Contested Waters

Contested Waters: An Environmental History of the Colorado River

April R. Summitt
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 248
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt4cgjp3
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  • Book Info
    Contested Waters
    Book Description:

    "To fully understand this river and its past, one must examine many separate pieces of history scattered throughout two nations--seven states within the United States and two within Mexico--and sort through a large amount of scientific data. One needs to be part hydrologist, geologist, economist, sociologist, anthropologist, and historian to fully understand the entire story. Despite this river's narrow size and meager flow, its tale is very large indeed." -From the conclusion The Colorado River is a vital resource to urban and agricultural communities across the Southwest, providing water to 30 million people. Contested Waters tells the river's story-a story of conquest, control, division, and depletion. Beginning in prehistory and continuing into the present day, Contested Waters focuses on three important and often overlooked aspects of the river's use: the role of western water law in its over-allocation, the complexity of power relationships surrounding the river, and the concept of sustainable use and how it has been either ignored or applied in recent times. It is organized in two parts, the first addresses the chronological history of the river and long-term issues, while the second examines in more detail four specific topics: metropolitan perceptions, American Indian water rights, US-Mexico relations over the river, and water marketing issues. Creating a complete picture of the evolution of this crucial yet over-utilized resource, this comprehensive summary will fascinate anyone interested in the Colorado River or the environmental history of the Southwest.

    eISBN: 978-1-60732-211-5
    Subjects: Biological Sciences, Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, Environmental Science, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xv-xviii)
  5. PART I. A River through Time
    • 1 Conquering the Wild Colorado: The River before 1945
      (pp. 3-30)

      Of the images that come to mind when one thinks of the arid American West, one of the most prominent is the Hoover Dam. Constructed from 1931 to 1936 during the most painful years of the Great Depression, this colossal structure symbolized multiple ideals for struggling Americans: the power of humans over the environment, the successful joining of federal power and individual ingenuity, and the validation of American capitalism and democracy in the midst of crisis and doubt. By far the tallest and largest dam on earth when it was constructed, this concrete structure is still one of the most...

    • 2 Farming the Desert: Agricultural Water Demands
      (pp. 31-60)

      The primary use of the Colorado River is and has always been for agriculture. In recent times, metropolitan applications of its water have made users forget where most of the water is actually consumed. Yet in spite of rapid urban growth of the major cities, most of the river still goes to farming. Today, an estimated 78 percent of the annual flow is used on fields to grow crops, watering approximately 1.8 million acres with almost 4 trillion gallons. The Colorado River basin produces approximately 15 percent of the crops and 13 percent of the livestock for the entire nation.¹...

    • 3 Saving the River: The Environmental Movement
      (pp. 61-86)

      In 1963, the eleven-year Supreme Court case Arizona v. California finally ended, seemingly resolving the last major conflict in a forty-year struggle over sharing the Colorado River. Yet before Arizona could finally tap the main stream, a young and growing environmental movement challenged the entire policy of western water development. The river itself was becoming a power player in the struggle over water as its deteriorating riparian ecosystem began demanding attention. Western water users reluctantly moved away from big dams and project building toward preservation and restoration policies. One of the sharpest realities water users gradually faced was the fact...

    • 4 Sharing the Shortage: A River in Control
      (pp. 87-110)

      By the mid-1970s, the young environmental movement had significantly impacted American society and begun to shape federal policies. Yet western state governments and representatives to Congress still reflected a widespread reluctance to reduce spending for reclamation projects so popular with constituents. This period is marked by a strange disconnect between media portrayals of environmental awareness and actual government actions. President Jimmy Carter tried to rein in federal spending on water projects seen as boondoggles or pork barrel spending, but to little avail.¹ However, several drought cycles and the realities of water shortages eventually brought some change to the Colorado River...

  6. PART II. Currents of Today
    • 5 The Metropolis and the Desert: Growing Cities in the West
      (pp. 113-148)

      None of the earliest settlers in the American Southwest would have dreamed of the twentieth-century metropolitan growth the region experienced. Some of its major cities grew out of Spanish missions or military outposts, but the gold rush in the mid-nineteenth century quickly expanded them. Many urban areas flourished because of a favorable climate, others because of their locations at important railroad junctions. One common trait they all shared, however, was an insatiable need for water.

      While the primary purpose of reclamation and dam building in the West was to provide irrigation to farmers, growing towns and cities also benefited and...

    • 6 Owning the River: Indian Water Rights and Settlements
      (pp. 149-176)

      Indigenous people around the world have always struggled to preserve their language, their culture, even their very existence. They must also battle for access to natural resources, such as water. While told largely today from the Anglo-American perspective, there is a long and complicated history of Indian rights to the Colorado River. By the end of the nineteenth century, many of these original water users had lost access to its waters. As southwestern towns became vibrant urban centers in the twentieth century, native peoples of the river basin were subjugated, placed on otherwise unwanted land, and left to farm without...

    • 7 Crossing the Border: US-Mexico Relations and the River
      (pp. 177-206)

      “What about the human beings?” Cucapá chief Don Madaleno asked government officials and members of the environmental nonprofits who had gathered in his small shantytown of El Mayor, Mexico. “We are also endangered.”¹ He and his indigenous community of approximately 300 are the survivors of the Cucapá people in the Colorado River delta region. Dependent on fishing in the scarce waters of what was once a vibrant ecosystem, the Cucapá, the “people of the river,” struggle to maintain their cultural identity amid a radically altered landscape. Scientists and environmental activists organized a binational partnership in 2002 to address declining wetlands...

    • 8 The Water Market: Banking and Selling the Colorado River
      (pp. 207-232)

      Throughout the history of the Colorado River, the humans who depend on it have often competed with each other over how to divide these contested waters. Metropolitan areas have grown beyond what the river can reasonably support, and unsettled indigenous claims create additional demands on a meager resource. Ongoing drought and climate change add even more pressure to this over-tapped lifeline, and solutions are anything but clear. Conservation techniques, recycling, and transferring water between users have become some of the important answers to problems in the Colorado River basin.¹

      As the world’s population is rapidly approaching 7 billion, the scarcity...

  7. Conclusion
    (pp. 233-246)

    The story of the Colorado River is as convoluted as it is long, and defining its many rivulets is a complicated process. To fully understand this river and its past, one must examine many separate pieces of history scattered throughout two nations, in seven US and two Mexican states, and sort through large amounts of scientific data. One needs to be part hydrologist, geologist, economist, sociologist, and anthropologist, as well as a historian, to fully understand the entire story. Considering its narrow size and meager flow, this river’s tale is very large indeed. One of the world’s most important rivers,...

  8. Bibliography
    (pp. 247-274)
  9. Index
    (pp. 275-286)