The American West and its Disappearing Water
by Marc Reisner
In the land of the rugged individualist, water is king and the king is a Socialist. I retired relatively early for my age at the end of 1999. Since I was still young I thought I would get into the water issues of the West and decide if there was something to write about them. I already had a sense that the true stories around water issues and usage would be better and stranger than fiction.
To get a sense of the big picture I picked up a copy of Marc Reisner’s witty and damning story of the damming of the West. Reisner had worked for seven years as a staff writer of the Natural Resources Defense Council when he received a fellowship to investigate water resources in the West. Cadillac Desert is the result of his ten years of research. Many reviewers of the book make the comment that it should be required reading for all tax payers. The national scope of the pork and waste that surround water development, particularly in the West, is stunning. If the often uncontrollable bureaucrats at The Corp of Engineers and The Bureau of Reclamation had their way there would not be a stream left flowing on the continent, all at taxpayer expense.
The loss of the drowned canyons and drained rivers is enough, but what continues to rub me the wrong way all these years later is the politics of the beneficiaries of these massive, subsidized travesties. As Reisner marvels, farmers in the West regularly enter water contracts with the government not even knowing or caring what the contract stipulates. The farmers know if they can’t afford the state water Congress will just give it to them. Millions of dollars are spent per farm on farms worth only a fraction of the water investment. Yet these farmers are among the most conservative of political factions. They send to Congress Tea Party politicians eager to abolish welfare, school lunch programs, health care, aid to the handicapped, funding for the arts, even to sell off or abolish national parks and monuments and “take back” the public lands. But these constituents have become what they most decried, “so coddled by the government that they live in the cocoon like world of a child. The farmers had become the very embodiment of the costly, irrational welfare state they loathe.”
What rubs me the right way is how Reisner appreciates the beauty and natural resource of the land in the West. Here’s an excerpt about the early days of allocating and taming the Colorado River. -Mark Bailey
An American Nile (I)
Ours was the first and will doubtless be the last party of whites to visit this profitless locale.
—Lieutenant Joseph Christmas Ives, on sailing up the Colorado River to a point near the present location of Las Vegas, in 1857
The Colorado is neither the biggest nor the longest river in the American West, nor, except for certain sections described in nineteenth-century journals as “awful” or “appalling,” is it the most scenic. Its impressiveness and importance have to do with other things. It is one of the siltiest rivers in the world—the virgin Colorado could carry sediment loads close to those of the much larger Mississippi—and one of the wildest. Its drop of nearly thirteen thousand feet is unequaled in North America, and its constipation-relieving rapids, before dams tamed its flash floods, could have flipped a small freighter. The Colorado’s modern notoriety, however, stems not from its wild rapids and plunging canyons but from the fact that it is the most legislated, most debated, and most litigated river in the entire world. It also has more people, more industry, and a more significant economy dependent on it than any comparable river in the world. If the Colorado River suddenly stopped flowing, you would have four years of carryover capacity in the reservoirs before you had to evacuate most of southern California and Arizona and a good portion of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. The river system provides over half the water of greater Los Angeles, San Diego, and Phoenix; it grows much of America’s domestic production of fresh winter vegetables; it illuminates the neon city of Las Vegas, whose annual income is one-fourth the entire gross national product of Egypt—the only other place on earth where so many people are so helplessly dependent on one river’s flow. The greater portion of the Nile, however, still manages, despite many diversions, to reach its delta at the Mediterranean Sea. The Colorado is so used up on its way to the sea that only a burbling trickle reaches its dried-up delta at the head of the Gulf of California, and then only in wet years. To some conservationists, the Colorado River is the preeminent symbol of everything mankind has done wrong—a harbinger of a squalid and deserved fate. To its preeminent impounder, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, it is the perfection of an ideal.
The Colorado has a significance that goes beyond mere prominence. It was on this river that the first of the world’s truly great dams was built—a dam which gave engineers the confidence to dam the Columbia, the Volga, the Parana, the Niger, the Nile, the Zambezi, and most of the world’s great rivers. The dam rose up at the depths of the Depression and carried America’s spirits with it. Its electricity helped produce the ships and planes that won the Second World War, and its water helped grow the food. From such illustrious and hopeful beginnings, however, the tale of human intervention in the Colorado River degenerates into a chronicle of hubris and obtuseness. Today, even though the Colorado still resembles a river only in its upper reaches and its Grand Canyon stretch—even as hydrologists amuse themselves by speculating about how many times each molecule of water has passed through pairs of kidneys—it is still unable to satisfy all the demands on it, so it is referred to as a “deficit” river, as if the river were somehow at fault for its overuse. And though there are plans to relieve the “deficit”—plans to import water from as far away as Alaska—the twenty million people in the Colorado Basin will probably find themselves facing chronic shortages, if not some kind of catastrophe, before any of these grandiose schemes is built—if, indeed, one is ever built.
