Why We Fight Over Water, and How We Can Save Ourselves
Water-reporting vet John Fleck's new book explores the ways the West is dealing with drought, and it's not all gloom and doom
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If you live in the southwestern corner of the United States, you’ve probably been seeing drought in the news for the past decade. The idea of impending doom via desiccation grabs headlines. It’s less sexy to talk about the day-to-day ways cities, farmers, and advocacy groups are conserving water, but it’s arguably more important.
The drought catastrophe narrative gets in the way of meaningful water conservation, says John Fleck in his new book, Water Is for Fighting Over: And Other Myths About Water in the West ($30, Island Press), and it’s not actually true to what’s happening on the ground.
Fleck, a longtime water reporter who is now director of the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program, covered water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal from the 1980s through 2015. “Like many who manage, engineer, utilize, plan for, and write about western water today, I grew up with the expectation of catastrophe,” he writes. “But as drought set in again across the Colorado River Basin in the first decade of the twenty-first century, I was forced to grapple with a contradiction…people’s faucets were still running. Their farms were not drying up. No city was left abandoned.”
Fleck’s book, like a lot of current water reporting, deals mainly with the Colorado River and its tributaries, which provide the majority of water to seven western states. The Colorado River supports 10 percent of America’s GDP—about $1.4 trillion—and it brings water to 40 million people. It’s governed by a series of compacts, codified in 1922, that allocate how much water each state gets. But these compacts are problematic. They don’t incentivize conservation, and because conditions were much wetter leading up to the 1920s, when the compacts were written, more water is allocated than actually exists in the river. Now we’re faced with what water managers call a structural deficit: demand outweighs supply, and climate change is shrinking that supply further.
Fleck digs into the ways we’re dealing with that deficit, from sprinkler systems to interstate compacts that outline how states share water. Water law can be arcane and, for lack of a better word, dry. But Fleck works through the wonkiness with concrete examples that show the social side of conservation and community politics. He writes like a newspaper reporter, clear and spare, and he does a good job of outlining the policy and history that set up the ways we use water today. He explains how the Homestead Act, which motivated western migration by promising settlers 160-acre tracts of land, led to vast dam projects, and why it’s so complicated to set up a water market that works. He’s also empathetic to the traditional water uses that got us where we are today. He gives a measured defense of alfalfa farming—often cited as one of the biggest wastes of water—because of the economic stability it brings to rural areas.
That’s not to say the structural deficit isn’t serious or that major change isn’t necessary. Water management is rife with sketchy political deals, Lake Mead is still dropping, and the delta is dry more often than not. But Fleck’s main argument is that when faced with scarcity, cities, communities, and individual water users don’t just freak out and hoard water—they come up with smart, collaborative ways to deal with it. That’s why Vegas still exists and why aquifers in Fleck’s hometown of Albuquerque are rebounding after years of drawing down groundwater.
Fleck says he wanted the book to bridge the gap between farmers, environmentalists, and city dwellers who care about conservation—to get them all on the same page. The book is wide ranging in that way, but it behooves the reader to come in with a little bit of a water background, or at least a working knowledge of the Colorado River system. He does a good job of describing the specific issues—how saline ocean water seeped into the groundwater of Redondo Beach, for instance—but sometimes the connective tissue, the river itself, is missing. It can be hard to draw the connection between cotton farming in Arizona and municipal water use in Los Angeles and how they bear on each other without a mental map of the waterways. It’s clear that Fleck has this map in his own mind—and it just goes to show that even his valiant efforts to clarify water issues aren’t always a match for the monstrous nature of the issue.
But this is not just a book for water wonks. Even if you care only enough to skim the headlines about the shrinking Salton Sea or Lake Mead’s burgeoning bathtub ring, Fleck’s book overall is a clear-eyed look at both the systemic inefficiencies in how water is used in the West and the smart ways they can be addressed.
And there has been a gap in that coverage. For decades, the go-to book about water in the West has been Mark Reisner’s Cadillac Desert, a 600-page opus on the corruption and complication of the water system. It’s a great, detailed, intricately reported book, but it’s 30 years old. We needed something new. Fleck’s book addresses current events and coming struggles as much as it does history, and that’s important going into a future that will be defined by the way we use water.