In the film adaptation of The Lorax, by Dr. Seuss, the unscrupulous Aloysius O’Hare sells oxygen. The audience is shocked and dismayed by this wanton comodification of a fundamental natural resource. But the comodification of another life-sustaining resource is no fiction in the American West. This week on Sea Change Radio, we get a bit of a history lesson about water rights in the West from Varsha Venkatasubramanian, a graduate student and a contributor to The Editorial Board. We learn about the beginnings of Los Angeles and the critical role that water played in that city’s birth, why water rights differ east and west of the Mississippi, and how climate change is making water scarcer and scarcer for millions of Westerners.
Narrator 0:02 This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.
Varsha Venkatasubramanian (VS) 0:21 We have been pumping and taking out so much water from aquifers. So much groundwater that we are reaching basically a point of no return where we won’t have enough fresh water to keep the amazing city of Los Angeles green forever or we won’t be able to keep Las Vegas the oasis that it is.
Narrator 0:41 In the film adaptation of The Lorax by Dr. Seuss, the unscrupulous Aloysius O’Hair sells oxygen. The audience is shocked and dismayed by this wanton commodification of a fundamental natural resource. But the commodification of another life sustaining resource is no fiction in the American West. This week on Sea Change Radio, we get a bit of a history lesson about water rights in the west from Varsha venkata Subramaniam, a graduate student and a contributor to the editorial board. We learn about the beginnings of Los Angeles and the critical role that water played in that city’s birth. Why water rights differ east and west of the Mississippi and how climate change is making water scarcer and scarcer for millions of Westerners.
Alex Wise (AW) 1:50 I’m joined now on seachange radio by Varsha Venkatasubramanian, She is a graduate student at UC Berkeley, and the newest contributor to The Editorial Board, Varsha, welcome to Sea Change Radio.
Varsha Subramanian (VS) – Yeah, thanks so much for having me, Alex.
AW – So you wrote a piece for the editorial board, which is also available on alternet. entitled The water wars are coming to a state near you. In fact, they’re already here. You study policy and the history of policy. Why don’t you take us back to the turn of the century in Los Angeles, and then we can go through some of the more important policy decisions in terms of water, and then how that’s going to affect moving forward as these regions in the West continue to desert a fire, if you will.
VS 2:41 Yeah, definitely. So imagine yourself in early 20th century, California, basically, there are not a lot of settlers lot, a lot of white citizens in California yet. They have been moving into California for most of the 19th century. But Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Francisco are not the big, big cities that they are today, that transformation takes place in the early 20th century. One thing to know about the American West is that water since the California Gold Rush, and even before that water in the American West has consistently been like the sacred commodity, right? It has been sacred and is always been pretty scarce, especially in the American West because of its arid climate in the early 20th century, when the populations of cities especially like Los Angeles, are shutting to grow, right, and they’re starting to grow to you know, 100,000, and then eventually 200,000, these cities start needing more and more water. But the thing about the West is that water rights are allocated differently in American history in the American West than they were in, in the American east. Read in the American east, you sort of have this thing called riparian rights, where basically if you live next to the river, you have access to the water, right. Or if you have used the water and you live near the river, then you have a right to the river. But in California in the far west, mainly anywhere west of the Mississippi, there is this process, there is this precedent of whoever is first there, they’re the ones who get the water. It’s basically similar to the miners code when there was a lot of gold mining and mineral mining taking place, the American West. So it’s this doctrine of like prior appropriation. So the issue is, by the time you get to the early 20th century, and like 1904 1905 most citizens American west, but especially Angelenos, they need water. They really really need water because the city is growing faster and faster and faster. So they need water, not just for irrigation and agriculture, but also just for their just for their citizens. And so one of the major characters in the story is William Mulholland, who is like an Irish immigrant. He arrives in America