“The country was without law, but each individual brought with him the principles of equity and justice, which were a part of his education.”

Armstrong v. Larimer County Ditch Co., 27 P.235, 237 (Colo. Ct. App. 1891) (discussing the adoption of the rule of prior appropriation and distributive justice in the arid West).

In The Colorado Doctrine: Water Rights, Corporations, and Distributive Justice on the American Frontier, author David Schorr details the historical development of Western water law. Schorr, a senior lecturer and chair of the Law and Environment Program at Tel Aviv University Faculty of Law, centers on the historical progress of the appropriation doctrine; a system of private rights in water divergent from the traditional eastern riparian doctrine, which affords water rights only to adjacent landowners.  Schorr memorializes the development of the appropriation doctrine as part of a radical attack on monopoly and corporate power in the arid West.  Colorado miners, irrigators, lawmakers, and judges forged a water-rights-as-property system based on a desire to spread property and its benefits as widely as possible among independent citizens, in place of speculative water rights based on land ownership.

In Chapter One, Schorr introduces the seminal 1882 decision, Coffin v. Left Hand Ditch Co.  In Coffin, the Colorado Supreme Court firmly rejects the common law riparian doctrine giving the stream-adjacent landowner rights to water, even with lack of beneficial use, by finding the doctrine inapplicable to Colorado. Coffin laid out “pure appropriation,” under which a user may create water right by diverting water from a stream and putting such water to use, rather than water rights created by land ownership.  Schorr explains the Western doctrine of prior appropriation advanced distributive justice at the expense of the property-based riparian right.

In Chapter Two, The Colorado Doctrine explores four historical sources documenting the development of Colorado Water law: (i) unofficial codes of Colorado’s mining districts in the late 1850s and early 1960s; (ii) sections of the 1876 state constitution and water-law statutes of Colorado’s legislature; (iii) decisions of the Colorado Supreme Court in the first decades of Colorado’s statehood; and (iv) ideological assumptions behind the law illustrated by contemporary sources.  Schorr compliments the development of Western water law with an argument for questioning fundamental assumptions about the appropriation doctrine.  Despite his profound departure from the established understanding of Colorado water law, Schorr effectively argues historical sources of water law collectively advanced the ideals of distributive justice as part of the broader nineteenth-century agrarian reform movement in American law.

Thus, Schorr’s analysis diverges significantly from the conventional story.  The prior appropriation concept, qui prior est tempore potior est jure (“he who is first in time is first in right”), is not simply a reflection of the frontier ethics of individualism, initiative, and efficiency, but also the overarching principle of broad distribution of water rights.  Both academic and legal institutions recognize early Colorado water law as a model for the Prior Appropriation Doctrine as it developed throughout the West.  Adoption of prior appropriation eliminated the exclusive right of landowners with property adjacent to a stream the exclusive use of water, allowing a greater number of people to benefit.  The original legal application of prior appropriation required actual beneficial use of water:  no user could claim more water than needed and, therefore, no one user could profit from speculation in a resource belonging to all.

In The Colorado Doctrine, David Schorr closely examines the reasons for this rejection of Riparianism and the values embodied in the prior appropriation doctrine.  According to Schorr, Colorado’s adoption of prior appropriation derived from two principles: (i) the limitation of appropriation to each individual the amount he could actually use, and (ii) the maximization of the number of owners able to stake a claim to water. In the arid west, limiting rights to riparian owners would deny the vast majority of citizens’ rights to an essential resource.  Schorr argues the second principle of priority strikes a balance between equality and sufficiency within the concept of distributive justice because priority prevents appropriations that would leave another user without a viable share of water. Conflict resolution between such users depends on temporal priority, where “senior” users can demand a “junior” rights holder cease his diversion if it will not leave enough water for senior rights.  Priority rules developed from the Lockean and Jeffersonian view of acquisition requiring actual use as an element of ownership, stressing the ideal of equality and limiting acquisition to an amount a person could directly use.  Further, Schorr believes the appropriation doctrine is a prevention of speculation or “monopoly” control of water supplies in allowing “actual settlers” to trespass on riparian lands and divest land owners of common-law water rights those landowners did not apply to beneficial use.

