues of our common well-being, permitting water to do some of the work required for the alleviating of poverty?
  • Can we choose collaboration over conflict as we look honestly at and anticipate the prospect of future droughts in this region?
  • How do we warn Westerners of the urgency of these questions, in a way that will produce productive action and not fruitless agitation?

In one part of our "Water in the West" course, we read poems by Western writers about water in the Southwest. Reading a wide range of writers of many ethnicities, we learned that poets who write about water use it as the foundation for their claims for interconnectedness and the urgent need for holistic understanding. Dependence on water makes any human claim to individualistic independence and isolation absurd.

Lessons learned in classrooms have a way of looking dreamy and idealistic when you send them back into the world at large. Veterans of a semester spent thinking about Western water issues, we hope that the ideal of water as a source of unity, not of division, proves to be tough, and persistent.

Guest Editor

Patricia Nelson Limerick is a professor of history at the University of Colorado at Boulder and one of the pioneers of the trend known as "New Western History." Ms. Limerick is arguably THE New Western historian. Her books, Desert Passages, The Legacy of Conquest, and the most recent, Something in the Soil, bring to our notion of Western history a fresh, frank and compelling voice.

Limerick has served as the president of the American Studies Association and the Western History Association and is a recipient of a MacArthur "genius" award. She is one of the foremost authorities on the history of the American West and a leader among a new generations of historians engaged in "New Western History,"" a revisionist trend that has received much attention since emerging 15 years ago.

As Voices editorial staff began to think about an issue featuring the rather broad topic of water, we thought it would be useful to include some historical perspective. We contacted Ms. Limerick at the University of Colorado, Boulder, to see if she would be interested in writing a piece about water for this issue.

Synchronicity is a beautiful thing. For the fall semester, Ms. Limerick and her faculty colleague, biologist Michael Grant, began team teaching a course called "Water in the West" to 18 undergraduate students. Ms. Limerick has reflected the class's understanding and her own of this never-ceasing topic in the Southwest. More importantly, the historical view on our most valuable natural resource reminds us once again that we are not fated and doomed to keep up old habits and customs. We hold, and can exercise, choice.

Editor's Note

For more information about Native American water rights and the Winters Doctrine, see: www.coopext.cahe.wsu.edu/~chehalis/water

For more information about the Animas/ LaPlata project, see: www.uc.usbr.gov/special/alp.

The Aamodt case is discussed in F. Lee Brown and Helen Ingram, Water and Poverty in the Southwest (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1987), pp. 65-72.

There is also a discussion of the Winters Doctrine, and many other matters, in David H. Getches, Water Law (St. Paul: West Publishing Co., 1990).

Suggested Readings

  • Lloyd Burton, AMERICAN INDIAN WATER RIGHTS AND THE LIMITS OF LAW (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1991).
  • Norris Hundley, THE GREAT THIRST: CALIFORNIANS AND WATER (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992).
  • Daniel McCool, COMMAND OF THE WATERS: IRON TRIANGLES, FEDERAL WATER DEVELOPMENT, AND INDIAN WATER (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987)
  • Donald Pisani, TO RECLAIM A DIVIDED WEST: WATER, LAW, AND PUBLIC POLICY, 1848-1902 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1992)

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"In Alice in Wonderland, poor Alice was plagued by the problem of regulating her own size. One side of the caterpillar's mushroom made her grow, and the other made her shrink, and Alice was hard put to consume the right stimulus at the right rate to achieve the right size. If she erred on one side, she would swoop into hugeness; if on the other, she would instantly dwindle. Twentieth-century efforts at the management of nature bring Alice's dilemma to mind. The goal is to get humanity's role in nature back to the right size, neither too big or too small, neither too powerful nor too powerless. Like Alice, the manager finds it difficult to regulate the rate of change; a seemingly subtle move will have enormous repercussions; causing humans abruptly to become huge again; and a seemingly forceful and direct move will meet implacable resistance from nature, causing them to appear as creatures of great self-importance and little actual stature. Swinging from huge to tiny, dominant to dominated, humanity's place in nature changes from day to day, hour to hour."
--Patricia Nelson Limerick
The Legacy of Conquest
W.W. Norton & Company
1987, New York, New York

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