with like basically nothing to his name. And then, like 10 years later, he’s like the superintendent to the city of Los Angeles and he’s helping dealing with the water supply. And he comes up with this plan of basically diverting a lot more water from the Owens Valley which is next door to to Los Angeles into Los Angeles, taking the water From the orange Valley into Los Angeles, obviously this pisses off people in the Owens Valley. And initially, there’s like, you know, this fight over water, this fight over building a dam or building a canal or taking this water from the Owens Valley into Los Angeles is like a legal fight. You know, it’s in the legislature, Los Angeles and mullholland end up getting support from the federal government. And obviously, the citizens of Owens Valley, they decide to sue almost immediately. But what’s interesting and why, why, you know, historians have called it a water war, and it’s one of California’s first water wars is because the citizens of Owens Valley realized maybe the court is not going to come up on our side, and they don’t. And so they literally decide, okay, we’re just gonna turn to violence. And they take a, they take some dynamite, and they just show up to blow up the the ditch that has been built. And so there is a lot of violence. There’s violence between these two cities between the citizens of these two cities, up until finally, you know, it’s quelled. So that’s where the story sort of begins. And a lot of great historians have sort of written about this. But what I find really interesting about it is that people like Mulholland people who are living in Los Angeles, they were just so narrowly focused on doing whatever it took to get as much water as possible for the citizens of Los Angeles. And it is that type of like single minded, like dedication that characterizes the history of like getting water in the American West, especially in the 20th century.
AW 6:24 Yes, I mean, we could go back even another decade, or two, or even three or four decades, when a lot of the dams that were constructed in the American West were used as, as you write a way to attract settlers, agricultural settlers in particular.
VS 6:43 Yeah. And so basically what’s going on, since the 1850s, the federal government is doing its best to get settlers into the American West and settlers, we’re getting more and more interested in this. But where water comes in is not just in this, you know, dispute over water rights between different groups of white settlers. But another thing I write about in the article, and what’s really characterizes the story of Western water is Native Americans already live here. Right. And so by the time a lot more Western settlers have settled in the late 19th century, more and more Native Americans have been pushed further and further onto reservations. And this is basically the case for most Native Americans by the time you get to the 1900s. Right, or the early 1900s. But the problem is, even if Native Americans are on reservations, even if you know white people, or federal employees are leading these reservations, Native Americans still need water for their reservations to survive. And so one of the most important cases that sort of highlights this conflict between white settlers and Native Americans, his winters v United States in 19. Oh, wait. And so one would think, okay, it’s a Supreme Court case, the Supreme Court has a history of being, let’s say, problematic, the obviously the case is not going to end up good for Native Americans. But ironically, it does. So basically, what the, the white district attorney or the white US attorney who shows up in Montana to argue for this reservation, what he argues in front of the local judge, and then the Ninth Circuit, and then finally Supreme Court is, these Native Americans at this reservation, they signed a treaty with the federal government, and that federal government promised them, you know, enough water and food or whatever in order to survive on this reservation. Therefore, the federal government has a duty to provide enough water for Native Americans, which means this river, the milk river, that they’re fighting between winters and his settlers, these white settlers and the local reservation, there’s a certain amount of that water is reserved for Native Americans, they have the reserved rights, and that’s where this reserved rights doctrine comes in. And it totally up ends this prior appropriation doctrine. Right. And so initially, you would think, Oh, yeah, this is great for Native Americans to be able to get the water they need. But the problem is, you can’t just say, Okay, now you have water rights. That’s, that’s like great on paper, but the actual wet water rights, that’s something that Native Americans are still fighting for.
AW – Now explain what that means. What what are wet water rights?