Next, Chapter Three of The Colorado Doctrine analyzes the genesis of the appropriation doctrine itself in light of how territorial statutes, the Colorado state constitution, and early judicial decisions, laid the foundation of the doctrine, with the Coffin v. Left Hand Ditch Co. decision as the confirmation of the doctrine.  Water-rights law in the Colorado territory continued to forward the main principles originating in Colorado mining laws.  Colorado’s Constitution of 1876 recorded such principles: public ownership of the state’s surface waters, the beneficial use requirement, and the complete abolition of riparian privileges.  Later, the 1882 Coffin decision reaffirmed the Colorado Doctrine.  In its decision, the Court emphatically rejects the riparian rule. In doing so, the Court explains the nature of the riparian rule prevents useful and profitable cultivation of fertile soil by sanctioning waste on sterile lands adjacent to streams.  The case emphasized the clarity of the Colorado Rule: riparian lands have no water right incidental to them;  and, all landowners acquire rights only by use, regardless of their land’s location.   Importantly, Schorr encourages the reader to acknowledge the potential consequence of a failure to recognize prior appropriations protection of a legal right in future flows— a disastrous race among irrigators, attempting to capture flows further and further upstream.  Ultimately such a race would lead upstream users to monopolization what few watercourses the West had.

In Chapters Four and Five, Schorr continues by describing how, in the decades following Coffin, the appropriation doctrine curbed the power of corporations and speculators, reserving the state’s water to bona fide users.  The Colorado Doctrine focuses on Colorado’s strict regulation of water corporations, discussing the historical difference between private property and corporate property, which motivated prior appropriation. Schorr then moves to discuss the beneficial use rule, the difficulties in allocating water, and the desired distributive justice created by the legal property regime.  For a time the threat of corporate monopoly of water hung over the agricultural industry, but legislative action and court decisions ended this danger. Court decisions favoring consumer interests over those of “monopolistic” canal companies rested on the doctrinal basis of public ownership of all surface water and beneficial use as an element of water rights that a user could satisfy, but not a canal company.  Colorado Law came down in favor of local settlers over absentee capitalists, building a system of water distribution on the basis of consumers as true proprietors, where the distributor or canal company serves as a user’s agent to care for the works and bring the water to the consumer’s land.

Finally, Chapter 6 highlights some theoretical issues historical study of the Colorado Doctrine raises.  Schorr points out that economic efficiency was not the primary goal of prior appropriation.  Rather, the goal was limiting appropriations in order to maximize the number of appropriators.  His examination of additional economic incentives supports the claim distributional ideology played the dominant role in shaping Colorado water law in the nineteenth-century.  The Colorado Doctrine demonstrates ownership of water rights in Colorado relied not on concerns for economic efficiency, but on social justice. Schorr maintains these principles express the values of the West at the time, reflecting a utilitarian ideal of “the greatest good for the greatest number.”

 The Colorado Doctrine is a reconsideration of the common understanding of the development of the appropriation doctrine. Schorr argues the widespread distribution of resources, rather than economic efficiency, is the foundation of the Colorado Doctrine and the water law of the West.  Schorr concludes with the need for a paradigm shift—where classifications of property regimes fully consider distributive justice.  Water users should understand the evolution of the institution of water rights as an element of riparian property, and evaluate its desirability as a legal system, so that concentration of a given water resource may be a more significant consideration than the form of its allocation.

 The Colorado Doctrine advances a cogent argument full of interesting historical details of western water law.  Schorr does an excellent job of introducing the reader to his novel perspective on legal theory surrounding Colorado water.  In writing The Colorado Doctrine, Schorr develops a comprehensive insight on how the prior appropriation doctrine deliberately created an anti-commons for purposes of distributive justice.  His perspective is highly important, not only to understand Colorado water law, but also as insight into critical implications of future policymaking. The Colorado Doctrine’s is an apt contribution to both legal and economic history.

David Schorr, The Colorado Doctrine: Water Rights, Corporations, and Distributive Justice on the American Frontier. Yale University Press, New Haven & London (2012); 235PP; $65.00 ; ISBN 978-0-300-13447-6; hardcover.

