The Nature of Water and Politics in the Arid West.

Jim Duran

In the harsh semi-arid desert landscape of the American West, or Arid West as John Wesley Powell described it, farming is a constant struggle between floods and droughts. From Central California to Colorado, settling the sagebrush country required massive irrigation projects to guarantee water for the farmers. The cold winters and hot summers made only the toughest crops acceptable to grow. As settlements grew, and the cities and states expanded their agricultural reaches, politicians promised more and more water for prospective farmers and cattle ranchers. The promise of water has been a theme of Arid West history. In the Arid West, the promise of water was synonymous with progress; politicians often used water rights and water projects as bargaining chips for growth. By surveying various campaign literature, and water project correspondence between politicians, this paper will show the nature of water and politics in the Arid West.

Introduction (See Above)
Statement 1: Politicians associate water projects with progress, often claiming they (the politician) is the only person who will bring progress to their area, and guarantee safety and security for the voter’s children.
Source (1a): Jim Sperry and Steve Thorson Campaign Advertisement, Aberdeen American News url:,174

In this advertisement Sperry and Steve imply that a vote for them is a vote for water projects. At the bottom of the document, the author explicitly states the voter’s children’s future is at stake.
(Source 1b): Mike McHugh advertisement, Aberdeen American News. url:,102

McHugh argued he can get projects passed the gridlock of bureaucracy. McHugh implied farmers cannot last another drought, and water projects MUST be approved or else the community faces dire consequences, and he is the person to get things done.

Statement 2: The major rivalry for water projects is almost always environmental conservation. Those arguing against irrigation projects often point to the irreparable change (or damage) to the landscape, while those arguing for the projects typically argue that the economic gains outweigh any value in an untouched wilderness.

(Source 2a): Envirotech Publications: “The Water Report – A critical habitat, bull trout and politics.” April 15, 2005. URL:
This environmental report argues against water projects that do not consider the impact of dams on the population of bull trout. The author indicates those who oppose fish protection are not thinking scientifically:
“The political currents are strong with the decisions clouded by factors other than science and the law.” (p. 18)

(Source 2b): D.G. Lorenzi. “Protest Emergency Water Ordinance 247” Las Vegas Review-Journal. July 26, 1939. URL:,563

This author is concerned that conservationists warning of water shortages in Las Vegas will ultimately harm property values and impede new growth to the city. Lorenzi believes the water conservation ordinance is unwarranted and should be ignored by Las Vegas citizens.

Statement 3: As a counter to statement 2, sometimes the conservation advocates will also use an economic argument against water projects. Typically, these arguments include a calculation of taxes raised versus perceived value added.

(Source 3a): Letter from Las Vegas Land and Water Co. General Manager to C. W. Shelley (Las Vegas), July 7, 1950.,497
This letter documents efforts taken by the Las Vegas officials enforcing the water conservation law. As a counter to Lorenzi, in source 2b, this author claims water conservation will save the tax payers money.

Statement 4: Claiming ownership of water is an important part of negotiating the creation and support of water projects. Politicians might use an argument of water ownership. Either water rightfully belongs to his or her party, or it is wasted or squandered by undeserving outsiders, to sway an audience that their plan for the water is best.

(Source 4a): Letter from Ernie W. Cragin (Las Vegas) to George F. Ashby (Omaha), October 8, 1948.,721

Craigin was concerned that Las Vegas water might be sold or taken out of city limits. Craigin also mentions that water could be drawn from lake Mead, without any mention of ownership of that water.

(Source 4b)John Sieh Campaign Advertisement November 1978.,186

John Sieh believed he knew what the people of Oahe Conservancy subdistrict wanted, and it was not another big water project. In this advertisement, Sieh argues for smaller water projects to divert the Missouri River to his constituents. “The Oahe Sub-district holds a permit right now for 80,000 acre feet of Missouri River water…”

As with most ideas associated with Manifest Destiny, coast-to-coast farmland was a pipedream. The Arid West was, and in most places still is, not suitable for sustainable farming. The history of civil development in states like Utah, Idaho, and Nevada often is attributed to the determination and work ethic of the pioneer men and women. These legends of conquering nature are prominent in early 20th century history books. This simplified view of the past overlooks the conflict between the modern pioneers – especially with irrigation. These dry states look the way they do today because of tenacious men and women who fought for their view of proper water distribution. The people had to fight each other as much as they fought nature to control the limited water supply.
Annotated Bibliography
Brooks, Karl Boyd. 2006. Public Power Private Dams, The Hell’s Canyon High Dam Controversy. Washington: University of Washington Press.
Brooks documents the social and political agents involved with the choice of a public or private hydropower system on the Snake River. Brooks successfully picks up on the anti-federal sentiment in local political struggles, which contributes to my argument about ownership of water, and its role in arguments for water projects.
Lovin, Hugh T. (Spring 1981) “’Duty of Water’ in Idaho: A ‘New West’ Irrigation Controversy 1890-1920.” Arizona and the West, Vole 23, No. 1. pp. 5-28. accessed 10/7/2012. url:

Lovin argues Idaho politicians forced farmers to use less water in order to irrigate more land. In this article, Lovin documents failed promises of a bountiful New West, and the controversial actions of lawmakers to compensate for actual water yields compared to promised ones.