VS 9:09 Yeah. So basically, what I mean by that is paper water rights is that on paper, it says, x reservation has x access to, you know, has this much access to this much water from this river. That’s what it says on paper. That is what the Supreme Court will say, that is what you know, a state government will support. But in order to actually make use of that water and turn that paper right into an actual wet, right, you need to invest money. And by money. I mean, you need to invest infrastructure, either spending money from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Reclamation to develop irrigation and safe extraction of water for Native Americans on their lands, or is it building dams or a bunch of different types of infrastructure, right. But the problem is over the course of the 20th century, that type of funding has been not highly allocated to Native American reservations. It’s just saying that There are cases that are many, many cases where, you know, the Bureau of Indian Affairs is actually able to get money in. But Native Americans aren’t really able to make use of their water rights to the fullest extent. And that, that problem is only exacerbated when you get to later cases in, in Supreme Court history, especially, especially Arizona versus California. So one of these cases, there’s a bunch of Arizona versus California. But one of these cases basically says the Supreme Court says, okay, we’ve been talking about not just Native American water rights, but specifically water. That’s water rights for the federal government compared to state governments compared to private entities. And what this what this case as well as years of precedent basically says, When court says, Now, if there is water on federal land is reserved for the federal government. And so basically, there’s this big conflict between which water is the federal government’s water and which water belongs to the state. But in the middle of this dispute, initially, you would think, okay, Native Americans are on federal land, therefore, that means Native Americans get the water. But that’s not what ends up happening. It just makes it easier and easier for the federal government to invest in water projects that they want, or state governments to invest in water project that they want were from the water that’s not on federal land. And Native Americans are basically left behind. So that’s what I mean by the lack of wet water rights. They’re actually Native Americans in various tribes, either if they’re in California and the Colorado River and Washington, in Arizona, they’re not fully able to access the water that they have a legal right to. And this is why when it comes to drought, and when it comes to water scarcity, and water poverty, Native Americans are top on the list of people who don’t have access to water in America. Even just clean drinking water.
AW 12:37 This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to Varsha Venkatasubramanian. She is a graduate student at UC Berkeley and the newest contributor to the editorial board. So Varsha, there’s a big difference, as you explained between wet water rights and legal rights to water and we see this if you visit a indigenous tribe, it may be in some of the more arid parts of the country, but then you drive through Central Valley of California and it’s also a very arid place, and yet it’s become the breadbasket of much of America. Why don’t you kind of connect the dots then with what Mulholland and his ilk were conceiving back in the early 20th century and what how this breadbasket became what it is today.
VS 13:31 Yeah, so basically, you’re in 1908 1907 Mulholland as well as other Angelenos. They are conceiving of this massive aqueduct, specifically, it’s called the Los Angeles aqueduct. It’s finally built and completed in November 1913. It took, I think, it took over like 2000 people to build it, you know, over 160 tunnels. And basically water from the Owens river reaches a reservoir in the San Fernando Valley. And that is, that, that water is then used by Angelenos for their agriculture for their drinking water, etc. And so after this aqueduct, investors in the San Fernando Valley, basically speculators across the country, or people who are showing up to California are realizing, hey, we need so much more water to convert, Los Angeles from this, tiny Oasis into this massive like, the Switzerland of California, basically, you know, basically pull so much water into Los Angeles that Los Angeles is able to be one of the most massive cities in the United States. And so eventually, so much water is pulled from the Owens Valley that to this day, there are people in the Owens Valley who were still trying to fight for him for their water, and then eventually more Mulholland is like trying to get more water from the Colorado River itself. After most of the water from the Owens Valley is sort of taken But that’s how Los Angeles or basically the San Fernando Valley gets all of its water. It is basically pulling water from other regions like the Owens Valley. And this happens in San Francisco and Sacramento – in a lot of metropolises. Metropolises, they exist, because they’re able to pull water from other places. And they turn into these basically, oases in this massive desert. And so the great historian like Marc Reisner, he wrote this great book called Cadillac desert, right. And he tells a story about Los Angeles in the Owens Valley. But the most important story that he