George Sibley is a freelance writer and former educator who has written several histories on Colorado’s Western Slope, where he has roots and is a longtime resident.  Water Wranglers: The 75-Year History of the Colorado River District, A Story About the Embattled Colorado River and the Growth of the West depicts a history of the Colorado River Water Conservation District (“CRWCD”).  The book explores the CRWCD’s work protecting the Colorado River for West Slope residents against transmountain diversions, as well as maintaining Colorado’s share of the river under the Colorado River Compact.  In providing the story of the CRWCD, Sibley explores much of the progression of the water history and law of Colorado as a whole.  The book’s sections each discuss roughly a decade of the CRWCD’s existence.


The book’s first section explores conditions leading to the formation of the CRWCD.  With arid conditions in Colorado in the early 1930s, western farmers developed a grand desire to store and conserve water for future use.  This movement culminated in the Colorado River Compact’s signing, in large part authored by attorney Delph Carpenter.  Soon thereafter, Colorado’s East Slope made its first attempts to divert water from the Colorado River Basin across the mountains in 1933.  Officials justified the diversions to reluctant West-Slopers under the rationale that most of the state’s population lived on the East Slope and under Colorado water law there is no legal prohibition against transmountain diversions.  In response to the transmountain efforts, the Western Colorado Protective Association (“WCPA”) formed and, partially due to its actions, these first attempts at transmountain diversions failed.

This section also introduces the formidable West Slope Congressman Edward Taylor.  A powerful member of the House Appropriations Committee, Taylor ensured that any transmountain water project requesting federal support would need to also provide compensatory storage for the West Slope—one acre-foot of storage for one acre-foot diverted.  The Congressman also strategically changed the name of the “Grand River” (the upper fork of the Colorado River until it meets with the Green River in Utah) to the “Colorado” as a way of dispelling notions that most of the lower river’s water originated elsewhere.

Parties from both slopes supported a Bureau of Reclamation (“Bureau”) study for future water needs.  In these years, the WCPA found itself trying to work a middle ground between East Slope ambitions and an increasingly intransigent Congressman Taylor.  To reach compromise, these parties agreed that if the East Slope was in a rush, the West Slope would insist on acre-foot for acre-foot compensation; however, if the East Slope conducted the process in a reasonable and studied manner, all sides could work together.

The federal government completed the Boulder (Hoover) Dam in 1935.  However, President Roosevelt indicated that the Public Works Administration would not provide free money for reclamation projects—rather the state had to work through the Bureau, meaning that the Colorado would have to repay the federal funding.  The section ends with Congress passing the Grand Lake Project (now called the Colorado-Big Thompson).  Colorado also passed several bills, including one creating the Colorado Water Conservation Board (“CWCB”).  The CRWCD formed June 7, 1937 as a parent organization to valley-specific authorities.  Additionally, voters elected Judge Clifford Stone to the Colorado General Assembly, who would later be an important part of the CRWCD’s history.


Sibley next charted the CRWCD’s earliest years.  Originally representing seven West Slope counties, the CRWCD aimed to use as much of the Colorado River’s waters as possible within the state, preferably for mining and agriculture on the West Slope.  Judge Stone, though not on the board, was a de facto member of the CRWCD staff.  At this time, the WCPA turned over its work to the CRWCD and dissolved.

During these years, the CRWCD and Stone attempted to demonstrate to the West Slope that, although they could not be legally halted, compensatory storage for transmountain diversions could still benefit West Slope interests.  Work began on the Colorado-Big Thompson project and, when finished in 1957, the project diverted on average 232,000 acre-feet annually.  Following its completion, the Gunnison Valley and Congressman Taylor opposed a request to study a potential Gunnison-Arkansas transmountain project.  However, Taylor’s death in 1941 enabled federal funding for the study to come through.  Completed in 1948, the study charted a project that exceeded the Colorado-Big Thompson in size and complexity, allowing for 655,000 acre-feet to cross the mountains each year.  The CRWCD supported the Gunnison-Arkansas diversion, much to the displeasure of the Gunnison Valley.  In this dispute, the Gunnison Valley users portrayed the CRWCD in an almost traitorous light.  However, in mid-1949, the CWCB approved a smaller diversion plan, which became the Frying-Arkansas project.

