A great water historian in California’s time of need

UCLA’s Jon Christensen* has written a lovely, loving essay remembering the late water historian Norris Hundley, who wrote so well about western water, and (Jon argues) is important now, in California’s time of need:

It’s not for nothing that we often talk of western water wars. What Norris showed is that at times this looked not so much like the imperial, all-knowing conquest of a hydraulic society in the American West, but instead like a chaotic war of all against all, in which, as he wrote, “no bullets were fired,” “yet the life and death of cities and states in an enormous area were at stake.” Or, what we might just call democracy, messy democracy, a theme to which Norris would return, again and again.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this because one of the central arguments in my work right now is that water is not for fighting over, but I think there is room for a meeting between my own work and the argument that both Christensen and Hundley are making and it lies in part in this central point.

One farm district at a time.... A citrus orchard going in, Yuma Mesa Irrigation and Drainage District, Arizona

One farm at a time…. A citrus orchard going in, Yuma Mesa Irrigation and Drainage District, Arizona

I, too, have been rereading Hundley. His three great books, Dividing The Waters, Water and the West, and The Great Thirst are within arms reach of my computer as I type this (four, in fact, I have both versions of The Great Thirst). In the prologue to The Great Thirst, Hundley argues against the “grand conspiracy” wing of western water history that argues that the characteristics of large scale irrigation inevitably lead to dominance by large, centralized institutions, and that our problems largely flow from that:

More compelling explanations are found in a compound of interest-group pressures, local and regional considerations, political trade-offs, and the larger context of American political culture  in which the national culture and its reverberations within California help explain actions that may others be incorrectly attributed to a conspiratorial power elite.

Hundley doesn’t say it, but I read this as an “anti-Cadillac Desert” argument, an argument against Marc Reisner’s grand federalist conspiracy, the great centralized something-ocracy that Donald Worster so elegantly offered up in Rivers of Empire. I spent a lot of time in the blind alley those two books sent me down, but the Reisner/Worster narrative kept clashing with the messy reality my journalism encountered daily. Donald Pisani, another of the western water historians, makes a similar critique, explicitly, of Reisner and Worster in “The Irrigation District and the Federal Relationship”, an essay published in the 1989 book The Twentieth century West: Historical interpretations.

I wish I’d read Hundley more carefully, and sooner. If Hundley is right – and I think he is – it has important implications for what we do with water policy today.

I agree here with Christensen that it’s really just “democracy, messy democracy” – well-intentioned people with imperfect information trying to make their best of the situation by muddling along. That suggests that big solutions are not likely to bear fruit – that what we’re doing to end up with is a lot of small solutions, solving problems one municipality and irrigation district at a time. Hundley calls it “an excess of Madisonian democracy with its focus on localism.” This is the best explanation I know for why the kind of strong federal intervention you saw in Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin won’t happen here. It runs against our basic nature.

In my Colorado River work, I frequently talk to people looking for grand solutions – basinwide planning that somehow bakes in population or acreage limitations required to make the water math balance. My response is what I describe as “no-one’s-in-chargeness”. These decisions are made one suburban municipal government or irrigation district at a time. That’s our Madisonian democracy.

My disagreement with the “fighting” meme is that, mostly, irrigation districts and municipalities haven’t been fighting. Much of the history of water in the West is a history of banal building of cities and farms that mostly had enough water and mostly got along with their neighbors. But I’m nervous about this assertion, always nervous that I might be wrong.

The key here is that the fighting or the “not fighting” has to happen at this “messy democracy” level. We’ve no alternative.

* Disclosure: When Jon was at Stanford, he provide through the Lane Center some funding and support for early work that is slowly but surely turning into my book. More importantly he encouraged me, in a memorable conversation in his Stanford office, to overcome my fear that I might be wrong about this “not fighting” stuff and stick my neck out. It’s now out.


  1. I appreciate both you and Jon reflecting so thoughtfully on these issues. I tend to agree these days that it’s all about the mess and the chaos. I also tend to agree with you that the “fighting” meme is perhaps overplayed. I don’t find those two things in conflict though. I think that we tend to view all “fighting” as bad, when in reality, some level of conflict is how things get done, how we move, how we change. It’s hard when that conflict gets entrenched, but so much of my own work is about accepting conflict as a necessity for growth, and learning to deal with it constructively, as part of the bargain. It’s nuanced and a slippery slope, but I don’t think it’s either/or.

