Rugged individualism is preventing equality in the Colorado River Basin
By Rica Fulton
The sun was setting on a crisp day in May, air moist from an afternoon rain, the purple-hued river gurgling calmly by. I was sitting on the grassy banks of the Little Snake River, a wild tributary to the Yampa in the headwaters of the Colorado River Basin system. Across the river, the faint outline of an old barn was visible with a dilapidated fence tracing the steep high-water mark clearly delineating the boundary between the riparian area and the antiquated ranching operation.
The next day, we packed up the raft and floated around the bend to find a large diversion structure — pipes audibly sucking the murky water up the bank, out of the river, and onto the pasture to nourish thirsty cows. Many popular recreational river trips in the Colorado River Basin (the Little Snake is not in this category) flow through national parks and recreation areas where these crude delivery systems are less abundant, this one a remnant of the “rugged individualism” that shaped the settlement of the West as we know it.
Fast forward to an extraordinarily dry August day, the Little Snake was reduced to a mere trickle weaving through mudflats. Regardless of river flows, in the heat of the day outside the tiny town of Maybell, Colorado, massive center pivots adjacent to the river still spewed water onto a fresh planting of alfalfa. From a pragmatic standpoint the juxtaposition between a parched riverbed and lush field is counterintuitive, but it is symbolic of the way dominant western society has come to view and allocate water.
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Though exceptionally nuanced, the prior appropriation doctrine is the prevailing regime that delineates who receives water in the West and what they can use it for. Themes of rugged individualism proposed via Frederick Jackson Turner’s “Frontier Thesis” seem to have inspired the doctrine, and allowed European settlers to extract the maximum amount of individual economic gain from watersheds that didn’t “belong” to anyone yet. Gold miners in California are credited with the creation of the doctrine and it went on to be applied to all water users. The three foundational pillars of the doctrine include beneficial use; “first in time, first in right;” and “if you don’t use it, you lose it.” First, water must be put to a “beneficial use” — generally defined as municipal, agricultural, industrial, or hydropower generation, although in the past 30 years or so this has come to include some environmental needs. Second, the first person to put a certain amount of water to a beneficial use can continue to use that amount before anyone else who got there later. Third, one must use all of their water consistently or they may lose it to junior users.
While predicable, prior appropriation has led to a static vision of water and categorizes it as another “resource” to be commodified and owned by an individual. Further, as aridification and climate change worsen, the amount of water allocated on paper doesn’t exist in most years — but that rancher with a water right from 1890 has the privilege of using water how they always have with no incentive to conserve, effectively excluding everyone else.
Most would agree that equality is a value that the majority of Americans hold, yet as water becomes more scarce the concept of what water is and who is privileged enough to benefit from it needs to come to the forefront of negotiation tables. It is much easier to discuss how farmers should transition from flood irrigation to drip than it is to delve into centuries-deep systematic injustices. But I think in order to meaningfully address the future of water allocation, we have to go deeper than occasionally fallowing a wheat field.
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“One cannot be pessimistic about the West. This is the native home of hope. When it fully learns that cooperation, not rugged individualism, is the quality that most characterizes and preserves it, then it will have achieved itself and outlived its origins. Then it has a chance to create a society to match its scenery.” ― Wallace Stegner
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Depending on the geography of the watershed, in-stream flow needs, fish, and recreation don’t always correlate with agricultural users who consume the lions’ share of water in the Colorado River Basin, (noting of course that agricultural water use is vastly important to small economies and to provide food for urban areas). Non-consumptive needs, as these are often referred to as, generally don’t come with water rights and if they do they are often junior — and therefore more vulnerable to shortages. Sometimes the Endangered Species Act or other legislation may mandate a certain amount of water through a section, but overall these systems don’t take into account ecosystem needs and are not an efficient negotiation tool. As shortages become more common, ensuring alternative ways to keep water in the river is critical because rivers support immense amounts of biodiversity in the West, the same way they support people. A recent article in the Guardian alarmingly reports that insects could vanish within a century — insects are insanely critical as pollinators and food sources. River ecosystems should not have to take a back-seat to subsidized corn when their services are fundamentally life-sustaining.