Congress divided the lower basin states’ allocation of the Colorado River Compact in the 1928 Boulder Canyon Act.  To determine Mexico’s share, the seven basin states formed a “Committee of Fourteen” with Stone as chair.  In 1944, the Bureau published its long-awaited study of the entire Colorado basin, with a plan to develop the river “to the very last drop.”  In 1946, Stone then represented the state of Colorado at the upper basin states’ compact commission.  The resulting Upper Colorado River Compact allotted Colorado 51.75 percent of the upper basin’s share of the river’s waters, though the state produced 73 percent of the total flow.

The section also provides a brief history of the Denver Water Board of Commissioners (“DWB”).  Always highly autonomous from the rest of the city’s municipal government, the DWB saw itself as a providing for the future of a large metropolis with a “thousand-year” water supply system.  Represented by attorney Glenn Saunders, the DWB pursued an aggressive policy of acquisition of West Slope rights.  With the Colorado Supreme Court’s holding that municipal plans for future growth is not speculative, the DWB began planning for the large Blue River project.  This led to years of litigation between DWB and the CRWCD.  During this time, Denver grew a great deal, and the DWB saw its water supply was running short.  It confined services to within a certain defined area in 1950, forcing some suburbs to develop their own water systems.   Judge Stone died in 1952, and with him, so too did the CRWCD’s formative era.


West Slope Congressman Wayne Aspinall had a significant impact in the next decades.  Running for Congress in 1948 as a “second Edward Taylor,” Aspinall became chair of the House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, which allowed him to exert substantial influence over federal reclamation projects.  Aspinall exemplified the thinking of historical western water management, aiming to harness and conserve as much water as possible for reclamation and mining developments.  However, the period also saw a burgeoning environmentalist movement which felt that conservation should keep the West in as natural a state as possible.

The 1950s and 1960s were the biggest dam-building period in the nation’s history.  The Bureau composed a list of their most promising storage projects and dubbed it the Colorado River Storage Project (“CRSP”).  The Bureau envisioned transforming the Upper Basin into a new industrial and irrigation center for the United States.  The CRSP planned storage of forty-eight million acre-feet—three times the Colorado River’s annual flow.

The new environmentalist movement defeated the planned Echo Park dam (located where the Yampa River meets the Green River) despite the support Aspinall and the CRWCD.  As a compromise, Aspinall offered an amended CRSP bill which did away with Echo Park but included the Navajo (New Mexico), Glen Canyon (Utah), Flaming Gorge (Utah), and Curecanti (Colorado) dams.  Glen Canyon dam construction began in 1957, eventually allowing storage of twenty-seven million acre-feet (twice the annual flow of the river, and three-quarters the total storage for the CRSP).  Construction on Flaming Gorge and Navajo dams began next in 1958.  While both were finished in 1962, Glen Canyon, which began earlier, was not finished until 1963.  With much of the CRSP thus under construction, the CRWCD ended the decade on a high note.


By the early 1960s, CRWCD grew to encompass the entire West Slope, with the exception of the San Juan counties, which formed their own Southwestern District.  The CRWCD engaged in further courtroom disputes with DWB, the Colorado Supreme Court often ruling in favor of the latter.  Though the parties sometimes reached settlement, there was still a mood of distrust.  Following completion of the three dams of the Curecanti project, construction on the biggest units of the CRSP was complete.

During this period, the new conservation movement, supported by Congressman John Saylor of Pennsylvania, Aspinall’s environmental-friendly counterpart, slowed down construction on several new dams.  Environmental movement advocates began to perceive Aspinall as a reactionary and foe to the movement, though Sibley argues Aspinall merely supported an evolutionary approach to public land law.  Aspinall won a major legislative victory in 1962 with Congress’ passage of his Wilderness Bill and the Fryingpan-Arkansas project.  However, this marked the apex of his career and the beginning of its decline.  Sibley notes that Aspinall and the CRWCD did not realize that a future of recreation and skiing was replacing the old vision of water use for agriculture and mining.

