Maybe California’s Water Wars Aren’t as Bad as You Think
The American West has always been a dry place. That gave it a reputation: Everyone is fighting over water. Historically, that reputation reflected reality. Decades-long grudges between farmers and environmentalists over endangered fish. Cities that slurp up entire lakes. States literally declaring war on each other—as Arizona did to California in the 1930s. And a complex legal systems employing armies of water-specialized lawyers to arbitrate all the bickering.
That water-for-fightin’ reputation masks a counter-narrative. Amid the droughts, the fish fights, and the water wars, the West remains wet enough for civilization. Las Vegas still has fountains, California still has farms, and Phoenix is still home to 1.5 million heat-loving lunatics. In his new book, Water is For Fighting Over, and Other Myths About Water in the West, John Fleck chronicles the mellowing of some of the west’s biggest water warriors, and explains why that is good for the region’s future.
In 13 concise chapters, Fleck—veteran water journalist and director of the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program—illustrates how states, communities, and water rights holders have learned that the winner-takes-all approach to water management is a losing proposition. He is not ignorant of the West’s conflicted water past, or about how persistent pugilism remains in some parts of the region. But he argues that collaboration is growing. That’s a necessary development, he says, in a climate-changed world characterized by longer, bigger droughts and a growing population.
WIRED: Your book refutes the great Western American axiom that water is a source of conflict—well-known from Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert, which is gospel among water wonks. Why do you think the attitude in that book has persisted?
I think there are a couple reasons. One, Reisner was a damn good writer. If you’ve read Cadillac Desert you know it’s a great book. So much so that I feel sort of sheepish emerging as a critic of it. I came of age as a journalist in the 1980s when the book first came out, and it strongly influenced my views about the mistakes we had made building these farms and cities in the desert.
But then things changed. People adapted to those mistakes, started learning how to use less water, how to share, how to collaborate, cooperate, all in ways that Reisner couldn’t have envisioned. Today the west is a very different world than what he described 30 years ago.
He recognized that. There’s another book Reisner wrote after Cadillac Desert called Overtapped Oasis, and in that book he starts to come to terms with the changes. One of my friends who writes about water said that Cadillac Desert had rendered itself obsolete, because we all read the book, embraced its message, and started changing the way we manage water.
In one chapter, you write about the West Basin of Los Angeles, where communities were basically ready to share access to an aquifer, but this one city, Hawthorne, kept holding out until legal challenges forced it into submission. It seems like conflict solved the problem.
In that whole process, Hawthorne stood out as an exception. It tried to continue to fight when others were trying to come up with a collaborative solution. Hawthorne saw that fighting was going to fail and came in line with the compromise. So, it’s not that this stuff is without conflict, but ultimately the things that work are collaborative solutions. What really works are people realizing that conflict doesn’t work.
The conflict mentality causes this really high stakes battle. This is like when Arizona in the 1930s was clinging to its full share of the Colorado River against California, but really that full share was just paper water. In reality, there wasn’t enough actual water to give them their full share.
So what’s the alternative?
The collaborative approach, which is what we’ve seen in the last two major Colorado River agreements—the 2001 surplus allocation agreement and the 2007 shortage sharing agreement. The states came together and said, “We need to figure out how to ratchet down use.” And instead of each state clinging to their big share, people agreed that there was not enough water, and everyone had to give up something. It’s not that there isn’t conflict, it’s just a different approach to digging in your heels. If you recognize that you can use less, and you don’t need an ever-increasing allocation of water, it makes it easier to share.
You also are an apologist for Las Vegas, a city whose flagrant fountains and water shows get villainized. What can other places, like California’s Central Valley, learn from the South Nevada Water Authority’s top-down water regulation?
In Las Vegas, people got together and decided what kind of city they wanted to be. Their water supply was fixed, and they had to conserve a lot in order grow into that vision. A lot of people might think that was crazy, but it was that city’s choice. Communities have self-determination in this country.
The problem is more complicated in places like California’s Central Valley, because the people there have made a choice to not live within the available water supply. I’m really uncomfortable with that, and have a hard time defending that decision that those communities have made. In my book, I argue that the tragedy of the commons doesn’t always happen. But sometimes it does, and California’s Central Valley is a flagrant example of that.
Farmers in the west tend to get a lot of grief over their water use. But you defend farmers’ rights to huge water allocations. Why?
There are a couple reasons. First, we built this western US societal infrastructure around large scale agricultural development. If you look at first half of the 20th century, the notion that the west would have big cities, and they would need water, just wasn’t in picture at all. So you had communities that made good faith decisions to build farms based on what we, as a society, said we wanted to do. To suddenly change our mind and say, ‘No, you don’t get to exist because we have changed our ideas about water” isn’t fair.
But even if you don’t agree with that argument, the second reason is more practical: These agricultural water rights holders have the law on their side, and a political structure that makes it very difficult to elbow them out of way. So no matter what, these users are going to be in the picture when we talk about how that water gets allocated.
How do environmental priorities fit into those allocations?
Water laws were made when the whole idea about water use was for human benefit. Those laws didn’t care about the river itself, the fish, or the riparian system. We made those decisions early on. One thing that has happened in last 50 years is our values have evolved. We care about environmental flows now. So we have a choice again of choosing conflict or collaboration. We can sue each other over the Endangered Species Act and litigate over how much water should remain in the river. Or, we can negotiate based on this new set of values.
Cadillac Desert suggested that the West’s water chronic shortages would some day cause societal collapse. Why hasn’t this come true?
There’s this thing I’ve come to call the East Porterville problem. Last summer, their wells went dry, and they ran out of water. So, you saw news story after news story, and international journalists would descend on East Porterville to report how people there were bathing with bottled water. But it was always just East Porterville.
Yes, we need to take lessons from what happened in East Porterville. But we also need to look at the millions and millions of people who did not run out of water. This is the really important lesson of California’s drought: How resilient that state is, and how robust it has been in the face of the largest water shock it has ever faced. In year two, year three, people kept predicting large scale disaster. But it never happened. We need to spend next five to 10 years looking carefully at what happened, what worked, and what will work in the future.