Let’s Get Started

What is this blog all about?

Quite simply, I am starting a graduate degree in Environmental Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder.  I’m writing this blog to provide my friends and colleagues a chance to learn along with me; this is to be a venue to share some of my research, my findings, and my thoughts on what happens along the way. What this blog is not is where I’ll share the news of the day and editorialize on the developments in the field apart from my own work; there are plenty of blogs written by people far smarter and more experienced if that’s what you’re looking for. I should probably mention at this point that my area of study is fresh water in the American West- and at least for now, its value to communities and the impact when a place gains or loses it. For a bit of background on what this actually means, read on…

Why water?

Sterling Hayden as Gen. Ripper

“All of our precious bodily fluids…”

It sounds like a cliche to say that water is the most precious commodity in the world. Fresh water is the basic building block of all life on Earth; it sustains our own bodies as well as our crops and livestock. As your high school biology teacher (and General Jack D. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove) told you, 80 percent of you is water!

In many fortunate places in the world, fresh water is, at the moment, quite plentiful, and sufficient for residential, agricultural, ecological, industrial, and commercial purposes. The American West is not one of those places. The great explorer John Wesley Powell, the man who led the first expedition down the Grand Canyon, noted the Hundredth Meridian– the line of longitude 100 degrees west of Greenwich, England- as the rough boundary of “the Great American Desert,” the line beyond which rainfall alone was insufficient to sustain agriculture. Beyond this invisible and yet readily apparent demarcation, human settlement would always depend intrinsically on the ability to store, manage and distribute fresh water. Advances in human technology since the late nineteenth century have not changed this fundamental fact.

John Wesley Powell

Powell as director of the U.S. Geological Survey

Powell’s caution toward the opening of the West to wholesale settlement was dismissed by his masters in Washington, D.C. as inconsistent with the spirit of the age. Progress was to march inexorably onward, and westward. The West soon filled with Americans of all backgrounds, and ditches sprang up from all the great rivers of the high desert- the magnificent Rio Grande, the immense Missouri and Arkansas draining the east flank of the Rockies, and the spectacular, violent, unmatched Colorado.

The history of the West since the Civil War is one of resource exploitation that goes beyond the manipulation of scarce waters. The bison herds that numbered in the tens of millions when Lewis and Clark ventured west in 1804 were reduced to an estimated less than one thousand by 1890. Entire forests were denuded to build mining camps and railroad ties. Rushes on gold, silver, copper, lead and other hardrock minerals built the richest towns in America (Leadville, Colorado supposedly created more millionaires than Manhattan in the 1870s), most of which soon went bust. But it was not until the twentieth century that the dearest natural resource of all, fresh water, was to be exploited on the same massive and unsustainable scale.

Hoover Dam

Hoover Dam, by Ansel Adams

The federal government began building dams and reservoirs in the west for a variety of factors- flood control, irrigation, urban supply- but the net effect was the creation of an entire civilization in the desert Southwest the likes of which had never been seen. Hoover Dam alone, and the over 9 trillion gallons of water it was originally capable of impounding, created both Las Vegas, Nevada and most of Southern California as they now exist.

Graph of demand and supply of Colorado River water from 1920-2006.

Demand began to exceed supply on the Colorado River around the twentieth century.

Even with the massive storage projects on the Colorado, Rio Grande, Columbia, Missouri, and countless smaller rivers, there just isn’t enough. The assumptions of planners in the 1920s have been proven to be wildly optimistic (to be fair, the years in which they made these judgments were the wettest we’ve had). With or without reuse (some water is almost always passed back into the stream after a user is finished with it, minus what his use has irreversibly consumed), there often comes a choice between competing, and often mutually exclusive, uses of water. Contrasting visions of the West become obvious: agriculture vs. urban life. Industry vs. recreation. Ecological preservation vs. resource development. Conflict is everpresent when water is involved (watch the movie Chinatown if you haven’t already).

Jack Nicholson in "Chinatown"

“Either you bring the water to LA, or you bring LA to the water.”

In the West, as a general rule, water usage is governed by two principles: prior appropriation and beneficial use. The latter states that nobody strictly speaking owns water; it must be put to a beneficial use by a person to entail a right to use it (and the definition of “beneficial” has changed substantially over time). The former is the keystone of water rights in the arid West and states that the first entity or person to put a certain amount of water to beneficial use has a right to use that amount for that purpose that supersedes later first-time users. In other words, if I start irrigating from a stream in 1900 and you start in 1909, I would have priority in event of a shortfall- no matter what purposes we each use the water for, and no matter where we are on the river.

This all means that water rights can be bought and sold, just like land or subsurface mineral rights. It means that the price is at least partially determined by an open market. What it does not mean is that the price of a water right fully reflects its importance. My graduate research, and this blog,  examines its actual importance. Water is more valuable to rural communities than the price they might get for selling it. Frequently, irrigation is their only economic driver and farming or ranching is the social as well as economic fabric that binds together these historic towns and regions. Water, too, is more valuable to urban communities than the transaction cost; it supports new developments and sustains the cultural vibrancy of these hubs of the 21st century. Certainly water is more valuable to the stream itself, and the living creatures within it, than the zero dollars it receives as part of the deal.

Why this blog?

I am not a believer that everything has a monetary price (maybe I will be at the end of this journey, and that’s part of the fun of it). I intend to explore, and document here, the impact of changing the use of water on both the community that loses it and the community that gains it- on their economies, on their hydrologic systems, and on their very cultures. I approach this task from a scientific perspective, withholding my own biases to arrive at fair conclusions. In the end I hope that the evidence I dredge up, or at least the questions I am able to ask, will some day have a beneficial effect on decision-making in Colorado and the West as populations expand and water supplies shrink. That, for better or for worse, is the course we are on. Let’s get started.

-Brian Devine, Boulder, Colorado, 26 August 2013


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