The Water Wars Are Here

Everyone remembers the scene in Chinatown when Jack Nicholson almost gets his nose sliced off, but many do not recall what the dispute was about. It wasn’t drug smuggling or gun running that got Nicholson’s character slashed. It was water rights. Since the film was released in 1974, the question of who will get the limited water in the American West, particularly the all-important flow of the Colorado River, has grown even more contentious.

DOWNRIVER: INTO THE FUTURE OF WATER IN THE WEST by Heather Hansman University of Chicago Press, 248 pp., $25

Dystopian novels and movies predict a future in which people fight it out for every last drop of water to quench the thirst of expanding cities, parched agriculture, and wasteful suburban grass lawns. But the future is already here. Urban growth in desert cities has ramped up the demand for water while increasing temperatures brought on by climate change have decreased the supply. West of the Mississippi River, water rights—which are both divorced from climate change reality and based on illogically piecemeal legislation—have created an existential crisis.

Heather Hansman’s new book Downriver: Into the Future of Water in the West explores the water emergency with remarkable calm and even-handedness. She focuses on a single river, the Green River, where ranchers, frackers, rafters, fishermen, and urbanites all fight for their share of the water, while contending with Byzantine state policies. This one river brings together the range of tensions that currently afflict Western water rights and will affect more and more of us in the coming decades. And not least of the complications here is that fights over water usage have become ideological battles—between those who support the federal coordination of climate change policy and rugged individualists who see government intervention as inherently unjust.


The Green River, a tributary of the Colorado that runs through Wyoming, Utah, and Colorado, is a typically acute case. Split between an upper and lower basin, its water is used by seven states. Those upstream in Wyoming attempt to pull out as much water as possible before the hungry downstream cities slurp up their share. The system has strict per-state allocations despite the variable nature of the supply. It runs on a “use it or lose it” policy: Either you take out water annually or your right to it disappears forever. There is no reward for conservation and many western states have no limit on how much water can be taken out of rivers in times of low rainfall, even to guarantee minimum flows for fish. Coordination between agricultural and urban users is almost nonexistent. States enact their own policies rather than joining together to compile a holistic plan, as if complex water systems should obey the arbitrary borderlines of American federalism.

Western states calculated the available water in the Green River at 18 million acre-feet of water per year while the real number is closer to 13 million. Yet, even this does not show the real error of water management: Climate change will dramatically impact freshwater availability through evaporation. Between 2000 and 2014, the inflow to the Colorado River went down by nearly 20 percent and at least one third of that reduction was from global warming. “Between evaporation, reduced inflow, and increased use,” Hansman writes, “the West is sucking itself dry.” Another generation of population growth and current use patterns could make the American West into a quilt of restive water claimants, a sort of Mad Max scenario, though more likely to play out in courts and statehouses rather than among desert vigilantes.

The Green River, like many other waterways, is also in danger of contamination. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) zones surrounding it are viewed by Washington not as idyllic preserves, like National Parks, but as banks of hydrocarbons waiting for money to be squeezed out of them. After all, 90 percent of BLM land is open for drilling despite the fact that fracking liquid and other hazardous materials often seep into rivers. Notwithstanding the BLM’s permissive attitude toward oil and gas exploration, the agency is widely condemned in the West as Big Government despots trying to keep locals subordinated to Washington. The Green River runs very close to Bundy Country where wildlife rangers are perceived with the scorn reserved for an invading army.

Even before people like Cliven Bundy started challenging the federal government in armed standoffs, there was a longer tradition of libertarian thinking that dates back to at least the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s, when homesteading was ended. The very mentality of vast privatization and skepticism about federal coordination of state law is much of the reason why water rights are such a mess in the American West. This reflexive individualism has put off solutions that consider science and give regional attention to rivers rather than scattershot state laws.

Yet, rural libertarian types may be right about one thing: City folk are indeed coming for their water. Despite many ranchers and farmers having more senior rights to rivers, the Southwest is one of the fastest growing regions of the United States. When mushrooming suburbs have water issues, they simply use their municipal budgets to purchase more water from agricultural users in a process known as “buy and dry.” H2O once meant for alfalfa goes into sprinklers and showerheads. This has not only produced alarm among those worried about local food supplies but also about what it will mean if the West loses its farming culture to sprawling subdivisions and golf courses.

Hansman makes clear that the West is more and more divided between dying small towns and exploding urban growth in places like Las Vegas and Phoenix: “While the image of the vast, empty western ranges might still be true, it’s not because there aren’t that many people in the West. It’s because of a divide between increasingly sparse rural populations and increasingly dense urban ones. That divide shows up in politics and demographics, and it also shows up in how people use water.” The priorities of Sunbelt cities are geared toward building water reserves for future residents, while rural users hope to hang on to their farms despite water scarcity, agricultural consolidation, and rising temperatures. Notwithstanding populist cant about the importance of the Western rancher, a lone cowboy making a hardscrabble go of it, it is mostly cities that have the ear of policymakers.


Much of Hansman’s trip is a meditation not on the beguiling beauty of the American West but on how every corner of the United States is now touched by development. The concept of “pure nature” is nowhere to be found. Rather, what she encounters are desolate spaces that, despite being empty, bear the fingerprints of human intervention everywhere. The result is not entirely unpleasant as Hansman recounts:

I think all the wrong things are beautiful: invasive cheatgrass, the glint of sprinklers firing in late-day light, the glossy introduced rainbow trout. I realize it’s hard for me to tell what’s native and natural, what’s been altered by people, and what counts as history.