This decade also saw further developments in the lower basin states.  In 1961, Mexico complained that its allocation of the Colorado River’s waters was too saline, due to runoff from a California canal.  In response, the Western Governors’ Association reconvened the Committee of Fourteen from the 1940s to coordinate the basin states’ interests in the salinity question.  Additionally, Arizona Senator Carl Hayden dreamed of a vast Central Arizona project supported by Colorado River water.  Despite opposition by environmentalist movement and Aspinall, Congress eventually approved the Central Valley Project.


The Colorado General Assembly passed the 1969 Colorado Water Rights Determination and Administration Act, reorganizing much of the state’s water law procedures and marking the beginning of the ecological era.  Shortly thereafter, on January 1, 1970, President Nixon signed the National Environmental Protection Act, creating the EPA.  And finally, in 1972, Congress passed the Clean Water Act.  At the same time, Aspinall’s critics accused him of becoming too supportive of mining interests, particularly uranium.  In 1970, for the first time, he faced a primary election challenge.  Though Aspinall won that election, the 1970 census redistricting cut his West Slope district in two.  Facing another primary challenge in 1972, he lost by sixteen-hundred votes.

The 1970s saw further developments in the Colorado River salinity issue.  Although studies found that the salinity in Mexico was largely natural, the newly-formed EPA involved itself by supporting a regulatory solution.  President Nixon guaranteed low salinity to Mexico, providing the EPA with an opportunity to intervene.  This demonstrated that Aspinall’s world of quid pro quo solutions was gone, replaced by a highly centralized enforcement scheme.

Congress passed the Endangered Species Act in 1973 and the Colorado General Assembly passed an “instream flow” law in 1973, despite the CRWCD opposition to the law.  In February 1977, President Carter issued his “hit list” of nineteen water projects, asking Congress to cut funding for these projects.  Carter’s hit list put certainty to the suspicion that the era of big federal reclamation projects was coming to a close.

Lastly, the 1970s saw the arrival of the West Slope’s long-awaited oil shale boom.  Following the 1970s oil crisis, President Nixon gave several large companies leases on the West Slope for development.  However, oil development was in direct opposition to the environmentalist movement gaining strength in the region.  In any case, Black Sunday in 1982 effectively ended the boom before it ever began.  Environmentalist post-urbanites and skiing then began to dominate the West Slope.  Work on the Windy Gap Reservoir, the most recent transmountain diversion project, completed in June 1985.  Congressman Aspinall died in October 1983, definitively ending the era in which he played a key role.


The 1980s and 1990s saw another period of change for the CRWCD.  The DWB sought to build the Two Forks Reservoir at the confluence of the North and South Forks of the South Platte River, despite a sure to be strong opposition from environmentalists.  Governor Lamm convened a roundtable for the Denver metro area but also included representatives from both East and West Slopes.  Lamm also included forward-thinking policy makers, and not just old-fashioned “water buffaloes” (referring to those who bellow, splash around, and muddy the waters).  Though the roundtable limited discussion to water supply in the immediate metro area, the CRWCD thought it would be easier to deal with the DWB than with many individual suburbs.  By this point, new players and strategies were beginning to change water policy in Colorado.  A demonstration of this shift occurred when aggressive DWB counsel Glenn Saunders left the organization.  DWB and the CRWCD decided to begin attempts at cooperation rather than their previous near-constant litigation.  Further, the DWB regarded Two Forks as a way of building unity within the Denver-Water supply.  Denver metro communities signed a Memorandum of Agreement, with the idea of cooperating and preventing courtroom battles.  The DWB, now headed by manager Hamlet “Chips” Barry, announced a new conciliatory direction and the organization changed its name to Denver Water.

At the same time, the CRWCD tried to take stock of changing situations on the West Slope.  The CRWCD wanted to work on better terms with the environmentalist-friendly headwater communities.  Differences proved to be mainly cultural: urban expatriates seeking a more rural lifestyle, but not reflecting the region’s traditional culture, began replacing the remnant population from the mining era which the CRWCD originally served.  Environmentalists then formed a separate organization, the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments (“NWCCOG”).