Another major question of equality is further raised when you identify how Indigenous cultures articulate what water is and how people are connected to it. Running the risk of generalization, Native Americans didn’t traditionally adhere to arbitrary borders — analogous to the way water doesn’t recognize state lines. Cultures who view water as a literal lifeblood don’t necessarily consider water as an individual commodity, but in a much more spiritual way. The verb “use” simply doesn’t describe such a life-sustaining relationship that water provides. (Even non-indigenous English speakers wouldn’t say, for example, “I was thirsty, so I used a glass of water.”) Unfortunately, prior appropriation has created an exclusive system that pits individuals against each other and doesn’t recognize the intrinsic interconnectivity that water actually represents, therefore forcing Indigenous cultures to accept a conflicting articulation of what water is in order to use it. Similarly, land ownership is also perpetuated by genocidal notions of property as articulated in a recent High Country News article.
While the priority-based system does theoretically provide Tribal reservations valuable senior water rights in many cases, the actual situation is much different. A 2018 study by the Ten Tribes Partnership and Bureau of Reclamation conclude tribes hold rights to 2.8 million-acre-feet, which is almost 20% of the current average annual flow of the Colorado River. However, many of these communities still don’t have water security or quantified “wet” water rights because a lack of political capacity and economic resources. These undeveloped rights have the potential to vastly change how water is distributed in the Colorado River Basin — yet how it will play out is unknown.
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The Colorado River Basin is consistently producing less water which is and will continue to compound an already over-allocated system built on the foundations of colonialism and exclusivity. In order to address both societal inequality and inherent water shortages, we have to re-examine the entire system. Questioning the current equality of water allocation and analyzing how a plurality of cultures could drive future water distribution would be valuable for everyone in the long run. I have historical support for this claim:
Author David Stewart describes the rapid decline of the great Chacoan society in the late 11th century following a massive drought, not unlike climactic conditions today. He attributes the demise to a cultural reliance on monoculture, uneven hierarchical structures, and unsustainable infrastructure development. When compared to the United States’ response to the Great Depression, our society responded in a similar manner by using a growth model and building large-scale infrastructure projects rather than promoting community diversification and efficiency. To provide a few examples, agricultural subsidies embedded in the 1933 Agricultural Adjustment Act inserted governmental influence – and therefore corporate lobbyists – into rural western communities, which has likely played a role in the decline of small family farms today. Another tangible example is the construction of the colossal Hoover Dam which provided thousands of jobs and bolstered national pride, but today is only 41 percent full and dropping.
The Puebloan society that emerged from the fall of Chaco was apparently able to learn from these mistakes and managed to sustain a resilient community until the Spaniards arrived in the late 1500s; a modest civilization that produced what is perhaps the longest continuously inhabited settlement in North America. Stuart further categorizes the four pillars of Puebloan success: fostering an egalitarian community, diversifying economies rather than relying on monoculture, investing only in necessary infrastructure and environmental conservation, and finally recognizing that efficiency is more valuable than power.
Diversifying interpretations of permissible water use, recognizing the importance of rivers in their natural state for long-term benefits, and challenging the elite who control water allocation frameworks are all components of ensuring that dependency on massive water infrastructure and corporate control of economic systems stemming from a perpetuation of “rugged individualism” is not the demise of the American West. The 2018 IPCC report infers Indigenous knowledge is critical for adapting to a changing climate and therefore an obligation to these groups in dominant discourses needs to be accomplished through intellectual and political struggles over the meaning of water.
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This is not a problem with a silver-bullet solution, but understanding systems that have led the Colorado River Basin to where we are today is vital as drought contingency plans, mandated shortages, and collaboration become more urgent. We have a long road ahead, and if humans want to continue to live in the southwest we need to start to work together — and I mean with everybody, not just politicians. The West is no longer a sparsely populated region full of cowboys, and romanticizing the Americanized wild west is not going to do anyone any favors. Instead, we must begin to accept a plurality of lifestyles, needs, and cultures that have always relied on the waters in the Colorado River Basin — because that is the true American way.
— Rica Fulton is an avid writer, boater, and river advocate from southwest Colorado. She is the Program Director of Upper Green River Network, a Colorado Riverkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance affiliate program. Concurrently, she is finishing a master’s degree in Geography and Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Wyoming in Laramie where she studies collaboration in the Colorado River Basin and Dolores Sub-basin.