Daniel McCool is the Director of the Environmental and Sustainability Program at the University of Utah.  His previous works include Native Waters: Contemporary Indian Water Settlements and the Second Treaty Era; and Command of the Waters: Iron Triangles, Federal Water Development, and Indian Water.  McCool’s most recent book, River Republic, focuses on the history, transformation, and destruction, of the rivers of the United States.  The book is divided into three parts.  Part One, “The Fall,” sets the historical context of the book.  Part Two, “Dismemberment,” explains what people have done and are still doing to the rivers of the United States.  And Part Three, “Resurrection,” focuses on less harmful ways to use our nation’s rivers and how to implement these methods going forward.


River Republic begins with the stories of the Matlija and Glen Canyon Dams.  These dams, the stories of their construction, and Matlija’s removal serve as a cautionary tale of what will happen to America’s rivers if the U.S. allows what McCool calls “water hubris” to cloud its judgment.   According to McCool, “water hubris” is the combined false beliefs that: (i) water development can occur without costs or tradeoffs, (ii) humans are inherently superior to nature, and (iii) society has a moral right to conquer rivers.  McCool concludes, however, that a new water ethic, a “River Republic,” is slowly replacing “water hubris.”  This new ethic involves treating rivers as common property—cared for and maintained by all for future generations.

In Chapter Two, McCool details the history of the U.S Army Corps of Engineers (“Corps”) and  explains the Corps’ role in managing our Nation’s rivers.  McCool states that the Corps, like the nation as a whole, is a work in progress.  This chapter focuses for the most part on the early failures of the Corps, such as the environmentally disastrous Kissimmee River channelization in Florida.  Instead of being wholly critical, however, McCool details how the Corps is correcting past mistakes through restoration processes and applauds the cutting-edge engineering that makes such projects possible.  Essentially, McCool argues that the Corps is learning and evolving from its philosophy of conquering rivers to a more modern, balanced approach.

In Chapter Three, McCool focuses on the period of American history in which the Bureau of Reclamation launched massive plans for the expansion and development of America’s rivers.  The chapter focuses on countless, often ill-conceived, dam projects throughout the U.S., highlighting the key supporters and opponents of each.  McCool focuses on “agents of change” like Jimmy Carter, who McCool believes changed the way the Bureau of Reclamation functions as well as changed general perceptions of water and its role in our everyday lives.  Toward the end of the chapter, McCool makes his main point: the democratization of rivers into a River Republic benefits everyone and better balances extractive and sustainable water uses.


Chapter Four examines corporate farming and the subsidies corporate farms receive from the federal government.  McCool states the problem with these subsidies is that they often fund farming in desert climates.  McCool argues that growing overproduced crops that consume great amounts of water in arid regions does not make sense and depletes resources that are not naturally found there.  McCool insists, however, that he is not against agriculture (as anyone who eats cannot be) but there needs to be a better way to consider the costs and benefits of growing certain crops in certain areas of the country.

Chapter Five discusses in length the so-called “cash register dams”—dams with the exclusive purpose of generating electricity for commercial sale.  Like anything else, there are mixed costs and benefits in hydroenergy.  As a result, McCool notes, disputes over dams are constant in the United States.  Disputes over destruction of fish habitat also naturally accompany controversies over dams, especially within the State of Washington.  Essentially, the chapter argues that hydropower makes sense in most places, but in others, different values trump hydropower interests.

In Chapter Six, McCool details the history of navigating rivers from the first steamboats in the 1820s to barges of the present day   McCool gives a detailed description of his trip aboard the riverboat Harriet Bishop, which travels the Ohio and upper Mississippi Rivers.  Aboard, McCool obtained firsthand experience with the economy of the two rivers and the positives and negatives of the lock-and-dam system.  In the end, McCool realizes that America’s waterways will always have a role in transportation and economics, but the vitality of our rivers is also of prime importance.

Chapter Seven puts forth a critique of America’s obsession with building within flood plains.  Here, McCool details how the levee and lock-and-dam systems eliminated the flow of sediment downstream, which in turn resulted in land loss when Hurricanes Rita and Katrina struck.  McCool points out that floods are natural occurrences that cannot be controlled.  Building levees does not mitigate the flooding; levees simply redirect the flood somewhere else.  McCool argues that levees simply lure people into vulnerable areas with a false sense of safety and thereby increase flood damage rather than mitigate it.