The environmentally-conscious headwater communities, led by NWCCOG general counsel Barbara Green (the state’s first major female water figure), succeeded in using its land use powers to delay diversions across the Divide for a large Colorado Springs and Aurora project.  The CRWCD, however, did not take part in the litigation.  Later, NWCCOG, this time with CRWCD support, also blocked another large planned diversion at Union Park.

The environmental movement took another step forward when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed four fish in the Colorado Basin as endangered by 1991.  The Upper Colorado River Basin Coordinating Committee conditioned further diversions and management on the fish populations but the biggest evidence of the burgeoning environmental movement came when the EPA vetoed the Two Forks project in November of 1990.  After an eight-year planning process and many millions spent, the federal government shut down the project solely because of the EPA director’s judgment that it was incompatible with Section 404 of the Clean Water Act.  Finally, former DWB counsel Glenn Saunders died in 1990.  His death signaled the fact that water issues were no longer in the hands of the old-time “water buffaloes” in the West.


The book’s final section describes the CRWCD’s history up to the present day.  Environmentalist actions on the West Slope continued, particularly to protect the four endangered fish.  Parties adopted a Programmatic Biological Opinion in 1999, recommending running all of the Upper Colorado as an integrated system to aid fish populations.  It is unclear today if the four fish are rebounding, but efforts seem to be helping allow future construction projects while not further endangering the fish.

This section also describes how the National Park Service finally quantified its reserved water right for Black Canyon National Park.  In 2001, the Park Service filed for a flow that mimics the canyon’s natural flow to the greatest extent possible, with a 1933 priority date.  There was much opposition, and Department of Interior director Gayle Norton reduced the application to a later and effectively meaningless priority date.  A federal court, however, rejected this alteration as an abuse of discretion.  The water court issued its final decree in 2007.

Sibley also provides a description of the severe drought that struck the state through early 2000s.  The Colorado General Assembly passed the Colorado Water for the Twenty-First Century Act in 2005, which called for Basin Roundtables in each of the state’s eight water basins, plus another for the Denver metro area.  The future is uncertain as to whether cooperation will continue and whether the Colorado River will contain enough water for all in the future.

The book draws to a close by providing estimates for available unused water remaining in the Colorado River, running anywhere from zero to nine-hundred-thousand acre-feet.  Faced with these possible shortfalls, communities are exploring several proposals for planning for the future.  The book ends with a quote from Justice Gregory J. Hobbs of the Colorado Supreme Court: “We are no longer developing the water resource; we are learning to share a developed resource.”


Water Wranglers, despite its length and extremely in-depth discussion of a complicated historical subject, is an easy and enjoyable read for anyone interested in the history of water development in the Colorado River Basin and the state of Colorado.  Well-researched and containing useful maps and photographs, Water Wranglers provides valuable, objective information for individuals, neophytes or experts, interested in Colorado’s transmountain diversions.  As seen through the lens of the CRWCD, the book describes a complex history in pieces that illustrate how a region’s goals and priorities shift over time.

George Sibley, Water Wranglers: The 75-Year History of the Colorado River District: A   Story About the Embattled Colorado River and the Growth of the West, Colorado River District (2012); 466 pp; ISBN 978-0520254770; paperback.

A photographer and author teamed up to capture the geographical, environmental, and historical journey of the Colorado River in their photo-essay book, The Colorado River: Flowing Through Conflict.  Peter McBride, a photographer from Colorado, visually documented his aerial expedition along 1,450 miles of the Colorado River, from its headwaters toward its delta.  Jonathan Waterman’s text, augmented by his past experiences as a wilderness guide, recounts his own personal travels paddling along the same length of river as well as the history surrounding the waters of the Colorado River.  The authors organized the book into three parts, corresponding to the sections of the river as it travels from the Rocky Mountains toward the Sea of Cortez.  Their combined intention was to capture the issues facing the river in a photographic record, showing both the beauty and sometimes eerie nature of the Colorado River Basin.  The aerial perspective, McBride explained, “shows where we as humans have been, how we connect to the earth, and how nature relates to itself.”

