The West's history of developing water sources, occasionally stained with instances of outright theft, is probably best described as "complicated."
Our decisions on who should get what water -- and how, and from which source they should get it -- usually teetered to the side of whatever person in power had the least tolerance for ethical behavior. We built dams, carved canals, bullied people. Sometimes we lied outright, and no matter how many times a poorly engineered dam flooded out a community or tribe, depriving them of their farmland, we marched ahead with a hostile takeover of Mother Nature's most precious asset.
Today's methods for collecting water and sending it elsewhere aren't much more sophisticated. Improved technology and our arcane water policies simply allow our grand plans to fester a bit longer before they materialize. The most recent case in point: At a July U.S. Chamber of Commerce conference in Las Vegas, the general manager of the powerful Southern Nevada Water Authority, the indefatigable Pat Mulroy, suggested seizing floodplain waters from the Upper Mississippi and its tributaries to alleviate strain on the Colorado River system. The scheme, she said, would also help restore the Ogallala aquifer. The Colorado River's Upper Basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico, and even parts of Arizona, would see their water shares reduced and potentially eliminated. Growing metropolitan regions farther downriver could then hoard the surplus. This is a grand plan indeed, involving the movement of river water many hundreds of miles.
Barbara Naramore, executive director of the Upper Mississippi River Basin Association, noted that while she did not hear Mulroy's specific comments, this was not the first time the Mississippi River had been the target of a transfer to another water basin.
"These instances are a good reminder of how very complex these issues are when you start to move water around between basins. A lot of economic development decisions get made ... and then at some point down the line we find ourselves scratching our heads, trying to figure a way out from the corner we just painted ourselves into."
J.C. Davis, a spokesman for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, was quick to note that Mulroy's suggestions were taken out of context, even though Mulroy was speaking as part of a Chamber of Commerce's national "Invest in Water" initiative, and the Las Vegas Sun, Las Vegas Review-Journal, and Salt Lake Tribune all seemed to hear and report the same thing.
Asked to put the plan into context, Davis explained that the project "would be a series of exchanges, not necessarily piping water from the upper portion of the Mississippi River complex all the way out to the Great Divide." At this point, he added, "it would be fair to characterize it as a concept."
So where could the "series of exchanges" begin? Every river, stream and babbling brook east of the Rockies eventually finds its way to the Upper Mississippi, including the Musselshell in Montana, a Missouri tributary that recently flooded the town of Roundup, 600 miles north of the Colorado's headwaters. Perhaps Mulroy's pipeline could somehow move floodwater from Pierre, S.D., to Lake Powell, 1,000 miles southwest, where it would benefit the Upper Colorado Basin states.
Historically, a "concept" is typically all we've ever needed to implement absurdly expensive and geographically labyrinthine water-access plans, very much like the one currently close to fruition that will seize water from underneath the Great Basin in rural eastern Nevada and pump it through more than $3 billion worth of pipe straight to the Las Vegas Valley. A significant portion of western Utah will also be impacted by the plan.
Those entertaining the idea of controlling the Upper Mississippi's floodwaters seem to have difficulty associating such a plan with the possibility of failure already established by concepts just as ambitious. Let's not forget that not long after the Civil War, government officials and profiteers convinced homesteaders of the vast fertility of an arid region that eventually became the Dust Bowl.
It's Mulroy's job to secure and protect her constituents' water supply, and for decades she has gone about her job with gusto. It's up to the rest of us to urge caution and the smart usage of the water we've already got, rather than succumbing to grandiose plans that once again might prove destructive.
Craig Rowe is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a freelance writer in Las Vegas, Nevada.