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Water Pact May Soon Evaporate

October 21, 2003|Philip L. Fradkin | Philip L. Fradkin, a former Times reporter, is the author of "A River No More: The Colorado River and the West" (University of California Press, 1995) and eight other books on the environmental history of the West.

That the secretary of the Interior could stand atop Hoover Dam last week and proclaim that a relatively minor readjustment in the use of Colorado River water would end the water wars was a negation of the lessons of history and the geopolitical imperatives of the American West.

The reality is that those wars are far from over. There is a single river flowing intermittently from the Rocky Mountains through the deserts of the Southwest to the Gulf of California. Seven western states and one foreign country depend on the Colorado for their sustenance.

The populations of those states and Mexico are expanding at ever-increasing rates as the flow of the river decreases. The West is in its fourth year of drought, and with warming continuing on a global scale, that drought could go on for a long while.

The war over the Colorado is a long-standing one, and one that is not liable to end overnight. It began when one Indian tribe objected to an upstream diversion by another, and it climaxed, at least in a military sense, in 1934 when the Arizona governor called out National Guard troops to halt construction of the dam that would allow transportation of Colorado River water to Los Angeles.

It was in 1922 that the river's waters were divided, based on a period of above-average flows, as if average could ever be determined given the breadth of time.

It was to preserve that artificial division of the waters and all subsequent ones, collectively known as the Law of the River, that the most recent tweaking of the spoils was undertaken. Driving the agreement was the concern that all past efforts might unravel and a real, heightened, all-out water war would ensue.

This new agreement is less a historic shift than a continuum. In truth, more water has been flowing to cities and for environmental purposes in the last 20 years as political power and priorities changed with the population. No longer do obscure rural members of Congress control key congressional committees. Birds and fish now have constituencies. Cities spend real money for water rather than depending on subsidized supplies.

It was the fears of other basin states that California could claim the share of water it was taking above its allocated amount that fueled the agreement among agricultural and urban users in Southern California, the state and the federal government. Native Americans, environmentalists and the looming threat of drought were merely background factors.

There was irony in the choice of Hoover Dam as a symbol of conciliation for the ceremony, celebrated in newspaper accounts as "closing decades of bitter disputes" and an "epic shift." "Bitter" and "epic" were adjectives more realistically applied to the past, such as the 42 years and one lengthy Supreme Court case it took to make a final allocation of the water that would be stored behind Hoover Dam and the first diversion of Colorado River water to Los Angeles in 1941.

Today, all the traditional interest groups remain in place and are ready to pounce upon each other more ferociously and with greater desperation than before as the Colorado dwindles. The major players are competing factions within factions. Consider some: the agricultural and urban interests within Southern California; the same division in Northern California, to which the south will inevitably turn again for more water; Indian tribes within California and elsewhere in the West that feel shortchanged and are now capable of hiring very effective lawyers with their casino profits; the six other states within the basin that have ganged up on California but have their own internal conflicts, such as the urban-rural split between the east and west slopes in Colorado and the Wasatch Front and the Uintah basin in Utah; and Mexico, whose share is coveted by the seven states and was only grudgingly handed over in the past.

When Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton declared at Hoover Dam that "with this agreement, conflict on the river is stilled," she was not only whistling "Dixie" but was also denying the historical imperative of desert civilizations ranging from what was the Fertile Crescent in Iraq to the Anasazi Indians in the American Southwest. Those sophisticated civilizations weakened internally and brought about their own ends by the overuse of water, an issue that was not adequately addressed last week.

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