  2. I’m not one to dismiss the main tenets of “Cadillac Desert.” From the Owens Valley water theft to the building of dams in unstable places that failed and killed people, there are plenty of malign intents documented there.Perhaps today with more transparency the meme of “messy democracy” has more legitimacy. Perhaps.

  3. Basic nature, okay, but my question for you John is where such a basic nature timeline for groundwater metering-then-monitoring with even those unsharp teeth falls within a spectrum of local to statewide roles that I presume we’d agree are necessary to get a handle on sustainable water use in larger California. If this is not a statewide, let alone federal issue, how will local governance deal with the basic nature of the neighbors and friends they are to counsel? What incentive will they have to not logically organize as an adversarial body among many, just another local tribe?

  4. Thanks for this timely post. I was thinking about my “next” action, and the fact that California (and much of the West) is characterized by messy democracy and muddling along suggests that I have little role to play compared to the locals who have a stake and must succeed if they plan to stay there.

    That said, Reisner is right about the impact of centralized, subsidized projects on water in the west. Read Powell’s 1879 report (http://www.aguanomics.com/2009/06/powell-on-arid-lands.html) to compare his vision (community built irrigation) to what happened: federal systems that overwhelmed the resource.

    BTW, I agree that Libecap has a point in Owens Valley, but he underplays (1) the justice angle (shares of rents) and (2) fails to acknowledge the impact of killing Owens and (nearly) Mono Lakes.

  5. I believe that one need not reject Reisner to find Hundley useful or even “true”. There is here a false either/or choice when both/and is more useful–and I would argue more “true”. The existence of two institutions (BuRec and ACOE) that could make pork happen in congressional districts has echoes in military bases and procurement. That cupidity would exist in one sphere and be largely absent in another parallel sphere is not convincing. For every Ostromian model there is the possibility of one more reminiscent of say C. Wright Mills.Both have explanatory power and are useful.

  6. Libecap is an apologist for large scale water transfers, and a proponent for utilizing market forces to determine where water should be sent. The overarching problem with that anthropocentric viewpoint is that it ignores the needs of plants and animals that evolved to use water in a particular geography. When water, essential for all life forms, is commodified as Libecap is wont to do, nature comes out on the short end.
    The “Owens Valley narrative” isn’t some fairy tale to be believed or not – it is very real and still going on today. Local environmental groups, ranchers, business owners and the County continue to be squeezed by the water extraction activities of DWP. Of course, the big losers are the native plants and animals, as many seeps and springs were destroyed by wholesale pumping in the 1970s and 1980s, and the Lower Owens River Project was to mitigate partly for the undocumented invertebrates and plants destroyed. DWP uses economic terrorism to force acquiescence – withholding public leases, threatening businesses, and more. This very moment they are threatening to severely reduce water to irrigated lands in an effort to force ranchers into bankruptcy. Irrigated lands in the Owens Valley are mandated by legal agreement, and provide extensive habitat for wildlife and native plants, partly compensating for the loss of large grass meadows destroyed by pumping. Even with the hard-won legal protections (thanks to CEQA), DWP overtly ignores the rules, requiring expensive litigation to get compliance. Meanwhile there is the “death of a thousand cuts”, draining wet places by deepening ditches and streams, failure to revegetate expanses of native vegetation that died due to groundwater pumping, rewriting history by tearing down farmsteads and historic buildings, the list goes on.
    There is a new and destructive post-modern view of nature beginning to be asserted in the public sphere – one that derides wilderness, and places humans at the center. This narrative justifies more human intrusion into wild spaces, and attempts to relieve society of the burden of dealing with the fallout from overpopulation and overconsumption through the positive act of creating wilderness.
    It is time to firmly reinvigorate the views of John Muir and Edward Abbey, and to reread this seminal article on the rights of nature, “Should Trees Have Standing”. http://isites.harvard.edu/fs/docs/icb.topic498371.files/Stone.Trees_Standing.pdf Protecting nature is a matter of the Public Trust. During this drought, when the conflicts between people and the natural world are intensifying, fueled by the complete disconnect many Californians have with nature, treating water primarily as a human-controlled commodity to be “delivered” as we please will seal the fates of many native species.

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