The Green River is considered one of the country’s least spoiled waterways. Yet, it is still lined by extractive and agricultural uses and filled with trout that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service introduced in 1962 after killing off native “trash fish” with poison. So, what does this say about more modified areas? What are we to think of the once-burning Cuyahoga River in Ohio where human and animal health are actively in danger? Or the Potomac River where sewage and fertilizer runoff has produced a new breed of intersex fish?

The striking sense one gets from the Downriver is that even our less-damaged rivers are in bad shape. There is no federal plan to change that. In fact, just the opposite. The question of fair water appropriation may indeed only be settled when upriver senior water-holders cut off their downstream neighbors. If those neighbors are thousands of households in L.A., Las Vegas, or Phoenix during an August heat wave, the consequences will be devastating. Like so much of U.S. policy, states’ rights have created a disturbing mishmash of approaches to water management and an utter lack of coordination. As in so many other cases, it seems that only an emergency will clear the way for new guidelines.

The Colonizers Have Turned Their Eyes to Greenland

Thursday afternoon, a curious item appeared in the pages of The Wall Street Journal. President Donald Trump, either as a joke or entirely seriously, is apparently weighing the prospect of the United States federal government purchasing Greenland.  

This specific move is not unprecedented. Harry Truman waved $100 million in front of Denmark in 1946, and the State Department opened (and then closed) an inquiry into buying Greenland and Iceland in 1867. Be it Greenland or another part of the globe, the concept is, quite obviously, not a new one for the United States, or any major colonizing power; as a matter of fact, ‘buying,’ occupying, and poisoning land that does not truly belong to them is, historically, kind of their thing. 

For its part, the Greenland government was understandably curt in its response:

Because Mr. Art Of The Deal is the one floating at the center of this massively inane proposal, there is a bit of innate humor baked into the story. But taking a step back from the specific issue at hand, a discussion of the growing global presence of the U.S. is warranted. It’s not a new conversation; the argument that the government should not continually commandeer every speck of dirt in the name of capital has essentially existed since the nation’s birth. True, expansionism has won just about every time, but there is still room to fight.

Despite the joyous stupidity, Trump’s leering glances toward Greenland made clear in less than 24 hours why America and the rest of the globe’s major powers continue to be postcolonial in name only. Where the leading topic should be the protection of Indigenous populations and the crucial natural communities they serve and sustain, there is instead talk of square footage, potential monetary gain, and opportune militaristic strategy. 

Now, those waiting for President Trump to be interested in Indigenous issues are likely also waiting for free cheeseburgers to fall from the sky. This is, after all, the man who tapped the oil crony to run the Department of the Interior, who insulted Diné (Navajo) World War II code-talkers, and whose sole connection with the Indigenous people is using a godawful Disney movie as a political insult. The bar of expectations was placed on the ground, and then a hole was dug to bury it deeper.

But it is worth examining how the rest of American society, and specifically the American media, handles cases such as these. The short answer is that the conversation goes the exact same way as it goes in Trump’s rattling mind. 

The way the idea was discussed by the Journal, and subsequently by The Washington Post and The Guardian, among others, was more akin to a SportsCenter update on the latest, flashy free-agent signing than it was a casually floated invasion. Take this offering, from the Post, and keep in mind that this is not a colored swatch on a board game to be populated with plastic soldiers or houses, but a natural habitat that has been home to the Inuit people for more than 700 years:

According to the CIA’s World Factbook, Greenland is 2.2 million square kilometers, with 1.7 million of that covered in ice. It has considerable natural resources, such as coal and uranium, but only 0.6 percent of the land is used for agriculture. It has about 58,000 residents, making it one of the world’s smallest countries by population. 

The irony here, of course, is that Greenland is already a colonized territory. The Danish government shouldered Norway out of joint ownership in 1814, and officially laid claim to it when it ratified its constitution in 1953. In the past decade, the people who actually call Greenland home have steadily fought for self-governance and self-determination and have been able to slowly pry the Danish grip back, one finger at a time. In 2008, the population voted in favor of the Self-Government Act, which slowly granted Greenlanders wide-ranging autonomy from the Danish government, even if, technically, the Danish still claim the land as their own.

As always, deeply intertwined with the concern of encroaching on Indigenous peoples is the concern of environmental impact, specifically as it relates to climate change. Given that much of that autonomy is tied up in the economic boon of both natural resource extraction and clean energy production, the interest in Greenland by the U.S. is almost too transparently vile: As the arctic shelf recedes and the ice disappears, the major powers—backed by every major oil and gas executive—will seek to extract every ounce of liquid money that sits underneath the soil. Eventually, the well will be tapped and any faux goodwill the companies and the governments extended to the Indigenous people will disappear, along with the fleeting hope for a thriving existence. 

This issue was at the forefront of the United Nations’ special report on Climate Change and Land, released ten days ago. While focused on areas in Africa, the study was done in coordination with the Indigenous populations (a.k.a. the people who will actually be first and most dramatically affected by the encroaching emergency). In doing so, the report laid out how the multi-pronged counterattack to climate change must be led by the major powers and energy companies, but also highlighted how crucial it is to encourage land management by Indigenous populations. Those people understand the land they live on not as an opportunity to stuff their pockets, but as a place to protect and preserve so that future generations can continue to share that same land. 

Yes, the enormity and danger of this proposal are obfuscated by the involvement of Trump. But it’s disappointing how quickly journalists and pundits snapped into the rhythm of analyzing the president’s folly through the same lens that led to the destruction of this land’s Native nations and the places they try to protect. 

Disappointing, but not surprising.

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