In an attempt to lure immigrants to Arizona in 1881, Patrick Hamilton wrote, “Irrigation is the life of agriculture in the Territory. Without it scarcely anything can be raised; with it the soil is the most prolific in the west. Water, therefore, is the most precious element for the farmer in Arizona.” The same was—and is—true of other parts of the desert Southwest.

Those who live in this thirsty region can fully appreciate the sentiment expressed by John Ballantine Gough, who wrote, “Everywhere water is a thing of beauty, gleaming in the dewdrop; singing in the summer rain; shining in the ice-gems till the leaves all seem to turn to living jewels; spreading a golden veil over the setting sun; or a white gauze around the midnight moon.”

The settlers of this region quickly learned that the scant rainfall is not spread evenly across the year, but rather most of it falls within six weeks to two months. For ten to eleven months a year there are only traces of precipitation in the true desert Southwest. Then come downpours that flood arroyos and river valleys, giving meaning to road signs that warn, “Danger in flood season.” In the mountainous parts of the Southwest, most moisture falls as snow during winter months and then melts in spring and summer to feed the two major river systems of the area.

Across this region the early settlers built small dams both for flood control and for irrigation. Larger dams later would be constructed for the concomitant benefit of hydroelectric power. But in their quest for water, the residents of each state soon learned that their neighbors were also searching and fighting for additional water supplies, and that a dam built in one state trapped water that fell as rain or snow in another, or else impounded water that otherwise would flow on to another political jurisdiction. Because most Southwestern rivers crossed state lines, cooperative efforts were necessary in order for all states to get a fair share of what little water was available.

Southwestern pioneers also learned that large dams and huge irrigation projects could be dreadfully expensive, and they searched for deep pockets to pay for these. Despite their posturing as rugged individualists, they quickly turned to the federal government as the source of first resort. Buckey O’Neill, a well-known peace officer and later famous as a leader of the Rough Riders, suggested this solution when the National Irrigation Congress met in Phoenix in 1896—a national irrigation and conservation policy financed by the federal government.

Congressman Francis G. Newlands of Nevada subsequently introduced legislation calling for the national government to use the funds derived from the sale of public lands for the construction of “reclamation” works. The first such dam was built between 1905 and 1911 where Tonto Creek joined the Salt River in central Arizona and, when completed, included power facilities, transmission lines, roads, and canals to valley farms. Through the sale of water, the cost of Roosevelt Dam and its canals was repaid by 1955—one of the few examples of a federal water project that has ever done so.

There followed a rush of dam building on the two major rivers of the Southwest, the Colorado and the Rio Grande—and then a flood of negotiations and litigation to settle the allocation of the impounded water. At times the fight reached comic opera levels, as in 1934 when Governor Benjamin B. Moeur called out the Arizona National Guard to stop federal workers from constructing Parker Dam on the Colorado River.

Eventually all states with a claim to water from the Colorado River signed the Colorado River Compact, just as Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas agreed to the Rio Grande Compact. Complicating negotiations in both instances was Mexico’s claim to water from these two rivers, and it became a signatory to both compacts with guaranteed allocation of hundreds of thousands of acre feet of water annually.

Further complicating the struggles about water in the Southwest have been industrialization and urbanization. Arizona’s population, mostly urban, has swelled from approximately five hundred thousand in 1940 to some four million today, while greater Los Angeles, which gets drinking water from the Colorado, has expanded beyond liveability. Likewise, Texas, New Mexico, and Oklahoma have been among the fastest-growing states in the nation. Moreover, since World War II, tens of thousands of additional acres have been put under irrigated cultivation, dropping the water table where wells have been drilled and leading to yet more battles with city dwellers for water impounded by dams.

Still another complicating factor is the water rights of Native Americans, many of whom have prior claims, guaranteed by treaty and by court cases, to the water in Southwestern streams and who increasingly are demanding that their rights be recognized. And there are the concerns of environmentalists, some of them legitimate, about the pollution of both surface and underground water by agricultural and industrial chemicals as well as human waste, especially along the border between Mexico and the United States.

Today almost all surface water has been appropriated, and groundwater supplies have been exploited to the point of overuse in all but the most remote areas. Thus increasingly the battle for water is confrontational and litigious as one state fights with another, as cities vie with farmers, as Native Americans on reservations contest non-Indians, as industrial users contend with private consumers for finite supplies, and as environmentalists seemingly want to challenge everyone.

This current study of the search and fight for water in the arid Southwest consists of 14 essays plus a summary of major trends and issues. As in all such multi-authored efforts, the results are of uneven quality, and the work suffers from considerable duplication and some omissions (shortcomings that editor Zachary Smith has recognized and addressed in his introduction). Also, some “experts” reach conclusions opposite from those of other “experts”; for example, John Merrifield in Chapter 11 argues for increased privatization of water management, while Tim De Young and Hank Jenkins-Smith in Chapter 12 refer to privatization as undesirable.

Some of the articles are straightforward and without bias. Richard A. Wehmhoefer does an excellent job of explaining water law in the Southwest and giving the historical precedent for it, as does Albert E. Utton in his study of Mexican-American water relations. Other articles, as one would expect in a book largely written by professors of political science and public administration, are heavily slanted in favor of increased federal bureaucratic management and yet more congressional oversight. Almost all the writers end their chapters with a list of “suggestions” requiring greater government intervention in one form or another. Several of the authors seem to favor a gigantic and expensive federal program of water transfer from as far away as Arkansas and East Texas to the Great Plains of western Oklahoma and the Panhandle of Texas, regardless of the cost, while yet other contributors believe the ultimate solution to Southwestern water problems will be in the courts, with arbitrary division of available water.

This volume has some value. It provides an interesting overview and an introduction to an extremely complicated subject, and it is worthy of attention. I would compliment the 17 contributors for their avoidance of shrill environmentalism, but simultaneously I would urge some special penance be devised for a university press that allows a study such as this to appear without an index.

Smith’s book is volume three in the University of New Mexico’s Public Policy Series. The editor of this series is Fred Harris, once a semi-serious contender for the Democratic nomination for President and a former senator from Oklahoma. I suggest that Harris probably had not read all these papers when he wrote in his foreword that a primary goal of the series is to reach not only scholars, students, and policymakers, but also the general public. Despite the subject matter, this volume is dry reading, and few of the general public will try to plow through it.


[Water and the Future of the Southwest, Edited by Zachary A. Smith (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press) 278 pp., $32.50]