sort of tells about the whole American west, is that by the time you get to the late 20th century, California and other states have taken up so much water, that the increase the increasing possibility of basically being destroyed by a drought, or the impact of climate change, or whatever just gets higher and higher with every passing year. So California has been in basically a state of drought for over almost a decade now. And even before that, it’s been, there are massive periods of drought. But one thing that you see across the American West is that the periods of drought start growing and growing, and just becomes more and more common. This is true in not just California, but in Colorado, Utah, Nevada, etc. And so places like Las Vegas, are going to be dealing with a massive water scarcity problem. But basically, the story you asked about the San Fernando Valley is a common story of a lot of cities in the American West, like Las Vegas, like San Francisco, Sacramento, etc. It, it’s just how it works in the American West, whoever gets to this water first, whoever is able to convince the federal government or the state government the fastest, and whoever is able to build these canals with these aqueducts or pump this groundwater the fastest or build these massive reservoirs. They’re the ones who get the water. But the problem today, let’s just take the Hoover Dam, for example, right, so the reservoir that’s attached to Hoover Dam, it basically provides the water for so such a massive population, I think it takes over a couple million people. But today, the reservoir is only at like 30% capacity. And so in a couple of decades, it’s going to be basically impossible to justify pulling as much water as we do. And so at this point, a lot of Western legislators, even federal government, legislators have no idea what to do about the incoming years.
AW 17:42 So you explained how there’s a difference in water rights, historically, between the East and the western parts of the United States, this riparian concept, bring us up to today where I assume that there’s not as much conflict in this state, which has a lot of agriculture, let’s say New Jersey, over water rights versus California, where anybody who’s driven between San Francisco and Los Angeles sees a lot of the signs from angry farmers saying This is Nancy Pelosi is problem and the like, it’s a huge political hot button issue in the American West. Is it not like this in the East merely because of the riparian routes? Or is there more to it?
VS 18:29 I think the reason is it’s partially because of the precedent that is set in eastern United States, in the 19th century, compared to the west, but it’s also just because the climate is fundamentally different. And then the industries are fundamentally different. Right. So obviously, there is agriculture, there is certain industries in the, in the eastern United States that require a lot of water. But most of the most of the agriculture, most of the massive industrial requirements for water are in western or in what are in the western states. And so that’s why the conflict is still so high today. You know, for example, today, because of this massive drought, you know, California is considering, like, you know, leasing water rights, and basically trying to convince certain farmers and certain businesses and enterprises to lease their water to buy water from the state. And so water is becoming more and more of a commodity like it was already a commodity, by since the creation of the United States. It’s always been a commodity in the US, but it’s becoming more and more commodified specifically in the American West, because of the climate, how it’s fundamentally different than the American east. And so that’s why you see so much more conflict over water in the West than you do in the east. It’s not the case that there was never fights over dams and mills and dikes and canals in the American east, right, but it’s always been a Much bigger fight in the American West.
AW 21:31 This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to Varsha Venkatasubramanian. So Varsha, you mentioned the leasing of water and how state of California for example, it wants farmers to, to lease water from the state. How is that different from the previous arrangement that these farmers may have had?
VS 21:54 I messed up the what I was trying to say is it’s not just that the farmers are going to be trying to lease water, but specifically that the state the state governments and all these city governments, they need more water. So they want to lease rights from the farmers. That’s what I wanted to say.
AW 22:09 I see. So with that in mind, will that relationship shift moving forward? And how will it impact smaller farmers because you could see the bigger farmers kind of swallowing up these water rights?
VS 22:21 Yeah, so that’s, that’s the main problem. So even if the city’s trying to responsibly buy water rights, or buy water from different, different, you know, people, you’re not able, you’re never going to be able to provide this created this equitable relationship between smaller and smaller farmers and larger farmers. And that’s why in California as well as in other states, the agricultural industry is mainly led by like a few massive companies, it’s like massive agriculture, you’re no longer seeing these small farms that are able to make a profit in the same way that they used to in the early 20th century or in the late 19th century.
