Is the “iron triangle” in western water management still a relevant concept?

Berkeley agricultural economist E. Phillip Leveen seems to have been* the person who coined the term “iron triangle” to describe the political structure behind large scale 20th century water development in the western United Staes. The “triangle” is an attempt to describe the relationship between federal water agencies, members of key congressional committees responsible for allocating tax money for the great water works,  and water users – generally agricultural water users. Here’s Leveen describing the U.S. Bueau of Reclamation in 1972:

The Bureau must find political support for its program to be successful. Congress provides the funds for the program, but only in response to political pressures from constituents. Thus, the Bureau must form an alliance with a powerful political constituency which can “demand” its product from Congress. The most effective political groups are generally small, cohesive producer groups rather than large, amorphous constituencies. These latter groups, even if given benefits equivalent to the small group, are less likely to organize politically because the costs of organizing large groups are higher and the benefits per individual are lower in comparison to the small group. According to this model, then, the Bureau’s support of the large landowners was dictated largely by the need to form an effective constituency.

Over most of the 20th century, that seems to have been a reasonable model for how things worked. But has it broken down?

Consider my story from this morning’s newspaper, about new water legislation from Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., aimed at drought and water management targets, primarily on the Rio Grande:

Saying the days of big water projects and large federal investment are over, Udall said in an interview Wednesday that the legislation looks instead at the full range of the federal government’s water operations in the state, and ways current laws could be tweaked and additional financial support provided to stretch the state’s limited supplies.

It is not a criticism when I characterize this bill as “small ball”, a series of legal tweaks and relatively small financial incentives aimed at the narrow piece of New Mexico water management that involves federal control and/or room for discretionary action. It rather, I think, describes a new state of affairs that seems to look nothing like an “iron triangle”, where the opportunities and constraints have changed and we’re still sorting out what a new role for the federal government, and a new political structure, might look like in a time of scarcity.

* Leveen’s 1972 piece is the earliest use of the phrase “iron triangle” to describe western water management that I’ve been able to find. (I’d love any earlier references.) Leveen, in a footnote, attributes the underlying concept to Theodore Lowi’s 1969 book The End of Liberalism. In it, Lowi describes a “triangle” in federal agricultural policy and politics through several examples, including the Extension Service and the Soil Conservation Service. Lowi doesn’t specifically mention water agencies.


  1. It’s still intact for the CAP, SWP etc., b/c those projects are past their prime. They need to be opened/privatized/sold to users, to remove the federal involvement and put the water back into play.

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  3. I would embrace the concept of privatization but what would we then do to fund dedications of water for the environment? Farmers in the Central Valley Project pay through their water rates the costs to operate the system and to pay off its old bonds. Those water rate payments sustain the dedications of water for fish runs and wildlife. Would taxpayers be as willing to pick up the tab for the share of the cost to operate the Central Valley Project for wildlife? I rather doubt it because the public always wants public goods free.

    So the real “Iron Triangle” or “Green Triangle” that can’t be easily separated is the ties between Big Environmental, Big Ag, and Big Government, at least in California. If you are an Occupier or a Postmodernist anything Big and Private is evil except Big Government. Jerry Brown’s “Small is Beautiful” political philosophy will sink California’s water plan. Opposing the plan are the Delta small farmers, advocates for Delta small towns and villages, small fisherman, and Delta restoration groups all wanting to turn the clock back on the Delta to a bucolic paradise it never was. There is no “Small is Beautiful” when it comes to California’s water wars. We are inescapably dependent on big water bureaucracies in league with Big Ag in league with Big Green. This reflects the Postmodern mind in California that modernity and technology and big dams have run their course, modernization must be fundamentally challenged as goals for the little people, and quite new approaches to the problems of droughts need to be invented that would lessen the separation and alienation of the producers of water and the consumers. But the same crowd that wants to bust up the Big Water Triangle also wants to regulate local groundwater that does lessen the separation between the water producer and the water user. Such is the inconsistency of the California Postmodern Mind that wants to have it both ways.

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