WATER AND THE WEST
The combination of the Homestead Act and the spanning of the continent by railroads greatly accelerated the peopling of the western states, and this brings us to the question of water. In the eastern United States, where rainfall is generally adequate to support farming, water policy is rarely the most important public issue. In much of the west, water policy is an absolutely vital issue. In the years immediately after the Civil War, the populations of the Plains states grew very rapidly, for reasons noted above. These years were wetter than usual, and if many western farmers did not thrive, they at least survived. The favorable weather, in fact, caused some to believe that the very act of cultivating large areas of land would cause rainfall, a notion then expressed in the phrase "rain follows the plow."
In the 1880s the weather turned drier, and it became apparent that rain does not follow the plow. In a number of Plains states, both the farm population and the total population fell sharply as farmers abandoned their barren lands. By the end of the nineteenth century, of somewhat over 1 million families that had tried homesteading, only about 400,000 had made a successful go of it.9
The failure of rain-fed agriculture in the western half of the nation promoted a great interest in irrigation to "reclaim" the desert lands for agriculture. But private irrigation efforts, by and large, were not very successful. Inadequate technical knowledge, undercapitalization, and, in many cases, fraud and chicanery doomed a majority of private irrigation projects. Pressure mounted for federal action.
The Reclamation Act of 1902 established the Reclamation Service (which became the Bureau of Reclamation in 1923). Under the act, funds from the sale of public lands were to be used to pay for irrigation projects and the investment repaid (without interest) by the parties using the water. At first the repayment period was to be 10 years, then 20 years with a five- year grace period, and subsequently was extended even further.10 The principle of federal subsidization of water development thus became firmly established. From the act's passage to well into the 1920s, the federal role in providing water in the west was modest. But in the late 1920s, a combination of events propelled the nation into almost a half-century of dam building and water projects that shaped much of the modern west.
In the period around World War I, people in the rapidly growing Los Angeles region recognized that growth would be brought to a halt by water shortages if a new source were not found. The nearest major source was the Colorado River, which begins in central Colorado more than two miles above sea level and follows a tumultuous southwesterly course, ending in the Gulf of California between Baja California and the main land mass of Mexico. But the river does not flow through California itself, and thus California could not make a direct claim on it. Californians took the initiative, and after much negotiation the Colorado River Compact to divide the waters of the Colorado was signed by the seven states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming. In 1928 Congress authorized the construction of Boulder Dam (subsequently renamed Hoover Dam), smaller dams downstream, and the All-American Canal. The latter was to run westward from a lower point on the river, Lake Havasu, to be formed by Parker Dam, to Los Angeles. The centerpiece of the project was Boulder Dam, on which construction began in 1931 under the auspices of the Bureau of Reclamation. Completed in 1936, the dam was a massive testimony to the civil engineer's art. It was 726 feet high, almost a quarter of a mile across the crest, and contained 66 million tons of concrete. A system of canals and aqueducts was then constructed to carry the waters of the Colorado across the width of California to serve the city of Los Angeles. Further south, the All-American Canal carried the Colorado's waters westward just north of the California-Mexico border and turned the desert of California's Imperial Valley into one of the nation's most productive agricultural areas.
The dam was a spectacular demonstration of what could be done both to supply huge quantities of water and produce enormous amounts of cheap, hydroelectric power. At the same time, the Great Depression had left a quarter of the nation's labor force unemployed, and federal job creation appeared to be the best way to deal with the problem. Dam building and reclamation projects were a way to soak up unemployed labor and produce a useful product. The dust bowl of the early 1930s (a result of dry weather and overcultivation) drove hundreds of thousands of farmers off their land in states such as Oklahoma (hence the term Okies) and sent them westward toward California. Another use, then, for funding reclamation work was to open up lands for farmers displaced by the dust bowl. A great era of dam building was soon underway. The prime agency for this work was the Bureau of Reclamation, though some dams were also built by the Army Corps of Engineers.
