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Water in the West

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When I teach my environmental history courses, I tell my students that if they want to work for the rest of their lives, go get a degree in water law and move to the West. The fighting over diminishing water is never-ending and one amazing year of rain and snow in California doesn’t change that long term at all. Simply put, there is nothing sustainable about the way that white society has settled the American Southwest. You just can’t anything like Phoenix, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and industrial agriculture. Well, maybe you could have one of those things, but you sure can’t have all of them. So the question becomes–is there any way to do this sustainably? Since none of these things are actually going anywhere until the last drop of the Colorado River evaporates into ever more baking air, are there any alternative models?

There are indeed alternative models and they come from the tribes:

As a student of history, Rod Lewis was aware that water was key to his community’s self-sufficiency. In 1978, he became GRIC’s general counsel—the first tribal member to serve in that role—and turned his attention to water rights. Because of its agrarian past, the community had a strong case. By the late nineties, it had a further advantage. The city of Phoenix was sprawling south, which made GRIC’s land increasingly valuable to developers. The golf club where I met Stephen Lewis is surrounded by a luxury outlet mall, embellished with touches of Southwestern flair, and a resort complex of hotels and casinos. Because GRIC was well resourced, the tribe could afford the protracted legal wrangling that eventually led to its water settlement.

Although the settlement ostensibly gave GRIC substantial water rights, it didn’t immediately change the dynamics of water politics in Arizona. “There’s a difference between having a piece of paper that says you have water and actually being able to put that water to use,” Tom Buschatzke, the director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, told me. “And the way Western water law developed, you can get the right to use water, but, if you don’t use it, the next person down the line can use it instead.”

A few years after the settlement, the community took steps to make use of its entire water entitlement. It invested in hundreds of miles of canals to channel about two hundred thousand acre-feet of water to the reservation—which was used mostly to irrigate crops. (GRIC is working to line these canals with solar panels, a project that’s the first of its kind in the Western Hemisphere.) They also took a further step, slogging through the complex bureaucratic and logistical process required to store the rest of their water underground. Arizona law incentivizes underground water storage, which replenishes the state’s aquifers, by allowing those who do it to sell water credits on the open market to developers and municipalities. (Arizona requires that new development has access to a hundred-year “assured water supply”; water credits can serve this purpose.) “They essentially turned their water rights into a marketable asset,” Sharon Megdal, the director of the University of Arizona’s Water Resources Research Center, said.

According to GRIC’s outside counsel, Jason Hauter, this move shook things up in Arizona: “In 2010, when we started storing our water, that upset assumptions, especially in the ag community, the home-building community”—two sectors that might have been able to use the water if GRIC hadn’t. “I think there was an assumption that, ‘Oh, they’re dumb Indians, they can’t use that water; they won’t know what to do. Well, no.’ ”

Hauter is a tall, resolute man who graduated from the same pre-law summer program as Rod Lewis. After lunch, he drove Stephen Lewis and me farther into the reservation. “We had these vast mesquite bosques,” Lewis said, looking out at the dry, flat scrubland. “But when we didn’t have water and we couldn’t farm, we had to cut down the bosques and sell the wood. That’s why you see a lot of these areas are just deforested. But we’re trying to bring the habitat back.”

The Southwest’s protracted drought has put a strain on an already arid environment. In 2007, the states that got water from the Colorado agreed to reduce their use. But, as the drought wore on for another decade and was exacerbated by climate change, it became clear that more reductions were needed to keep Lake Mead, which supplies water and hydroelectricity to millions of people, from declining to dangerously low levels. The negotiations about who would bear the brunt of those cuts were extensive and thorny. “In so many political issues, you kind of have two sides,” Buschatzke said. “In water, you have fifty sides—it’s exponentially more challenging. And, in a lot of political issues, people may have wants or needs. In water, they have legal rights.”

Of course this is just one example. And we should resist the idea that the tribes have some inherent way of being more sustainable than whites. But capitalism is particularly disastrous and without moving beyond that mindset, we will get nowhere.

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