This site maintained by: Aomar Boum. Site last updated on October 2001.  
Journal of Political Ecology: 
Case Studies in History and Society



VOLUME 8 (2001)

Fluid Arguments: Five Centuries of Western Water Conflict, Char Miller, editor. Tucson: University of Arizona Press (2001), xxix, 354 pp.


Reviewed by Staci J. Pratt, Shook, Hardy & Bacon.


Fluid Arguments: Five Centuries of Western Water Conflict, as edited by Trinity history professor Char Miller, presents a tapestry of stories woven around water usage in the arid Western regions of the United States. The volume opens with Mark Twain’s observation that "Whiskey’s for drinking; water’s for fighting," and proceeds to examine the conflicts that have arisen as a result of various claims to this limited life-giving resource. Miller explains that contentiousness "has been woven into the history of water in the American West. This rich, sustained, and combative historical context is the focus of Fluid Arguments. Through the interdisciplinary insights of ethnography, geography, history, political science, law and urban studies, this book reveals ". . . the impact water and aridity have had on human cultures and ecosystems."

Fluid Arguments covers a broad chronological perspective and geographic range, employing individual cases studies and different disciplines to amplify the role played by water in the American West. The volume is divided into five parts, by topics: (i) Land and Water on New Spain’s Frontier; (ii) The Native American Struggle for Water; (iii) Agricultural Conundrums; (iv) Dam those Waters! and (v) The Coming Fight. What emerges from this book is an understanding of water as the conduit through which individual social systems may arise, develop, deteriorate, or collapse.

In a chapter devoted to Native American story telling, Kansas State University Professor Bonnie Lynn-Sherow provides a Saynday story illustrating a Kiowa perspective on the nature of water. Saynday is "a skinny, egotistical, and irreverent culture hero," who one day interrupts a group of field mice holding a ceremonial dance inside a bison skull. "He is so enthralled that he gets right down on the ground to watch and, before he realizes it, has stuck his head all the way into the skull lodge, where it becomes firmly wedged. The mice are understandably furious with him and leave him there, blinded and stumbling around. After falling down a few times, Saynday decides to feel his way to Cottonwood Creek, which he knows will lead him directly back to his camp. Saynday . . . gets into the creek, which carries him over the sand, over the shallows, over the mud, into the deep pools, and finally to his own camp." The creek leads him home, essentially providing the means for Saynday, despite his foolish antics, to return to his people and society. Water plays a similar role in many of Fluid Arguments’ chapters, furnishing a way to define a people and acting as a touchstone of individual social systems.

Part One of Fluid Arguments includes a discussion of the ways in which water use organized landholding during the Spanish colonial period of the American Southwest, from roughly the 1400s forward. In this frontier, "land was plentiful, water was not." The Spanish occupation of Texas resulted in a general awareness that a property’s relationship to water determined its value, as well as the need to engage in industries which did not make significant demands on water use such as livestock ranching. An article by Shelly Dudley traces the thriving agricultural community of the Pima Indians in Arizona, whose strength related to sophisticated irrigation practices. When Euro-Americans arrived in the 1820, the demands of frontier settlers and ranchers eventually destroyed the water supply, ending the Pima’s agricultural success and the vitality of their community.
In Part Two, a number of the authors examine legal doctrines associated with Native American water rights, and the impact of the notion of prior appropriation. To establish a legal claim to water in the American West, one must show a diversion and use of the water resource. The rule boils down to: first in time, first in right. For this reason, many legal battles over water rights devolve into a historical analysis of who first made a beneficial use of the resource. The judicial definition of "beneficial use," however, often demands an agricultural pursuit, rather than the sporadic water reliance employed by hunting and gathering societies. This approach has meant that policymakers often encouraged tribes to pursue agricultural activities, even where the terrain or native culture did not support it. It seems somewhat self-serving that the courts have viewed "beneficial use" so narrowly. Native societies certainly relied upon water to sustain their people far before any European came and diverted water to a field.