Chapter Eight focuses on pollution and what needs to be done to mitigate and reverse it.  The chapter highlights three cities—Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and Seattle—and their respective efforts to clean up local watercourses.  McCool believes that a holistic approach is the correct way to solve the problem of widespread water pollution.  Essentially, he argues that the quality of water is linked to all the other uses of water.  Whether those uses include dredging channels for barges, construction of levees, or building dams; those actions will affect the water’s quality as a whole there and in other areas.  Therefore, meeting the lofty goals of the Clean Water Act requires a reexamination of all aspects of water policy and action like that taking place in Atlanta, Washington D.C., and Seattle.


In Chapter Nine, McCool details urban river-restoration projects in Richmond, Virginia, Boston, and Los Angeles.  In each of these cities, small grassroots efforts have successful projects, creating sanctuaries for nature in some of the most urban areas of the country.  At the close of the chapter, McCool expresses his sincere hope that these types of projects become widespread in order to provide open, quiet space in the midst of crowded urban centers.

Chapter Ten focuses on rivers as a habitat.  Here, McCool advocates for a comprehensive study to determine how much money, how much water, and how many miles of river should be devoted to fish and wildlife as opposed to economic or transportation needs.  Hotly contested debates over the uses of rivers and the conservation of wildlife will remain, but McCool firmly believes that with smart management, there is enough water in rivers for both humans and nonhumans alike.

In Chapter Eleven, McCool discusses America’s fascination with rivers in noneconomic or conservationist terms.  Americans, almost unanimously, love to recreate on, near, or among the flora and fauna that are made possible by rivers.  McCool states that rivers, along with our other natural wonders, are of incalculable value and will hopefully last forever.  But that future is only possible if we, as a nation, take care of our rivers and ensure their survival.

In the final chapter, McCool describes his view of a new water future: the River Republic.  He believes that we must democratize water policy and give everyone a voice; from, as McCool describes them, “Joe Six-Pack” to “Charlene Chablis.”  McCool argues that we need to treat rivers as the natural, interconnected systems that they are, not as separate parts.  He also argues for a grassroots approach—an army of instigators who ideally, according to McCool, are not entrenched in politics, but are committed to a nonpartisan brighter future.  In the end, McCool exclaims that when rivers die, we die, and when they flourish, we do the same.  In sum, we must become partners with rivers, not exploiters of them.


River Republic, despite its tremendous scope, is a relatively easy and enjoyable read for anyone interested in water, water law, and the history of the two.  There is something for everyone within its three hundred plus pages; from excerpts from William Cullen Bryant’s poem “Green River” that serve as the epigraph for each chapter, to constant references to and quotes from literary figures like T.S. Eliot and Mark Twain.  Additionally, Tim Palmer, an award-winning author of twenty-two books in this field, provided great praise for River Republic stating:  “[t]his well-crafted page-turner is history and journalism at their best.  The book tells with passion, precision, and clarity what has happened to a vital force of nature and offers a vision we can embrace and work toward with enthusiasm.  Daniel McCool has given all who want to understand rivers a rare and precious gift.”  McCool’s book provides a breadth of information and witty dialogue that will keep both experts and novices entertained and interested.  Overall, River Republic provides a comprehensive overview of America’s rivers and is a book of hope—hope for brighter days for our rivers and ourselves.

Daniel McCool, River Republic: The Fall and Rise of America’s Rivers, Columbia University Press, New York (2012); 304 PP; $34.50; ISBN 978-0231161305


Ruddy-Lamarca v. Dalton Gardens Irrigation Dist., 291 P.3d 437 (Idaho 2012) (holding that the less intrusive installation method defined a permissible width of the easement and the district court’s order directing the dominant estate owner to make every effort to preserve trees and drain field was consistent with the principle of reasonableness).

Dalton Gardens Irrigation District (“District”), a dominant estate owner of an express easement over Ruddy-Lamarca’s (“Lamarca”) land, unsuccessfully appealed a claim to determine the width of the easement.  District’s easement provided it a “right-of-way for the construction, enlargement and maintenance of all canals, flumes and water tanks of the vendor, heretofore constructed or hereafter to be constructed, over and across said lands for the irrigation of other lands.”  Historically, District owned a four-inch buried pipe on the easement across Lamarca’s five acre tract of land located in Kootenai County, Idaho.  District sought to replace the existing pipe with a ten-inch pipe.  District’s proposed method of replacing the existing pipe would require approximately thirty to forty feet of width, and may have killed two, forty to fifty-year-old, maple trees and caused Lamarca’s septic system to fail.  The Supreme Court of Idaho (“Court”) affirmed the district court’s decision that the easement was sixteen feet in width and that District must make every effort to preserve the maple trees and septic drain field when replacing its pipe.