McBride began the book by recounting his childhood memories growing up on a Snowmass, Colorado farm near the headwaters of the Colorado River.  The introduction to the book, aptly entitled The River, provides a statistical overview of Colorado River, highlighting the more than one-hundred dams obstructing the river’s natural flow.  The Colorado River Basin drains 243,000 square miles, spanning seven states and two countries.  The river itself supports thirty species of native fish as well as fourteen coal and natural gas power plants, demonstrating the range of reliance on the continuous flow of water.

In Part I: The Mountains, the authors describe the beginning of their journey at the Colorado River’s headwaters near the Continental Divide in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.  This section documents the river geographically through the Upper Basin.  The river first flows south through Rocky Mountain National Park, then west through Cataract Canyon, where it crosses the border into Utah.  The river then winds through the Canyonlands near Moab and spills into Lake Powell.  This section also highlights threats to the Upper Basin ecosystem, including impacts of invasive tamarisk and pine beetle on native habitat.  A vast number of uranium claims along the Colorado River also pose another potential environmental threat.  However, Part I also depicts the many benefits of the river to humans.  Recreation activities, especially, sustain the region’s tourism-based economy, including rafting, floating, fishing, and wildlife watching.

Part II: Big Reservoirs, Grand Canyon next depicts the Colorado as it flows southwest from Lake Powell toward Lees Ferry.  The Colorado River Compact utilized Lees Ferry, a historic river crossing in northern Arizona, as the arbitrary divide between the Upper and Lower Colorado River Basins.  The authors’ journey continued on to Lake Mead, the vast reservoir storing water for downstream consumers in Arizona, Nevada, California, and Mexico.  The Colorado River slowly travels through the Grand Canyon to Lake Mead, then almost five-hundred miles west to the Hoover Dam.  The creation of Grand Canyon National Park in 1919 resulted in formal protection of the landscape.  Yet wildlife native to the Colorado continue to face threats to their survival.  For example, the humpback chub, a native fish species, adapted to hunt in the shallow, muddy, and warm waters of Little Colorado River.  However, deep water held behind the dams of the Lower Basin is colder and clearer which nonnative species prefer, such as trout, which compete with native species for limited food resources.

Part III: To the Delta documents the final leg of the authors’ journey of the Colorado River toward the sea.  This section maps the river’s flow below the Hoover Dam, through the Black Canyon in California south to Baja California, Mexico.  However, the river no longer ends at the delta in the Sea of Cortez, but runs dry about fifty miles north.  The river delta itself is 95% diminished.    A myriad of water diversions have caused the Colorado River to run dry in the Sonoran desert before it reaches the Sea of Cortez.  Agricultural irrigators in the region have diverted much of the river into canals, such as Coachella and All-American.  Much of the irrigation runoff in southern California flows into the Salton Sea, over two-hundred feet below sea level.  The Salton Sea is an important oasis in the desert, visited by over four-hundred bird species.  Yet the Sea’s water level is decreasing six inches each year as more river water flows to major cities, resulting in increased salinity levels which threaten the resident fish and birds that prey upon them.  This section summarizes these and other downriver ecological impacts of damming and diverting the river for human uses in southern California and northern Mexico.

McBride and Waterman depict their personal expedition along most of the Colorado River through colorful photographs and detailed maps that invoke in the reader both feelings of appreciation and concern for the Colorado River.  Waterman’s text skillfully integrates summaries of the natural history and geography of the Colorado River Basin with meaningful quotes.  His passages describe anthropogenic impacts to the surrounding ecosystems throughout modern history.  McBride captures the river from both the ground and aerial perspectives, providing the reader with beautiful natural images rarely seen.  The use of historical photos for comparison with current conditions visually demonstrates the environmental impacts of damming the river on the local landscape.  This photo-essay book is much more than a collection of pictures and would do well to complete any collection for a water enthusiast or one who simply enjoys the natural beauty of the Colorado River.

Peter McBride & Jonathan Waterman, The Colorado River: Flowing Through Conflict, Westcliffe Publishers, Colorado (2012); 160 pp; $27.95; ISBN 978-1-56579-646-1; soft cover.

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


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.

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.