The life of an unsung Western water diplomat

  • Silver Fox of the Rockies

  Mark Twain once remarked that in the West, "whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting." But Delphus E. Carpenter, who spearheaded the 1922 Colorado River Compact among seven states, would have disagreed twice over. Carpenter not only abstained from spirits, but believed water problems could be resolved through diplomacy instead of fisticuffs. His life is the subject of a new book, Silver Fox of the Rockies, by Daniel Tyler.

Carpenter believed water compacts, which are based on the United States Constitution, would instill "comity" — cooperation — among Western states and discourage lawsuits that led to conflict and federal intervention on streams. The Colorado River Compact was the maiden voyage for the compact idea, and a dozen more water agreements across the country followed the same model over the next 50 years.

Today, it’s easy to question the success of the Colorado River Compact. Miscalculations shortchanged the Upper Basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico, and led to almost 30 years of court battles among the Lower Basin states of Nevada, Arizona and California. The compact has other flaws from a modern perspective: In 1922, "conservation" meant construction of Hoover Dam, and the agreement ignored Indian water rights, which have since reduced states’ anticipated take.

But Carpenter’s goal remains the ambition of conservationists today, although "consensus" has replaced comity as the buzzword. Author Tyler believes Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt is "the man whose leadership most closely parallels" that of the unsung Carpenter. But Tyler’s example of the Bush administration’s Water 2025 initiative, which gave lip service to conservation while killing salmon in the Klamath and silvery minnows in the Rio Grande, is more dark comedy than deft comity. Today’s West could use water policy leaders who follow the efforts of Delph Carpenter instead of the words of Mark Twain.

Silver Fox of the Rockies: Delphus E. Carpenter and Western Water Compacts
Daniel Tyler
392 pages, hardcover $34.95.
University of Oklahoma Press, 2003