The legal analysis is complicated by the Winters Doctrine, which mandates that the federal government act as a trustee for the tribes and assert treaty based water rights on their behalf. The U.S. Supreme Court emphasized that the federal government could bring suit against nonfederal, that is non-Native American, irrigators to ensure adequate water on arid reservations. Immense litigation has resulted, where Anglo farmers and their descendants have battled Native Americans for access to water. As the essays of Alan Newell and Daniel McCool reveal, courtroom battles in New Mexico and late twentieth century water settlement negotiations involving numerous tribes, western states, and the federal government ensure that the issue will continue to define communities. This is particularly true as urban centers make greater demands on the water supply. McCool emphasizes that water use patterns are now changing dramatically in the West. "Today about 85 percent of the water diverted in the West is used by agriculture, mostly for hay and other low-value crops. But economics, population growth, and political opposition to irrigation subsidies are all placing pressure on the old water regime. It is probable that much of the water currently used by agriculture will be reallocated."

In Part Three, Fluid Arguments turns to an examination of agricultural pursuits and the availability of water. James Sherow provides an ecosystems perspective on the development of the Chisholm Trail. From 1860 to 1885, cattle ranchers sought to use the trail to bring cattle from Texas to railheads in Kansas. He notes, "in the early 1860s, Indian peoples dominated the use of solar energy and water sources along and near the trail; by the 1880s farmers had taken over the neighborhood. In between, the great cattle drives along the Chisholm Trail created an ephemeral and transitional ecosystem." A number of forces shaped the life of this system, including "the plight of Indian peoples attempting to preserve their energy supplies; the conflicting claims to water and stored solar energy; the perilous intersection of markets and winter grazing in 1871; and the cultural collision between farmers, cattlemen, and Indian peoples."

Other agricultural stories focus on the difficulty of irrigating land in the Grand Valley of Colorado, the development of intensive farming in the Lower Rio Grande and the eventual degradation of the environment as a result. Thomas Schafer’s examination of cropping practices in southwestern Kansas confirms that changes in "basic agricultural practices can produce dramatic alterations in the entire economy of a region." His county-level perspective uncovers that communities "adapted to and transformed local environmental conditions" by shifting from corn to wheat, a less water intensive crop, early on, and then diversified their growing practices when technological innovations permitted use of water stored in the Ogallala aquifer.

Emphasizing the ways in which natural resources define communities, Environmental Historian John Opie suggests that we "jettison the traditional demarcation of western space along political subdivisions-particularly counties–and rectangular sections," and gain "more accurate information about the extent and quality of resources set within competing human pressures and environmental needs." For example, watershed based understandings of community may offer better insights into the physical world we inhabit.

Part Four of Fluid Arguments presents a reevaluation of the role of damming projects in the history of water development. Donald Jackson indicates that the private sector played a crucial role in the creation of these public-works projects, while Mark Harvey explores the massive dams constructed pursuant to the New Deal. As noted by Char Miller, "The stunning complex of dams along the Colorado, Platte, Snake, Columbia and Missouri Rivers degraded riparian ecosystems, inundated natural landmarks, uprooted communities, and turned fast-flowing watercourses into placid reservoirs. They also produced considerable work in a region of high unemployment, generated cheap hydroelectricity to power new industries on the West Coast, and sparked the emergence of a potent political coalition that channeled federal spending into these ambitious projects." As for the aftermath, legal scholar Raul Sanchez surveys the high price paid by individuals and the environment for these initiatives.

Finally, Fluid Arguments turns to the challenges for the future. University of Nevada History Professor Hal Rothman argues that reallocation may present the wave to come. "When Nevadans look to the fact that more than 80 percent of their water produces only $1 billion in revenue and realize that 18 percent accounts for more than three hundred times that amount in gross revenue, they cast their eyes on the rural parts of the state with wonder." Rothman suggests that the urban economy will eventually demand a greater share of water resources, and will "create considerably more opportunity for more people throughout the state" than water-intensive agricultural operations in an arid setting.

Given the prominence of water in the development of communities in the West, perhaps it is time to revisit allocation rules and come up with a reasoned approach to water usage. "First in time, First in right" provides predictability as a rule, but does not necessarily ensure a wise use of this limited resource. The Kiowa story of Saynday acknowledges that water brings us home; it is the guide for our communities and the center of our existence in the arid American West. In addition, water can bring diverse peoples to the table to discuss common interests and create common goals. Fluid Arguments provides a solid foundation for this discussion to proceed. As John Muir once observed, "Nature is always lovely, invincible, glad, whatever is done and suffered by her creatures. All scars she heals, whether in rocks or water or sky or hearts."