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BOOKS & THE CULTURE Pipe Dreams Watching the Western Wells Run Dry BY CHAR MILLER WATER IN THE WEST: A collection of reprints. High Country News. 393 pages. $30.00. ppearances can be deceiving. This book, for instance: its utilitarian, card-stock cover, illustrated by a hand-drawn faucet dripping water over a map of the American West, is held together by a black plastic spiral binder, mimicking one of those thick, makeshift compilations of supplemental readings that university professors seem to love \(and design fool you Water in the West contains some of the very best reporting on the history of and contemporary fights over the region’s most precious resource. Culled from the back pages of Colorado’s High Country News \(hence the wonderfully unasentries date from the mid-1980s, is a constant reminder of the depth of HCN’s commitment to being the “Paper for People who Care about the West.” What westerners have long cared about is white gold. Their concern, in fact, has bordered on an obsession, sparking an unending series of brawls over its control and distribution. At the heart of this social struggle is a curious legal finding, The Doctrine of Prior Appropriation. Given birth during the California Gold Rush in 1848, and sustained until the early 1990s, “Prior,” as HCN colloquially calls it, determined a simple code: those who first laid claim to water could do with it what they wanted. Johnnys-come-lately might protest, but they would secure little legal support if they challenged the diversion or reduction of a river’s flow. In the West, these six words ruled: “first in time, first in right.” No one knew better than John Wesley Powell just how wrong-headed this legal principle was. A Civil War hero, an explorer, and founder of the U.S. Geological Survey, he had been the first Euro-American to raft down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, the first to map portions of the arid landscape beyond the 98th meridian, the first to think seriously about the significance of the Doctrine of Prior Appropriation in a region of little rain. Those Americans who pushed out into this forbidding terrain, he predicted, would be confronted with a choice between what Powell desired \(the establishment of cooperative, small-scale communities dependent on the “new indusfeared \(the creation of an economic environment monopolized by “a few great capitalists, employing labor on a grand scale, as is done in the great mines and manufactories early on dominated the size, scope, and character of western farming and ranching perfectly illustrates how completely Prior Appropriation directed the flow of water away from Powell’s Jeffersonian fantasy. His were not the only set of dashed hopes, Water in the West makes clear. Native Americans had even less chance of successfully combating western water grabs than had enfranchised, if undercapitalized, white settlers. The Utes’ experience is representative. In 1861, in the midst of the bloody Civil War, Abraham Lincoln wrote Brigham Young to ask if the Uinta Valley in northeastern Utah was a suitable site for a new reservation for the Ute peoples. Young replied, according to political scientist Dan McCool, that “the land was so utterly useless that its only purpose was to hold the other parts of the world together.” In that sense, it was “perfect for an Indian reservation.” So perfect, that by the early 1880s Congress even had increased its size to four million acres, a good-sized sanctuary, far from the pressures of white settlement. But as demands for water escalated in arid Utah, the state and federal governments conspired with the local power structure to carve up the reservation. Land along the Duchesne River was appropriated for white farmers; Strawberry Reser voir was created in western portions of the reservation, with its impounded waters dedicated to off-site agricultural and urban users; the U.S.D.A. Forest Service peeled off a large chunk of mountainous terrain to establish a national forest designed to protect another watershed. By the mid-twentieth century, the Ute reservation was onefourth the size it had been 100 years earlier. Its resource base would shrink even further when, in 1965, the Central Utah Project ally funded surface water systems throughout the intermountain west was announced. To secure C.U.P.’s success, which required tapping into the Uinta Mountains drainage area, the federal government urged the Utes to sign a treaty that would transfer the requisite water rights in exchange for a reservation water project. Now here’s a shock: the promised irrigation system never materialized, a story of fraud that is consistent with the experience of Arizona’s PimaMaricopa Indians or the Shoshones of Wyoming. Theirs has been an unending Trail of Tears. Bound up with this long train of abuses has been the wholesale assault upon western flora and fauna. No species has been more devastated by western water policy than the salmon of the Pacific northwest. Its once-complex habitat extended up along the Columbia, Snake, and other regional river systems, but beginning in the 1930s, it has been bottled up behind an ever-increasing number of federally funded dams. These engineering marvels created a new environment historian Richard White has called it an “organic machine” dedicated to the production of “enormous amounts of cheap hydroelectric power, large expanses of irrigated desert lands, locks and canals that have made Lewiston, Idaho an ocean port, and intense logging.” These material goods were of considerable benefit to the rapid expansion of the human economy, but savaged the reproductive cycle of the salmon; later, halfhearted attempts to provide “fish ladders,” 24 THE TEXAS OBSERVER NOVEMBER 20, 1998