AW 22:57 And to be clear, there’s really no delineation between these big agricultural outfits in terms of organic farming products and non organic produce that you might be purchasing. Sorry, interrupt, go on.
VS 23:13 Yeah, right. That’s the story of Agriculture and Water in the American West is that because the federal government or basically a lot of these states, right, especially let’s just take California as an example, if your listeners have read rivers of empire by Don Wurster, or Cadillac desert by Mark Reisner, they will know that the main relationships that are developed in the water story in California over the 20th century is really shaping big businesses, especially agro businesses, state governments, and city governments and the federal government. These massive water projects in California in Nevada, whatever, all these massive dams, they would not have been possible, if not for this relationship, this type of investor mutually reinforcing relationship you have between the federal government and these industries in the American West. And that is why smaller and smaller farmers small and smaller industries, small and more businesses, and even just like the daily lives of Native Americans and other citizens have been growing more and more difficult when it comes to access to water. Because the American West, since it has been this pulling point for white settlers in the mid 19th century has been this Pinnacle, or has been like this, this perfect symbol of the American dream for not just the federal government, but also for this for these state governments also for these individuals, this idea that this is the place where you can finally not just own your own property, but you can build your own business and you can reach the heights of American society. And so it has been the best place to exercise and to practice American capitalism, the American West, but when you’re practicing American capitalism, you are going to need more and more resources. And that is how you end up with a situation where there are only basically three major ads Two teas or three different institutions, businesses, state governments and federal governments that have access and have the ability to develop as much and take as much of the water as they need. And individual citizens as well as Native Americans are basically left behind.
AW 25:15 So obviously, this is a fragile ecosystem in so many ways. And water is the key to all of it. What should people who care about the environment, what should they be looking for in the decades to come in these ongoing and probably escalating water wars Varsha?
VS 25:34 The three main reasons that there is going to be this massive conflict over water, not just the American West, but maybe across the United States is because of one we have been building dams or the height of dam building in America has died down. But we have built 1000s upon 1000s of dams, the United States, but the thing is, all these dams are, as the young people call boomers, they’re basically old, they are failing. But if they are not repaired quickly, if they’re not repaired in the next 10 or 15 years, you’re gonna see a lot more dam collapses in the United States, which is going to not only cause problems with like flooding, and all these different things, but you’re going to see the loss of a lot of different reservoirs, right. And so the access to water is challenged by that, by the fact that we have basically massively ailing infrastructure of dams. The second reason we are coming up on the potential of like a massive water war is not just climate change, but specifically in the American West. The aridity, and the lack of access to water is just getting higher and higher. And that’s mainly because of climate change issues, but also, because of the way that water is allocated in the American West, is deeply unfair, not just to certain Native American groups and certain people, but also between businesses, also, between states. It’s just massively unfair. And then the last thing that’s important to sort of note is that it’s not just that water rights are still contested in the American West between certain groups of people, but it’s specifically that we have been pumping and taking out so much water from aquifers so much groundwater, that we are reaching up basically a point of no return where we won’t have enough fresh water to keep the amazing city of Los Angeles green forever, or we won’t be able to keep Las Vegas, the Oasis that it is. And so those are like the three main things that we’re seeing, we’re seeing massive overview, overuse, a failing infrastructure, and the weathering husk that is the Oasis of the American West. It’s because we are not combating these issues head on. So what people should really be looking for is what state governments and local governments as well as the federal government is doing to address issues of drought, water rights and water access. And finally, failing infrastructure,
AW 27:57 Varsha Venkatasubramanian, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.
VS Thank you.
Narrator 28:16 You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our Intro Music is by Sanford Lewis and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by Diga Rhythm Band, The Blind Boys of Alabama and Seal. Check out our website at Sea Change Radio.com to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast. Visit our archives they heard hear from Bill McKibben, Van Jones, Paul Hawken, many others and tune in to Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.