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.