Water Wishes

Our reviewer thinks a new book about the Colorado River is a must-read for anyone in its watershed

An "environmental history" of a dam-ruined, over-allocated, drought-ravaged river seems like it would be a downer, but it turns out there may be hope for the once-mighty Colorado after all.

Well, maybe.

In Contested Waters, a thorough new history of our uses and abuses of the Colorado River, April Summitt, an assistant professor of history at Arizona State University's Polytechnic campus, admits that "Water in the West still flows toward money, and having water still equals power."

But the hope comes, I guess, with the revelation that for every short-sighted use of the river, such as the damming of Glen Canyon above the Grand Canyon to make Lake Powell, there have always been advocates on the other side of things—people who don't believe that if a drop of river water makes it to the Colorado's once lush delta in Mexico that it has been wasted. Too bad their voices have been, for the most part, drowned in a whirlpool of self-interest.

The seventh largest watershed in the United States and a lifeline for about 30 million of us here in the American Southwest, the Colorado River begins, in typically precarious fashion, as snow melts high in the Rocky Mountains. If we're lucky, summer rains add to its volume along the way. Seven large dams and many smaller ones block and back-up the river, creating hydroelectric power and a few gigantic man-made lakes that serve to slake the unending thirst of Los Angeles, Las Vegas, San Diego, The Imperial Valley, Phoenix, Denver, Tucson and other desert cities and desert farmlands.

It was for the California and, to a lesser extent, Arizona farmer that the Colorado was first harnessed and controlled in a major way.

Thousands of poor folks found work during the Depression building Hoover Dam, and a desert became an unlikely breadbasket. For the New Dealers of the time, some of whom saw the Southwest's open spaces as the ideal laboratory in which to build a Jeffersonian agrarian paradise, "reclamation" was a win-win. It seems strange considering the urban booms of the 1990s and early 21st century, but some 78 percent of the Colorado's water still goes to agriculture, according to Summitt. About 15 percent of the nation's crops and 13 percent of its livestock come from the Colorado River Basin. This is a lot to ask from a relatively small river system in one of the driest regions on the planet, but then again the construction of several mega-cities in that same region seems a bit myopic as well.

Contested Waters, deeply researched, well-written, and timely as can be, should be passed out and pop-quizzed in public high schools throughout the Colorado watershed. It's a kind of easy-to-read handbook on what not to do to the primary source of fresh water in a vast arid land. In one chapter, "The Metropolis and the Desert", Summitt provides fascinating short studies on each of the large urban areas that use the Colorado, revealing in each case how one decision led to another to land us in our current, over-allocated predicament.

One such city is San Diego, whose leaders began scheming to get Colorado River water as far back as 1922. About 80 years later, the growing seaside oasis of about 3 million people purchased the rights of some 200,000 acre feet of water from the Imperial Valley Irrigation District, to be delivered through 2073. It was the largest agriculture-to-urban water transfer in U.S. history, and it is likely a sign of things to come.

The near future of the Colorado, then, will probably be a lot like its recent past, in that we will struggle with each other over the "best use" of its dwindling, increasingly contaminated flow. The problem is that, for the most part, there are but two options: urban growth or irrigated agriculture. Still, Summitt remains hopeful about that future.

Noting that environmental groups, Native Americans and others bent on a more sustainable future have louder voices than they used to, she predicts a change in priorities.

"New players have entered the western water struggle and shifted the entire environment from one of power contests between elites to efforts to achieve equity in the midst of increasing demands and decreasing resources," she writes.

Yeah, well, that all seems like a bit of a wishful stretch considering the history she has just chronicled.

With climate change threatening an already overused water supply, it's difficult to see how the old power structures will fall. It is more likely that in the foreseeable future threatened resources will continue to be hoarded by the rich and powerful, whether they be individuals, corporations or governments turned increasingly authoritarian by frequent weather-related crises.

But I really hope she's right anyway.