The Court first defined the relevant case law.  Idaho defines an indefinite express easement by the “intent of the parties as demonstrated by the easement’s initial use.”  It also describes an easement by prescription by the continuous and uninterrupted use during the prescriptive period.  A secondary easement provides the right to enter and repair and “do those things necessary to the full enjoyment of the easement.”  Use of a secondary easement must be reasonable, pursuant to Idaho case law.

First, District argued that the “initial use” aspect of its express easement should include the initial method of construction, which was forty feet wide.  The Court disagreed because all previous cases on point defined “initial use” by the constructed size, not by the method of construction.  In other words, District’s “initial use” was not the forty foot wide construction area, but rather the existing four-inch pipe.

Second, District argued that its secondary easement rights should allow the proposed installation of the ten-inch pipe.  The Court noted that, historically, trees had not unreasonably interfered with District’s secondary easement.  While District’s proposed method of installation required three pieces of heavy machinery and forty feet of width, Lamarca’s proposed alternative method only required one piece of heavy machinery and sixteen feet of width.  As such, the Court concluded that a sixteen foot width was reasonable for District’s purposes.

The Court concluded that the requirement that District make every effort to preserve the maple trees and septic drain field was in line with burdening the servient estate “as little as possible.”  Therefore, the Court affirmed the district court’s decision, concluding that the easement had a sixteen foot width and that District had to make every effort to preserve the maple trees and septic drain field.

The Pacific Institute (“Institute”), a respected non-profit research organization focused on natural resource policy, celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary in 2012.  Coinciding with that celebration, the Institute’s director, Peter Gleick, and senior research associate, Juliet Christian-Smith published A Twenty-First Century U.S. Water Policy.  Through a collection of eleven essays by Gleick, Christian-Smith, and a team of Institute researchers and independent collaborators, the book describes the many challenges the country faces in terms of water use and water quality, and offers corresponding policy solutions suited for twenty-first century needs.  Specifically, the Institute’s proposed “soft path” approach to water policy works to satisfy the needs of users in the most efficient way possible, abandoning the traditional “hard path” policies of the past century that led to the environmental concerns and inequitable access issues that the country faces today.

The authors argue, while state and local governments manage most water issues, the federal government has a unique role in promoting high standards of water quality and efficient practices that cater to the specific water needs of different customers.  Each essay focuses on specific issues of water use and offers “soft path” policies that would improve sustainability in regard to each issue.  Among the numerous policies considered, the authors especially urge the federal government to improve its data collection systems; tailor financial incentives and subsidies toward water conservation practices; work to improve inter-agency cooperation; and integrate environmental and climate change concerns into each aspect of water policy.

Chapter One provides an overview of national freshwater availability and use.  It emphasizes that deficient data collections severely limit the assessment of water availability year-to-year.  The United States Geological Service recently began preparations for a “National Water Census” to help gather information on surface and groundwater supplies, but funding is sparse and the USGS has repeatedly decreased its monitoring actions.  Monitoring river systems and groundwater may be challenging, but governments require adequate information to understand the threats of over-allocation, pollution, and climate change.

Chapter Two delves into the legal context of water management, focusing especially on federal agency regulation and laws affecting national water use.  On the national scale, water policy originates from over thirty federal agencies, including the Army Corps of Engineers, Environmental Protection Agency, USGS, and Fish and Wildlife Service.  Few of these agencies, however, have a stated mission relating to water.  Additionally, allocation of federal funding among these agencies dilutes the power of each to implement its water programs.  In terms of federal law relating to water, the authors emphasize the accomplishments of the Clean Water Act (“CWA”) and the Safe Drinking Water Act (“SDWA”) in improving the quality of drinking water and reducing pollution in ecosystems.  At the same time, litigation and deficient appropriation continue to limit the enforcement of these laws both geographically and jurisdictionally.  Finally, the authors highlight the Chesapeake Bay Commission as one example of federal leadership creating an interstate program that, while voluntary, led to significant improvements in the Chesapeake ecosystem.  The authors are clear that water policy should not be wholly nationalized, but emphasize that federal policies—like reinstating River Basin Commissions or encouraging interstate agreements on shared resources like the Ogallala Aquifer—possess the potential to greatly improve water use management.

Chapter Three focuses on water and environmental justice.  Despite stringent national water quality laws, the authors argue that enforcement is inconsistent and leads to inequitable access to clean and safe water.  Decades-long agricultural pollution in California’s San Joaquin Valley is just one example of subpar enforcement in a predominantly low-income area.  The authors explain that most violations of CWA standards come from small-scale systems, often in rural areas, and that CWA violations also disproportionately affect low-income communities of color.  Enforcement of water quality standards is less cost-efficient on small-scale systems, but the authors believe that protection of low-income communities is essential to environmental justice.

