Posted 10 months ago on March 14, 2014, 2:56 p.m. EST by LeoYo
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The West's Coming Tragedy of the Commons
Friday, 14 March 2014 10:33 By Sheila D Collins, Truthout | Op-Ed
The severe droughts now affecting California and the Colorado River basin suggest that we may be at a tipping point in our ability to continue to manage the water systems that are needed to power agriculture and support Western development. According to The New York Times, many experts believe the current drought that is drying up the Colorado River "is only the harbinger of a new drier era in which the Colorado's flow will be substantially and permanently diminished." Already, the drought in California is threatening the state's water supply - a harbinger of the enormous conflicts that are now on the horizon - conflicts between states and regions, urban residents and farmers, developers, farmers and environmentalists. With global warming now reducing the Sierra snowpacks, whose runoff has been irrigating the country's breadbasket, we could be facing rising food prices and even food shortages into the future. It is within the realm of possibility that we could see - even in the United States - the kinds of conflicts that are roiling parts of the developing world.
How is it that we have allowed a significant proportion of the nation's food supply to be located in a region that is part semi-desert and dependent on irrigation? Why have we allowed one of the fastest-growing regions of the country to depend on a water source - the Colorado - that historically received little rainfall and for whose use there has been little coordinated planning?
It is not as if we were not forewarned. As early as 1878, John Wesley Powell, the one-armed geologist and Western explorer and the second director of the US Geological Survey, submitted a Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States to Congress. The report contained a careful survey of the rainfall patterns of all the land from the middle of the Great Plains to the Pacific Ocean, the land Powell termed the "Arid Region." Powell concluded that only a minority of this land received enough rainfall each year to support agriculture and warned that "many droughts will occur; many seasons in a long series will be fruitless; and it may be doubted whether, on the whole, agriculture will prove remunerative." If these lands were to be cultivated, they would have to be irrigated. Such irrigation, he proposed, would require enormous amounts of capital and would have to be carefully managed to prevent the kinds of conflicts over scarce water that are now becoming apparent - the classic dilemma of the "tragedy of the commons." Powell's revolutionary proposal was that the irrigable lands be divided into semi-autonomous hydrological districts, structured around local water sources. Communities sharing a common water source were to be entrusted with the responsibility of its use and were to set up cooperatively managed and funded governing systems. Powell was also concerned that forests be managed cooperatively. "If they permit the forests to be destroyed, he said, "the source of their water supply is injured and the timber values are wiped out."
The role of the federal and state governments in Powell's scheme were to be supportive of these locally managed water and forest systems. States would provide courts for the adjudication of disputes between districts as well as inspection systems, while the federal government would "allocate land to the watershed districts; classify its use, and retain ownership only of non-irrigable lands."
Powell's scheme resonates with the bioregional proposals of some modern environmentalists and his governance scheme with the democratically managed common pool resource projects that the late Elinor Ostrom and her colleagues at Indiana University promoted in developing countries. Prescient as Powell was, his proposal did not resonate with the lobbyists for the railroad industry or the land speculators who turned the "arid region" into a frenzy of chaotic development that would later result in the Dust Bowl. Nor did it resonate with the timber barons who would strip the country's forests, leading to the floods that devastated the country in the 1920s and 1930s.
If Powell's development plan had been implemented, as shown in a map he created, state boundaries yet to be drawn would have resembled the boundaries of watersheds instead of the arbitrary boundaries that exist today. According to Donald Worster, Powell's biographer, if Powell's ideas had been adopted, "We would not have, any of our huge federal water projects. And we certainly would not have had anything like the massive urban growth that's taken place in the West." Worster's certainty has been challenged by John Lavey, who thinks that our human penchant for growth and technological development would probably not have resulted in the limits to growth Powell's proposal implied. Yet it is helpful to think of how our country might have developed had we heeded this knowledgeable Cassandra, if only as a means of encouraging us to imagine how we might do things differently.