Sunday, May 5, 2019

The Man Who Thought He Owned Water, by Tershia D'Elgin

My son the hydrologist recommended this book, the biography of the author's father in relation to water laws and usage and rights in Colorado. In this state, as in those to its west and south, water is an overdemanded resource. Since the settling of the West, observant explorers have noted the scarcity of water and dryness of the landscape. All the same, residents continue to dodge this reality. From the 1880s on, "Rain follows the plow" was the myth that lured sod-busting homesteaders. The 1920s and 30s drought that picked up that plowed dirt and blew it up into massive dust storms, proved it wrong - and yet, builders of cities were able then, and continue today, to pull water from the rivers and the aquifer. At the cost to farmers.

D'Elgin's father, Bill Phelps, heir to the Eatons (his great-grandfather Benjamin Harrison Eaton was Colorado's 4th governor), moved to the family's property on a bend of the South Platte River west of Greeley, and became a gentleman farmer, enough family money behind him that he didn't have the same depth of worries other farmers struggled with. The water rights on his property were very old ("senior," as the term goes) - and yet, over time, as cities procured western slope water and permission to draw from the Platte, the right of farmers, including Bill, to draw from wells as they always had, was suddenly challenged. 

The details are many and complex, and if you want to take a look at water law as it affects humans, this book is a great place to start. Decades of farmers' handshake agreements with local water managers suddenly collapsed as water courts ruled consistently in favor of cities. Though water speculation was outlawed, clever men found a work-around on postage-stamp-sized parcels by creating semi-public water districts - given special status in Colorado law - which could then buy water rights and sell them to the highest bidder - always cities, since farmers have no money.

D'Elgin's wrath is mostly directed toward the mindless water use of city dwellers - what are we doing with water that's so valuable, compared to raising food? The water we waste maintaining lawns does not return to either groundwater nor the rivers. We're lulled by the certainty that when we turn on the faucet, water gushes out. More people move to cities in the West every day, many from regions with abundant rainfall. If their neighbors have jewel-green lawns, well, why shouldn't they? Meanwhile, the "buy and dry" method of acquiring water rights from desperate farmers guarantees once-productive land will return to dust. She notes the high incidence of suicide among farmers.

The lot of farmers has long been tragic, and she recounts reasons: Big Ag controls the crops: they pay less than the farmers' cost to grow corn, but offer a guaranteed market for it, and with the difference provided by government price supports (the Farm Bill), farmers survive. Any who want to grow something else have to convince banks to lend for crops without those established markets - and bankers would rather not take the risk. And of course, farmers are more vulnerable to weather than the rest of us - a hailstorm can destroy a year's crops in a matter of minutes. Drought in the absence of irrigation is a death sentence, but cities will always have more money to buy up water than rural water districts. 

It's worth remembering that Thomas Jefferson, at the founding of this country, identified farmers as the backbone of the new nation. Since then, fewer farmers run larger acreage. In the paper today, an article notes yet again that the number of farms has shrunk, with the average acres per farm increasing. This is Big Ag, whose monocropping and reliance on pesticides and chemical fertilizers have played havoc with the former ecosystems of land and water. There's a blues line we'd do well to remember: "You don't miss your water till your well runs dry."