Chapter Four gives a brief overview of the unique water management challenges Native American tribes face.  Most importantly, legislation does not typically define tribal rights to water; litigation does.  This non-legislative framework can be both a blessing and a curse.  In Winters v. United States, the Supreme Court recognized a reserved water right for tribes.  But tribes still face obstacles to administering their water rights and regulating water quality on reservation land.  The EPA’s “treated as states” (“TAS”) program works to expand tribal governance over environmental protection, but only about ten percent of all tribes have achieved TAS status.  Because most tribal governance relating to water is non-legislative, incoherent policies continue to pose challenges to tribes in determining their rights and their ability to enforce water quality.

Chapter Five describes successes in improving water quality across the country, but also the need for new solutions to new challenges.  The CWA and SDWA have contributed to a noticeable improvement in water quality nationally, but their application has been inconsistent and requires updating.  Knowledge of new contaminants has improved, but integrating those new contaminants into the enforcement framework has been incomplete because of deficient funding to research their effects.  The CWA and SDWA have significantly reduced point-source pollution, such as industrial and agricultural discharge. However, the statutes have had limited success with regard to nonpoint-source pollutants, including agricultural and urban runoff, which account for the majority of water pollution today.  Some of these sources may be difficult to reduce, but the authors suggest the EPA should require states to submit management plans on nonpoint-source pollution, including plans to use porous surfaces and other green infrastructure to mitigate pollution.

Chapter Six highlights the need to protect freshwater ecosystems.  Fish kills, river fires, and other environmental issues continue to decrease in frequency under the CWA, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and the Endangered Species Act. However, twentieth century policies continue to hamper efforts to improve ecosystems in the twenty-first century.  Utilizing the “soft path” approach, the authors suggest a number of policies for the federal government to adopt.  For example, they suggest removing unsafe and aging dam systems to improve the water quality and ecological quality on many river systems.  Additionally, they argue that existing dams can better mimic hydrological conditions with improved data collection and additional USGS river gauges.  Moreover, the authors point out that economic tools can also help to restore ecosystems by encouraging instream flows.  The Bureau of Reclamation provides water to one in five farmers in the West, providing an indirect subsidy that keeps water prices artificially low.  With sounder water pricing policies, the authors contend the federal government can encourage conservation and increase the market for instream flows.

Chapter Seven outlines the traditional approach to municipal water, through which large infrastructure projects encouraged consolidation into centralized systems, making upgrades and administration more efficient through economies of scale.  But with this approach came environmental issues and potentially inefficient uses of water.  As the authors argue, simply supplying potable water to the public overlooks the nature of public demand and rules out the possibility of new supply-side options lowering costs and increasing conservation.  States like Florida, Texas, and Arizona, for example, have begun to implement programs that reuse non-potable water for watering, thereby lessening withdrawals.  By increasing State Revolving Funds, the authors argue, the federal government can provide low-interest loans for states and municipalities to supplement customer revenue and allow for more water and wastewater system improvements.

Chapter Eight focuses on the largest national use of water—agriculture—and suggests a number of conservation practices that industry can implement to both cut costs and better prepare for increasing impacts of climate change.  The authors recognize the immense federal support the Bureau of Reclamation, the Farm Bill, and agricultural subsidies provide to farmers, but argue that these supports discourage conservation by incentivizing growth of water-intensive crops like corn, soy, and wheat.  As an alternative, the authors suggest Revolving Loan Programs to realign these financial incentives by assisting in conservation projects that have high initial costs but create much less water-intensive systems and crop growth.  The authors suggest many farmers would stand to benefit from more efficient irrigation systems as well.  By educating the public on the risks of climate change and increased variability of growing seasons, the authors argue farmers can adapt their practices to prepare for droughts and diminishing groundwater resources.

Chapter Nine discusses water use in the energy sector, where use is increasing rapidly but knowledge and data are severely lacking.  Because of a lack of coordination between energy and water regulation, energy production practices are inefficient.  Once-through cooling systems, subsidies for water-intensive biofuel development, and groundwater use in oil and gas production are all practices federal policy does not work to mitigate.  By reallocating renewable energy subsidies and providing a financial incentive to use recycled water, the federal government can encourage efficient water use.  Conserving water, the authors point out, saves energy, which in turn saves more water.  If energy companies recognize these benefits, they can conserve water and save on production costs all at once.

