The diplomacy of water


Water and the West: The Colorado River Compact and the Politics of Water in the American West (Second Edition)
Norris Hundley Jr.
433 pages, softcover: $24.95; hardcover: $60.
University of California Press, 2009.

Norris Hundley's book Water and the West has long stood as the classic account of the epic negotiations to divide up the Colorado River's water. First published in 1975, the book quickly went out of print. Yet it is such an essential history of the river's politics that, for the last several years, it's been hard to find a used copy for less than $150.

Now, Water and the West is back, in a second edition with a new preface and epilogue. Many good books on the topic have followed in its wake, but Water and the West remains the single most important source for understanding the origins of (and the seemingly incomprehensible political gyrations behind) the 1922 Colorado River Compact. Hundley's painstakingly assembled account of the Compact negotiations was drawn, in part, from a long-lost set of minutes that he rediscovered. It was like unearthing the Dead Sea Scrolls of the Colorado.

Hundley calls the negotiations "a pioneering venture in interstate diplomacy" that yielded "an alleged peace treaty" between the seven Southwestern states. That peace treaty was important in its own right, but it was also a significant departure from the way water had traditionally been "done" by white Westerners. Since the mid-1800s, the doctrine of prior appropriation -- i.e., the first to put water to use gets the right to it -- largely reigned supreme. But prior appropriation is a crude system, little more than a legally sanctioned version of the old playground dictum: I was here first, so I win.

The Compact was an effort to find an alternative, because prior appropriation would likely have left the majority of the seven states bone-dry and sniffling like bullied second-graders. Back in 1922, California gave every indication that it might use all the water in the river. Through the Compact negotiations, the six other states managed -- using equal measures of coercion and persuasion -- to reach a negotiated division of the river's water. 

It was a remarkable achievement, and yet, as Hundley demonstrates, the Compact was also an imperfect agreement that sparked "the beginning of a special kind of war," marked by subsequent disagreement and legal fights. Today, as climate variability and global warming threaten to push the Compact past its limits, Water and the West is more important than ever.

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