War and peace on the Colorado River

A new book makes a case for optimism in the basin, but the threat of water battles will always be around.

 

The Colorado River winds down the Grand Canyon. By the end of its journey, the river will have been diverted through aqueducts, tunnels, canals and pipelines to serve more than 30 million people.
Gerry Reynolds

It’s been 30 years since Marc Reisner’s landmark history of Western water, Cadillac Desert, was first published. The book’s dire tone set the pattern for much subsequent water writing. Longtime Albuquerque Journal reporter John Fleck calls it the “narrative of crisis” — an apocalyptic storyline about the West perpetually teetering on the brink of running dry.

When the book’s second edition was released in 1993, on the heels of a particularly dry string of years in California, Reisner saw fit to characterize the drought as a “punishment meted out to an impudent culture by an indignant God.”

Thanks to books like Cadillac Desert, Fleck writes, “I grew up with the expectation of catastrophe.” Yet in his own reporting, Fleck, who recently became director of the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program, discovered a very different story.

“Far from the punishment of an indignant God,” he writes, “I found instead a remarkable adaptability.”

Fleck’s new book, Water is for Fighting Over … and Other Myths about Water in the West, chronicles the remarkable and often-overlooked adaptive capacity of the farmers and millions of urbanites who depend on the Colorado River. He highlights several irrigation districts and cities that have substantially reduced water use while enjoying higher farm incomes and supporting bigger populations, despite more than a decade and a half of serious drought.

The most fascinating parts of the book focus on river politics. One of Fleck’s great insights is that the Colorado is essentially a decentralized system where “no one has their hand on the tap.” The fundamental challenge is “problem solving in a river basin where water crosses borders, where it must be shared, but where no one is in charge.”

The book draws its title from the old saw — often misattributed to Mark Twain and endlessly reiterated — that whiskey is for drinking but water is for fighting over. This is the primary “myth” Fleck takes on. The ferocity of Colorado River politics has been likened to the Middle East conflict, but Fleck notes that over the last two decades, a surprising spirit of collaboration has arisen on the Colorado.

Rather than fighting, he writes, the river’s water bosses have crafted a series of agreements that have increased water-use flexibility and buffered some of the effects of extreme drought. The members of the “network,” as Fleck puts it, are able to do that because they have a deeply rooted distrust of the vagaries of court, and have “come to the shared conclusion that arguing over legal interpretation is the wrong path.”

Indeed, the network’s members haven’t taken each other to court since 1952. But in arguing that collaboration is the great untold story, Fleck overlooks one of the most fascinating aspects of the Colorado’s recent history: the aggressive brinkmanship that also drives its politics.

Far from being averse to fighting, some members of the network — most famously Pat Mulroy, the former head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority — have actively used the threat of litigation to force their counterparts to compromise and cooperate. That coercive pressure is the antagonistic yang to the cooperative yin. And therein lies the great paradox of the 21st century Colorado River: The credible threat of legal assault, artfully deployed, has provided the anvil against which many of these cooperative agreements have been hammered out.

In fact, it was just such a provocation that ultimately catalyzed the agreements that Fleck lauds. In 2004, as the drought worsened, some water managers began telegraphing meticulously coded threats to each other over disputed interpretations of critical parts of the law of the river. The network effectively stood at the brink of legal war.

Not long ago, John Entsminger, who worked as a lawyer for Mulroy at the time and is a prominent figure in Fleck’s story, told me: “It was unclear at that point whether we were going to negotiate, or whether we were headed toward the U.S. Supreme Court.”

It wasn’t a fight, but the plausible prospect of a fight, that forced water managers out of their entrenched positions to begin developing the series of agreements that, they hope, will keep us one step ahead of climate change and the still-deepening drought.

These days, the network’s members are loath to talk about this coercive element in river politics. That’s largely because after their acrimony in 2004 spilled into public, they made a pact to keep their differences out of the media. But in spite of the apparent outbreak of peace, the water bosses continue to prepare for the possibility of war.

The story that Fleck tells is a hopeful one, and a very important one. But it’s not quite the whole story. Two and a half years ago, Entsminger replaced Pat Mulroy as the head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. Entsminger is far more conciliatory than Mulroy. Yet in a candid moment not long after he took charge, he acknowledged to me that, sometimes, water really is for fighting over. Those who think otherwise do so at their own peril.

“We don’t want to fight,” Entsminger said. “But if we fight, we want to win.”

Water is for Fighting Over ... and Other Myths about Water in the West
John Fleck
264 pages, hardcover: $30.
Island Press, 2016.

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