Chapter Ten discusses an issue relatively new to water policy: climate change.  Climate change will have a tremendous effect on water use and water quality, because it fundamentally alters the hydrological cycle.  This affects recharge rates of groundwater, shifts growing seasons for farmers, and threatens ecosystems and animals like salmon that can only survive in specific water temperatures.  To better understand and tackle these issues, the authors support appropriations for the National Climate Service that President Obama ordered in 2010 as an extension of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  Through the efforts of NOAA, as well as other departments like Interior and EPA, data collection can improve allowing every sector to adapt to the threats of climate change.  Many of these changes are “no-regret” options and will benefit users whether they are undertaken in response to climate change or otherwise.

Chapter Eleven evaluates the United States’ role in international water issues, both in relation to shared water resources with Mexico and Canada, and to water poverty and development efforts across the globe.  Gleick predicts that increased water scarcity will be a common flashpoint in future diplomatic conflicts.  Thus, in light of the United Nations’ declaration of a “human right to water,” he argues the United States government should work to encourage water compacts around the globe creating a framework for dispute resolution on shared water resources.  Funding for development programs, especially through USAID and the recently passed “Senator Paul Simon Water For the Poor Act,” can improve the effectiveness of American investment and prevent water from becoming a weapon of war.

A Twenty-First Century U.S. Water Policy is a truly comprehensive survey of current national water policy.  Persistent throughout the book is a critique of the country’s capacity for data collection.  The authors used what quantitative data is currently available to craft their “soft path” recommendations, but are clear that improving water monitoring is the cornerstone to informed policymaking.  Notwithstanding the quantitative approach, including a number of graphs and statistical tables, the book serves as an accessible source for non-technical readers interested in the many challenges to United States water policy.

Juliet Christian-Smith & Peter H. Gleick, A Twenty-First Century U.S. Water Policy, Oxford University Press, New York (2012); 360 pp; $27.95; ISBN 978-0-19-985944-3; hardcover


The best kind of fiction teaches us things we could never have known about ourselves, and about the world around us.  The worst kind teaches nothing at all.  In Buckled in the Denver Basin, author K. Hare uses a murder mystery to inform the audience about real issues concerning Colorado water; namely, that groundwater in the Denver Basin is a non-renewable resource that is drying up more quickly than many realtors and politicians are ready to admit.  While Buckled might not be an academically impressive novel, it does have something to say about water law in Colorado.  The book presents secretive issues in local law and politics, which could provide insight for those unfamiliar with the intricate shortcomings of water politics in Colorado.

The novel takes place in the fictitious town of Breeze, Colorado, located somewhere on the hot, dry eastern plains.  The town, like many others in the area, pumps its water directly from the Denver Basin.  Since the town’s inception, greedy land developers and corrupt politicians worked together on a lucrative campaign of bribery, blackmail, and public misinformation.  In doing so, they convince most of the public that suburban properties will retain their value despite further development because, as the public has been falsely informed, Breeze “doesn’t have a water problem.”  But the truth is Breeze itself was built on “lies of endless water,” and, as the novel opens, Breeze and its citizens are in serious trouble.  The book begins with the protagonist, writer, and activist, Aggie Boyle, stumbling across the remains of developer Randolph “Bluster” Brown lying next to the town water pump, facedown and dead in the mud, with his own belt buckle jammed between his eyes.

As the novel progresses, the relationship between the characters and the intricacies of the conspiracy are untangled, until finally, Hare presents a clear message: that the Denver Water Basin’s groundwater is, in fact, a non-renewable resource, and that failing to confront that fact head-on will only lead to dire consequences, especially for small communities on Colorado’s eastern plains.  But that is not the book’s only lesson.  Throughout the narrative, Hare provides the reader with an abundance of potential legal and political issues permeating the fictitious city of Breeze and the state’s water law.  For example, the novel boldly speaks of local politicians accepting bribes from out-of-state land developers, but smartly adds, “If the locals can haul in this much dough, how much do you think the Feds can grab?”

Other legal and political lessons presented by Buckled include: Fourth and Fifth Amendment violations; Colorado’s “Make My Day” law; police misconduct; history of Colorado water law; Spanish land grants; riparian rights and prior appropriation; basic property issues like the implementation of a town’s Master Plan; the media’s tendency to distort facts; and basic criminal procedure.  These lessons are not taught as they would be in a textbook.  Instead, the author weaves them into the narrative, and uses characters and plot points to illustrate the issues, and in some instances, provide hints as to how they may be resolved.