Lovin, Hugh T. (Fall 1998) “The Fight for an Irrigation Empire in the Yellowstone River Valley” The Pacific Northwest Quarterly , Vol. 89, No. 4, pp. 188-201. Published by: University of Washington. Article Stable URL:

Lovin critiques the various groups fighting for and against an irrigation project near the Yellowstone National Park. Lovin assigns agency to political prowess by demonstrating how relative power between farmers, city and state officials, and federal agents contributed to the outcome of irrigation projects.
Reisner, Marc. 1993. Cadillac desert: the American West and its disappearing water. New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Penguin Books.
Reisner argues the Arid West is not suitable for the type of settlements that have developed in the past 150 years. He documents the major water construction projects of the past several decades and how they are not sustainable and will ultimately fail to provide long-term solutions for the communities between the Mojave Desert and the Rockies.

Solomon, Steven. 2010. Water: the epic struggle for wealth, power, and civilization. New York: Harper.
This popular history title expands on the importance of water to civilization. While Solomon lacks consistency in this book, his argument about the role of water in the political sphere is valid.
Smithsonian Institution Libraries, Drummond, Willis, jr, Dutton, Clarence E. (Clarence Edward), Geographical and Geological Survey of the Rocky Mountain Region (U.S.), Gilbert, Grove Karl, Powell, John Wesley, and Thompson, A. H.. 1879. Report on the lands of the arid region of the United States, with a more detailed account of the lands of Utah. With maps. By J. W. Powell. Washington, Govt. Print. Off.,1879.
This document describes the difficulties of agrarian economics in the Arid West.
Stacy, Susan M. 1993. When the river rises: flood control on the Boise River, 1943-1985. Boulder, Colo: Boise, Idaho.
In this book, Stacy argues that politics impacted water projects on the Boise River, just as much as environmental concerns. This book shows how projects are built when politicians and constituents agree on fixing a perceived problem.

It may seem easy to just look online for historic primary sources, but this exercise showed the limits of only using digital objects. Digitized resources can be easy to select from an online repository, and viewing each item side-by-side can help the research come to some conclusions. There is, however, a problem with quantity, and quality of online resources. If a researcher never visits an archive or library, they might miss out on lots of paper-only resources. In this way, the argument made by only citing online resources will always have the caveat of not being entirely researched. For the time being, a historian should always consult some analog resources before coming to any conclusion.
As more and more historical documents appear online, the researcher becomes less reliant on the local library and archive – even if the only way to access these online resources is through a library subscription. For this project, I used the Western Waters Digital Library (WWDL), This consortium of digital collections focuses on issues relating to hydro-power and agricultural irrigation. It seemed like an obvious choice, since my historical emphasis is the history of irrigation and water projects. This was the first time I actually tried researching the WWDL, all other visits were simply for browsing photos. With the WWDL I was able to quickly find a multitude of newspaper clippings, reports, and finding aids relating to water and politics. The WWDL did not, however, contain as much campaign literature as I had hoped for – most of the items I found were not substantial in content. I had seen several interesting two-fold pamphlets on water projects in Idaho at the Boise Public Library, and I hoped to see some other examples online.
Exclusively using online resources creates a challenge of selection. A researcher only has a small amount of time to find evidence for their argument. With an online search, whether using Google or a small niche digital collection, it is often difficult to create a query that both limits the results to a manageable size and includes items that will help with the argument. Often the search results will include thousands of items, or if it’s only a small selection, few are useful to the researcher. When looking in a physical location for historical documents, it is easier to sense what is useful, and the appropriate amount of time required attaining valuable resources. It is easier to manually shuffle through papers to gain a sense of what is available.
A researcher is also completely reliant upon the repository for selection of historical items. The researcher only sees what the presenter has chosen to display. Therefore, the researcher must not only consider their own biases, but also the bias of the digital repository. State and federal institutions, like universities and government departments, are often the owners of the digital repositories used by historians. These institutions may not have as many subjective motivations as other sources for historical documents (like a corporate archives for example), but the institutions still have agendas when creating a digital repository. This bias could be as innocent as the selector not choosing visually appealing resources, like a folder of meeting minutes of a water district conference. Decisions like this are made all the time. There is simply too much paper, and not enough time and money to scan everything. It is up to the archivist or curator to choose which documents are available online. For a researcher wanting to know the whole truth, the archivist’s selection could throw the researcher off track.
For these reasons, it is still a good idea to visit a physical location for additional research. As more and more institutions make their collections available online, the researcher may not need to actually visit a library, but perhaps a historical site, or surviving witness. The key to writing good history is uncovering new evidence that few have ever seen or heard. It is difficult to do so with the limited primary source paper items available online – at least for the near future.

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