One could almost say, then, that the history of the Colorado River contains a metaphor for our time. One could say that the age of great expectations was inaugurated at Hoover Dam—a fifty-year flowering of hopes when all things appeared possible. And one could say that, amid the salt-encrusted sands of the river’s dried-up delta, we began to founder on the Era of Limits.
In terms of annual flow, the Colorado isn’t a big river—in the United States it does not even rank among the top twenty-five—but, like a forty-pound wolverine that can drive a bear off its dinner, it is unrivaled for sheer orneriness. The virgin Colorado was tempestuous, will- fill, headstrong. Its flow varied psychotically between a few thousand cubic feet per second and a couple of hundred thousand, sometimes within a few days. Draining a vast, barren watershed whose rains usually come in deluges, its sediment volume was phenomenal. If the river, running high, were diverted through an ocean liner with a cheesecloth strainer at one end, it would have filled the ship with mud in an afternoon. The silt would begin to settle about two hundred miles above the Gulf of California, below the last of the Grand Canyon’s rapids, where the river’s gradient finally moderated for good. There was so much silt that it raised the entire riverbed, foot by foot, year by year, until the Colorado slipped out of its loose confinement of low sandy bluffs and tore off in some other direction, instantly digging a new course. It developed an affection for several such channels, returning to them again and again—Bee River, New River, Alamo River, big braided washes that sat dry and expectant in the desert, waiting for the river to return. The New and Alamo channels drove into Mexico, then veered back north into the United States, a hundred-mile semi-loop, and ended at the foot of the Chocolate Mountains, where the delinquent river would form a huge evanescent body of water called the Salton Sea. After a while, the New and Alamo channels would themselves silt up and the Colorado would throw itself back into its old bed and return to the Gulf of California, much to the relief of the great schools of shrimp, the clouds of waterfowl, and the thousands of cougars, jaguars, and bobcats that prowled its delta. The Salton Sea would slowly evaporate and life would return to normal, for a while. The river went on such errant flings every few dozen years—a vanishing moment in geologic time, but long enough so that the first people who tried to tame it had no idea what they were in for.
The first of these tamers was an eastern developer with a grandiose imagination, a bulldog chin, a shock of steel-wool hair, and a name suggestive of his temperament. In 1892, Charles Rockwood saw the Colorado River for the first time and became obsessed. Sitting north of it, an appendage of the vast Sonoran Desert of southern California and Arizona, were hundreds of thousands of absolutely flat acres built by its’ ancient delta, fertile land where you could grow crops twelve months of the year. All that stood in the way of cultivation was an annual rainfall of 2.4 inches, about the lowest in the United States. Despite the imposing nature of the task, the temptation to play God with the river and turn this brutal desert green was too much for Rockwood to resist. After traveling halfway around the world for financial support, he seduced the most famous private irrigationist of his day, George Chaffey, into joining forces with him. By 1901, Rockwood and Chaffey had cut a diversion channel, and a good portion of the river was pouring over fields in what had once been called the Valley of the Dead (in grand nineteenth-century fustian tradition, Rockwood renamed it Imperial Valley). Within eight months, there were two towns, two thousand settlers, and a hundred thousand acres ready for harvesting.
By 1904, however, the artificial channel had already silted up, and a bypass had to be cut. It silted up. Another bypass was cut; it too silted up. Finally, after much negotiation, the developers persuaded the Mexican government to let them cut still another channel below the border. Because it was meant as a temporary expedient while the original channel was cleaned out in advance of the spring floods, the Mexican channel had the flimsiest of control gates. As luck would have it, the spring floods arrived two months early. In February, a great surge of snowmelt and warm rain spilled out of the Gila River, just above the Mexican channel, and made off with the control gate. For the first time in centuries, the river was back in its phantom channel, the Alamo River, heading for its old haunt, the Salton Sink. As the surge advanced across the Imperial Valley, it cut into the loamy soil at a foot-per-second rate, forming a waterfall that marched backward toward the main channel. Even as their fields were being eaten and as their homes swam away, the valley people came out by the hundreds to see this apparition, a twenty-foot falls moving backward at a slow walk. By summer, virtually all of the Colorado River was out of its main channel, and the Salton Sink had once again become the Salton Sea.