For instance, by the novel’s conclusion, it is clear that Breeze only has two remaining options: (i) lease its water rights from nearby ranchers; or (ii) pay through the nose to obtain water from “one of the three metropolitan cities.”  These options are all too familiar for residents of eastern Colorado.  Many Colorado communities were built on the same “lies of endless water.”  Option one is unlikely to materialize, as water rights, not the land itself, are the main source of property value in eastern Colorado.  Ranchers are entirely dependent on their water rights, and disputes sometimes lead to bloodshed, as depicted in the novel.  Option two is also impracticable for most eastern Colorado communities due to the high cost of importing water.  But realistically, that may be the only available option for many communities.  So what is Hare’s solution?  The protagonist declares, “We need a comprehensive solution; an end to bluegrass lawns, golf courses in every subdivision, and approving new development when there’s too little water for what’s here.”  In short, Hare suggests that conservation and planning will be the only solution to Colorado’s water problem.

From a literary standpoint, the novel is unremarkable.  For all its attempts to stay grounded in reality and present real issues, Buckled’s characters seem more like caricatures whose actions are too ridiculous to take seriously.  Nomenclatures like “developer Bluster Brown,” “councilman Tim Turtleman,” and “lawyer Jerry Careless” add to the comic level of absurdity, and lessen the novel’s potential as an informative tool.  Weak prose and numerous editorial mistakes also distract the reader from otherwise valuable educational information.

The novel attempts to address many taboo social situations—including pedophilia, sexual assault, adultery, and homicide—but is only marginally successful in shining a meaningful light on them.  Mostly, the situations feel forced, and the author’s lack of experience writing fiction is painfully apparent in the way Hare presents the overall story.  Nevertheless, at times, the social inferences are touching and the plot keeps the reader turning the pages.

Buckled is not a great book.  The prose is lacking, the timing is inconsistent, and the dialogue is forced and unnatural.  Despite its shortcomings, author K. Hare still has the courage to address taboo social issues, as well as legal and political themes not normally discussed in fiction.  As a light-hearted informative tool, Buckled succeeds.  Anyone who is not an expert in Colorado water law will learn something from this book.

K. Hare, Buckled in the Denver Basin, Bluestack Consulting, Inc., Falcon (2012); 310 pp; ISBN 0985892110.


California Assembly Bill 685 (“Bill 685”), colloquially known as the Human Right to Water Bill, became effective on January 1, 2013.  Assemblyman Mike Eng’s bill provides every human being the “right to safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water adequate for human consumption, cooking, and sanitary purposes.” Bill 685 instills a public policy to create universal access to safe, clean, and affordable water, and consequently, creates a duty for administrative agencies involved in water policy that impact domestic water use to consider Bill 685. Prior to Bill 685, California Water Code Section 106 stated that domestic use of water was the highest use possible, and allocated irrigation as the second highest use. Further, the California Safe Drinking Water Act declared that every citizen has the right to pure and safe drinking water.

Significance of Bill 685

The proponents of Bill 685 assert that the bill will be instrumental in creating and nurturing a public policy of safe and clean water for human use. It is argued that the bill is necessary to address extremely high drinking water pollution in certain Californian communities as well as a complete lack of any available drinking water in other communities. In support of Bill 685, the Assembly explains that the bill does not create a right of action for customers to demand clean water because the “right to water” is only hortatory language directed at administrative state agencies that impact domestic water use, nor will it impact the allocation of existing water rights because they have already been allocated through the existing system of prior appropriation. The Assembly points out that Bill 685 only imposes a duty for administrative agencies to advance the implementation of the human right to water policy. One area that the Assembly anticipates Bill 685 will impact is the public water regulatory system because any regulations concerning public water systems or drinking water quality that impact the adequacy, affordability, and safety of domestic water will have to be analyzed under a Bill 685 lens.

Opponents of Bill 685 worry that it may lead to higher water bills overall if it is interpreted to preclude water agencies from shutting off service upon customer default, forcing other customers to subsidize the water service for the customers who cannot afford to pay. Opponents argue that this could have a devastating impact on water suppliers with large bases of low-income customers. These business impacts logically lead to a reduction in water suppliers throughout the state, or so some argue. Further arguments against Bill 685 assert that “affordable” is a dangerously ambiguous term and that the bill was unnecessary to begin with because existing state legislation ensured “pure and safe drinking water.” Despite the Assembly’s assurances, some fear that a human right to “safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water” could lead to litigation.


California Bill 685 attempts to begin the process of administrative cure for a devastating lack of healthy drinking water. Despite the laudable goals of Bill 685, many have been left wondering about some of the bill’s ambiguous terms, like the undefined “affordable,” and are concerned about potential litigation. Suffice to say, the ink is still drying on Bill 685 but many Californians are excited for its great potential to maintain a safe water infrastructure.



Dam Nation

[D]ams rise like monuments in the deserts of the West. They are America’s cathedrals, its castles, its pyramids.  The immensity and gorgeous symmetry of these monoliths will stun future worlds looking back on ours.  We were worshippers of wetness in a dry land, penitents before the meager flow of water in a world of sun-blasted stone and drifting dunes of sand.

