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Journal of Political Ecology:
Case Studies in History and Society
VOLUME 8 (2001)
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
Twains observation that "Whiskeys for drinking; waters
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 Spains 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 propertys 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 Pimas
agricultural success and the vitality of their community.
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 Schafers 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 countiesand 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."