Chaffey had had some differences with Rockwood and got out of the California Development Company a short while earlier with his reputation intact, leaving his erstwhile partner ruined. But the Southern Pacific Railroad had already invested too much money in a spur line to the valley to watch it abandoned to fate, so it took Rockwood’s company into receivership and set about trying to tame the river. For the next two years, Edward H. Harriman, the railroad magnate, and the Colorado River fought nose to nose. Southern Pacific trains crawled back and forth across the valley like caterpillars, carrying rock and gravel to plug the half-mile breach. But 1905, 1906, and 1907 were some of the wettest years in the Colorado Basin’s history. In 1907, the river sent a record twenty-five million acre-feet—eight quadrillion gallons—to the gulf. The floods, one following another, casually ripped Harriman’s brush weirs to shreds; his miles of driven piles were uprooted and washed away. Finally, in February of 1907, after laughing away the railroad’s best efforts, the river decided to lull. With mad energy, the SP crews finally secured the breach. When the next surge came down, the weirs held, and the river, dumping silt ten times faster than the trains, began rebuilding its own confinement.
Victory or no, the Colorado River was a rampant horse in a balsa corral. The only way to control it effectively, and to give the farmers some insurance against its countervailing tendency to dry up, was to build a dam—a huge dam—to lop the peaks off the floods and provide storage during droughts. The problem with such a dam, from the point of view of the basin at large, was that California was then the only state in a position to use the water. Wyoming, Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico were still mostly uninhabited. Colorado and Utah had a few hundred thousand people each, but they had scarcely begun to tap the Colorado River and its tributaries; most of Utah’s irrigation had been developed in another basin. California, on the other hand, was gaining people like no place on earth, and most of the growth was occurring in the south. The Imperial Valley could have immediately used three or four million acre-feet of the river, the consumption of all the upper-basin states and then some. The Coachella Valley, farther north, and the Palo Verde and Yuma projects could swallow another million acre-feet. Los Angeles, growing like a gourd in the night, would soon overrun its Owens Valley supply; the next logical source of water—the only logical source—was the Colorado River. Under simple appropriative-rights doctrine, the water would belong to California as soon as it began to use it. If California perfected its rights in court, it would, in effect, monopolize a huge portion of the river for itself. And the real injustice in all of this was that California contributed nothing to the river’s flow. Nearly half the runoff came from Colorado and another third from Wyoming and Utah. Arizona and New Mexico contributed very little; Nevada and California, nothing at all. California’s efforts to get the dam authorized by Congress were soon beaten back. Finally, it realized that if it wanted the dam and a reliable share of the river, it would have to sit down with its neighbor states and divide it up.
The negotiation of the Colorado River Compact took place in 1922 under the guidance of Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover at Bishop’s Lodge, a swank resort outside Santa Fe, New Mexico. For the time spent debating and drafting it—about eleven months—and its reputation as a western equivalent of the Constitution, the compact didn’t settle much. Using the Reclamation Service’s estimated average flow of 17.5 million annual acre-feet, the delegates from the seven states divided the river arbitrarily at Lee’s Ferry, Arizona—a point just below the Utah border—into two artificial basins. California, Arizona, and Nevada were the lower basin; the other four states were the upper basin; pieces of New Mexico and Arizona were in both. Each basin was allotted 7.5 million acre-feet. How they were to divide that among themselves was their problem. Of the remainder, 1.5 million acre-feet were reserved for Mexico, and the final million acre-feet were apportioned, with extreme reluctance on the part of some, as a bonus to the lower basin, whose delegates had threatened to walk out of the negotiations if they didn’t get a better deal.The compact was signed by the delegates in November of 1922; they then took it home for ratification by the voters or legislatures of their respective states, which quickly tore it to shreds. California wouldn’t ratify without a conjugal authorization of Boulder Canyon Dam and a new canal running exclusively through American territory to Imperial Valley, a demand that gave the upper basin fits. Arizona wanted to divide the lower basin’s apportionment before it ratified anything. Harry Chandler, probably the most influential human being in the Southwest—he talked through his vast wealth and his newspaper—was delighted by the compact and the authorization of the dam, but he was too greedy to tolerate an All-American Canal, which would divert the river right above his 860,000 acres in Mexico, so he ended up opposing everything. George Maxwell, the head of the National Reclamation Association, should have been in favor of Boulder Dam, but out of principle he opposed anything Harry Chandler liked.
In 1928, after six years of paralysis, Congress took matters into its own hands. It authorized Boulder Dam and the All-American Canal on the condition that at least six of the seven states ratify the compact, and that California limit its annual diversion to 4.4 million acre-feet per year. That implied only 2.8 million for Arizona (Nevada got 300,000 acre-feet), which was less than it wanted. Arizona, as a result, became the one state that refused to ratify, an act of defiance that would muddle things for another thirty-five years. At the time, however, its vote wasn’t needed, and the other states’ ratification led forthwith to the California Limitation Act and, subsequently, to passage of the Boulder Canyon Project Act. All of this appeared to settle matters: the basin could now embark on an orgy of growth the likes of which the West had never seen. And it did settle things, temporarily at least, except for one small matter: the average annual flow of the Colorado River was nowhere near 17.5 million acre-feet.