 Stephen Grace’s book, Dam Nation, traces the historic development of water use in the American West and examines the its legacy in light of the West’s modern framework.  Written as a richly descriptive narrative, the book follows the unique trajectory of Western water law and the philosophies and political movements which underpin it.  From the days of the earliest European explorers, through the construction of colossal dams, to the ever-scarcer water resources of the modern world, Grace weaves an intricate tale of competing interests fighting over an essential resource—water.

Grace organizes Dam Nation into twelve chapters; the first six chapters lay out the history of Western water use and the final six chapters contemplate modern issues, organized by theme.  Through a series of illustrative stories and events, Dam Nation provides a broad look at overall trends woven through the history of the West.  Grace intends to engage his audience in the realities and rationales of the West’s intricate, and often seemingly illogical, water law system.

Early chapters of Dam Nation explore the storied history of early water use in the West.  Grace defines the arid West as beginning west of the 100th meridian.  This area of the country receives less than twenty inches of rain per year.  Grace relays stories of the very first European explorations of the West, including the expeditions of de Escalante and Dominguez in 1776, Lewis and Clark in 1803, and Zebulon Pike in 1806.  Early explorers of the West brought back stories of their hardships in the “Great American Desert” to those in the East.  However, this mindset did not last; it instead transitioned into a great migration to settle the West.  The federal government and promoters promised riches and land, using the allure of Manifest Destiny to attract growing numbers of pioneers ready to move west.

Gold miners flocked to the West using water intensive mining process that helped lead to the appropriation system of water use, a system in which “first in time, first in right” reigns supreme.  Furthermore, through the Homestead Act of 1862, the federal government promised families 160 acres for farming and that “rain follows the plow.”  Grace points out the shortsightedness of the federal government at this time.  The federal government did not give land away based on geographical realities, but rather used a two-dimensional grid system developed in Eastern states.  This method caused farms and towns to locate in areas far away from water sources, and led to the constant need for irrigation projects.

As more people settled the West, the federal government, through the Bureau of Reclamation, began to take an important role in developing the intricate water supply system.   Grace suggests Reclamation’s ambitious water projects reflected a belief that Americans had the capacity and imperative to control nature through technological achievement.  The great dams of this era held back amounts of water so heavy that the weight actually sped the Earth’s rotation and shifted the planet’s axis.  Grace describes the flurry of politicians clambering to bring federal water projects to their districts, often rushing into projects without adequate investigation of their long-term economic and environmental impacts.

For example, the Hoover Dam, built during the Great Depression, provided jobs and a point of national pride during a time of crisis.  However, Reclamation built the Hoover Dam and many other projects based on the premise that they would increase the overall economic productivity of the West.  Reclamation’s projects often went over-budget; a 1955 report cited ninety projects costing twice their original estimates.  Indeed, Reclamation spent four times more than expected on the Missouri Basin Project and the Colorado-Big Thompson Project.  Reclamation’s Director, Floyd Dominy, later lamented the financial burdens, “half our projects were insolvent.”  Furthermore, dams usually benefited only a few large agricultural or industrial companies and provided cities with water to expand in areas far away from natural water sources.

In one of the most memorable stories of Dam Nation, Grace delves into the history of the Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River.  The mid-century construction of this dam illustrates Reclamation’s aggressiveness in building new dams and highlights an increasingly active Sierra Club.  Glen Canyon was a remote, but stunningly beautiful canyon that contained vast archeological value in the stone ruins of the Anasazi, also called Ancestral Puebloans.  Floyd Dominy, the larger-than-life Reclamation Commissioner, pushed hard for authorization to build the Glen Canyon Dam as part of his continuing quest to build engineering marvels that could control nature.  During the preparations to build Glen Canyon Dam, Sierra Club Director, David Brower, fought and won a battle to stop Reclamation from building a dam at Echo Park that, if built, would have flooded Dinosaur National Monument.  In return, the Sierra Club agreed not to oppose the Glen Canyon Dam, which the public knew very little about.  Brower later publically regretted this decision when the huge dam submerged important archeological sites, as well as the natural beauty of the canyon, under the newly formed Lake Powell.

Dominy succeeded in building one of the last big dams in the West, holding eight trillion gallons of water behind its enormous girth.  The Sierra Club, under Brower’s leadership, published The Place No One Knew, showing the public photographs of a Glen Canyon now submerged.  Reclamation responded with its own publication, The Jewel of the Colorado, to honor the engineering triumph of man over nature.  In the end, Grace argues the Glen Canyon Dam resulted in little economic benefit, because it is too far from population centers to use for water supply and the area’s high elevation restricts the growing season.  Furthermore, Lake Powell does not efficiently store water for the Colorado River because of large losses of water due to evaporation.  The Glen Canyon Dam signaled an end to public acceptance of large water projects.

