I sat in the audience dumbfounded last month listening to Pat Mulroy speak at the 16th Annual Water Conservation/Xeriscape Expo here in Albuquerque. Mulroy is the head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, the agency that wholesales water to the Las Vegas, Nev., area, and is arguably the most prominent figure in western water politics and policy right now.
I’d arranged for an interview after her talk, and I’d stayed up late the night before re-reading some ancient history that I wanted to talk to her about – John Wesley Powell’s ideas about organizing government in the West around watershed boundaries. There’s a theme I’ve been kicking around – the notion that, in building the system of dams and diversions we now use to manage western water, we’ve created in effect one uber-watershed that extends from San Francisco to Albuquerque, but that our systems of governance haven’t caught up.
I was hoping to get Mulroy to talk in our interview about some of the implications. So I sat there slightly dumbfounded when, in the talk itself, she invoked Powell’s ideas about watershed government and then said this (sub/ad req):
“We created the largest artificial watershed in the world,” said Mulroy… “That has created an environment of extreme interdependence.”
The problem, according to Mulroy, is that we do not have the political institutions and policies in place to manage the vast plumbing system we’ve created, leaving a risk of shortages and litigation.
OK, guess I can check that interview question off my list. 🙂
But in really diving into the details of what Powell was talking about this weekend, I’m beginning to wonder whether I’m not quite thinking correctly about this – or whether the differences between Powell’s formulation and the “artificial watershed” governance idea Mulroy and I are talking about exposes a problem in my thinking.
Powell apparently first sketched this out testifying before a congressional group, the Committee on Irrigation, in March 1890. There’s a lot I haven’t read yet, but the first reference I can locate (hat tip to Bill DeBuys’ Powell reader Seeing Things Whole, which has a nice discussion of this with references) is a discussion of the Rio Grande. And the watershed concepts he’s describing involve very small, self-contained units.
Here’s his elaboration, in Institutions for the Arid Lands, published in Century Magazine later that year:
[T]here is a body of interdependent and unified interests and values, all collected in one hydrographic basin and all segregated by well-defined boundary lines from the rest of the world. The people in such a district have common interests, common rights, and common duties, and must necessarily work together for common purposes. Let such a people organize, under national and state laws, a great irrigation district, including an entire hydrographic basin; and let them make their own laws for the division of the waters, for the protection and use of the forests, for the protection of the pasturage on the hills, and for the use of the powers. This, then, is the proposition I make: that the entire arid region be organized into natural hydrographic districts, each one to be a commonwealth within itself for the purpose of controlling and using the great values which have been pointed out. There are some great rivers where the larger trunks would have to be divided into two or more districts, but the majority would be of the character described. Each such community should possess its own irrigation works; it would have to erect diverting dams, dig canals, and construct reservoirs; and such works would have to be maintained from year to year. The plan is to establish local self-government by hydrographic basins.
Clearly “local” is a critical piece of Powell’s formulation that I haven’t been giving sufficient attention in my thinking.
I’m musing out loud here for two reasons. The first is journalistic. For the same reason Mulroy invoked Powell’s ideas in her talk, I like to invoke them as a story-telling device, a way to help make people make sense of this idea I’ve been working on that people all across the West are interlinked by common water systems in a web of interdependencies that are very real in a physical sense, but which our governance can’t quite handle.
But I’m also in that dangerous journalism no-man’s land, where I’m actually trying to advocate a policy approach. If I use it that way, it’s incumbent on me to get the history right.