In connection with the dam building and associated construction done on the Colorado, one writer states,
If the Colorado River suddenly stopped flowing, you would have two years of carry-over 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 illumines the neon city of
Las Vegas . . . whose annual income is one-fourth the gross national product of
Egypt—the only other place on earth where so many people are so helplessly
dependent on one river's flow.11
What was done on the Colorado was not unique but only a harbinger of what was soon to be done elsewhere. By the start of World War II, Grand Coulee and Bonneville Dams (built by the Army Corps of Engineers) on the Columbia River and Shasta Dam on the Sacramento River in northern California had been completed. The process of damming and controlling the rivers of the west continued with great speed after World War II. By 1971, Hoover Dam ranked only 47th in size among dams built or under construction by the bureau.12 The largest of these, the earth-filled San Luis Dam in California, had an interior volume of over 77 million cubic yards, more than 30 times that of Hoover Dam.
Construction of water projects peaked in the 1960s with the addition of about 29 million acre-feet of storage per year and then slowed in the 1970s. It has since come to an almost complete stop. What happened? First, most of the best dam sites had already been developed:
In the 1920s, a cubic yard of dam produced 10.4 acre feet in reservoir capacity.
The average declined in each decade, and by the 1960s only .29 acre feet of
storage was produced per cubic yard of dam.13
Thus newer projects showed lower benefit-cost ratios than older ones, and it became increasingly difficult to justify major federal expenditures for them.
Then, too, our notions of conservation have changed. To Theodore Roosevelt, the greatest turn-of-the-century conservationist, the idea of reclaiming the desert and making it bloom made perfect sense. The conservationist of today might ask just what prior claim we were "reclaiming." We have come to question how much sense it makes to deliver water to the farmer at 10 cents on the dollar in a nation that uses billions of federal dollars to pay farmers elsewhere to take land out of cultivation. Does it really make sense to grow rice, as is actually done, in the California desert? Then, too, it has become apparent that the great Bureau of Reclamation and Corps of Engineers' projects of the past make both friends and enemies. Farmers and the industrial users of hydropower love them. But environmentalists become concerned about converting wetlands into reservoirs, since wetlands serve as breeding areas, as sources of biodiversity, and as stopping areas for migrating birds. They are concerned that changing the flow of a river by damming it may drive some species to extinction. Fishermen and others want rivers left in their natural state. Archeologists do not want to see historic sites submerged forever. In short, the growing strength of the environmental movement helped bring the era of great water projects to an end.
In 1986 Congress passed the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA). The law mandated much higher local contributions to federal water projects and higher user fees for federal water projects. By shifting a substantial part of the cost downward, it ended the era when state and local governments would lobby for inefficient projects simply because the project would bring them some benefits while imposing almost no costs on them.14 The law applied to the Corps of Engineers and not the Bureau of Reclamation, but it affected the bureau nonetheless. At present both the bureau and the Corps are much more attuned to issues of conservation and efficient use of resources rather than massive new projects. In the west the key issues in regard to water conflicts are likely to involve water rights and water pricing, and balancing the needs of growing urban and suburban populations with the prior claims of agriculture.
In the west, water rights have generally been determined on the basis of "prior appropriation," meaning on the basis of who first claimed the right and used the source.15 Agriculture, which employs a very small part of the total population of the region, uses a very large share of the region's total water supply. It has a grip on this supply because of the doctrine of prior appropriation. If water is to be allocated on a more economic basis, whether it be competitive bidding or simply pricing water at its true cost of delivery, that change will favor urban and industrial users over agricultural users.16 Decisions on this apparently technical issue of how to price water will have a major effect on the future development of the west.
The United States west of the Mississippi and particularly the Southwest has experienced drought conditions since 2000 and some students of long-term climate trends consider it possible that we may be in for a much longer period of drought—a so-called mega-drought. Evidence from tree rings indicates that mega-droughts have occurred in the past. If so, the pressure for rationalized water pricing and conservation will grow ever stronger.