Dam Nation also examines problems inherent in the current Western water system that pollute Western water supplies.  Dams prevent rivers, like the Colorado River, from rushing at a speed strong enough to carry silt out to the oceans.  Instead, silt now piles behind dams, trapping chemicals, such as mercury and selenium, in the water supply.  In addition, water runoff and seepage from mining, agriculture, and industrial plants poison rivers and aquifers with numerous chemicals.  Such toxins are difficult to remove and often remain undetected.

Along with the many other examples of water pollution, Grace discusses the effects of mining at Montana’s Spirit Mountain to illustrate the negative impact of mining methods.  Local Native American tribes, the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre, regard Spirit Mountain as a sacred site, but the federal government took the land through a treaty.  The Pegasus Gold Company used open-pit cyanide-leach mining methods that dismantled the mountain to remove gold.  The chemical-laden runoff from Spirit Mountain killed aquatic life and contaminated the drinking water of the Fort Belknap Reservation with cyanide and sulfuric acid.  The Environmental Protection Agency, the State of Montana, and the tribes sued the Pegasus Gold Company for violating the Clean Water Act and won a large settlement.  The company, however, provided only five million dollars of the settlement before declaring bankruptcy.  Polluted water from Spirit Mountain continues to flow into local communities’ water supplies, leaving Montana to clean up the pollution in perpetuity.  In 1998, Montana banned new gold mines from using cyanide-leaching techniques.

The government no longer builds large monolithic dams. Grace attributes the country shying away from large dams to the following factors: (i) growth of the conservation movement; (ii) publicity of many Reclamation projects’ economic inefficiency; and (iii) a lack of remaining suitable dam sites.  At the same time, the struggle to provide enough water to thirsty cities, farms, and industrial uses continues in the midst of dwindling water supplies.  Grace argues that a belief in technological capacity to solve Western water problems remains present in the public conscience today.

Grace closes Dam Nation by suggesting a number of policies to sustain water supplies and quench the thirst of the West.  While Grace writes of dwindling water supplies, he argues that inept management forms the real water crisis.  He advocates the “soft path” of Peter Gleick: “an integrated, sustainable approach that emphasizes conservation and efficiency and learning to live within the limits of the land rather than trying to replumb it on a grand scale.”  Grace maintains that there is enough available water to maintain the current cities by keeping growth rates stable, pricing water to reflect its scarcity, and abandoning cost-ineffective agriculture projects.

Furthermore, Grace commends the success of vigorous conservation efforts, like those seen in Los Angeles and Las Vegas.  Las Vegas’s conservation program concentrates on lowering outdoor water use through strict limits on use and other requirements such as using reclaimed water for fountains.  The city charges fines for noncompliance with the regulations and rewards homeowners for replacing their lawns with drought-resistant landscaping.  Using this incentive system, Los Vegas lowered its water consumption while still experiencing population growth.

Grace also recognizes the success of modern water projects that take into account geographical realities and use sophisticated and efficient techniques.  Over the past ten years, the City of Aurora, Colorado established its own self-funded water project, Prairie Waters.  Prairie Waters uses a renewable water loop that draws water from the nearby South Platte River.  The city dumps treated wastewater into the river and thirty-four miles downstream Prairie Waters wells draws up water through gravel for further purification.  Prairie Waters then pumps water through basins of sand and gravel and transports the water to Aurora’s reservoir for a final treatment at a high-tech plant that uses chemicals and ultra-violet light.  Grace applauds Prairie Waters as an example of efficient and sustainable use of local water that careful planning and scientific advances promoted.  Grace argues that with continued conservation efforts and more responsible water projects, the West may be able to sustain its most important resource, water.

Grace covers an ambitious amount of material, yet manages to draw in the reader with colorful and engaging stories that reveal a deep connection with the subject.  Due to its fast pace, the scope of the book can be jarring at times.  Nevertheless, the book provides glimpses into important historical events and fosters a deeper understanding of how and why the West developed the water law system it continues to struggle with today.  Dam Nation is an excellent choice for both a reader first exploring the subject of Western water use and a more knowledgeable reader looking for a solid general background on the subject presented in a highly engaging format.

 Stephen Grace, Dam NationGlobe Pequot Press, Guilford (2012); 333 pp; $24.95; ISBN 9780762770656; hardcover.