Hamilton: Water Wars of the 21st century
July 5, 2011
Remember when we went to the Saturday picture shows to watch the cowboys and the farmers fight over access to water for the cowboys‚ cattle versus access to water for the farmers‚ row crops? Recall how the old-time villains were often corrupt politicians or crooked lawyers or slimy lobbyists or greedy bankers who were bribed to take the water away from the decent folks on the side of sweetness and light and give it to the villains on the side of darkness and evil?
Well, in the American West, the water wars continue on. But they don’t use six-shooters anymore. Instead, they wage their water wars by the use of political gerrymandering in the drawing and redrawing of district political boundaries for state legislative seats, and for seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Gerrymandering? Where did that word come from? In 1812, Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry (pronounced jerry) redistricted Boston to benefit his political party. By drawing district boundaries to include the households friendly to his party and by twisting the boundaries to exclude households unfriendly to his party, Gov. Gerry created one district in particular whose shape was so convoluted that it looked like a salamander. Some journalist combined Gerry with salamander and came up with: Gerrymander.
A modern example: Ten years ago in Colorado, the two major political parties could not agree on how to reapportion Colorado’s state legislative and congressional districts. They threw the entire decision into the hands of one particular judge who thinks the world is flat. The judge completely ignored how the Continental Divide essentially divides Colorado between the less-populated mountainous counties that produce water from the more populous flat-land counties that do not produce water yet consume enormous amounts of it.
Now, in 2011, it is time for another reapportionment and the politicians, lobbyists, lawyers and financial interests are back at it, trying to make sure that the people in the counties that produce the water have little or no political say with regard to how much of their water they get to keep and use to maintain in-stream flows for the health of trout and the other wildlife struggling to exist west of the Continental Divide.
Back in the late 19th century, Colorado’s mountainous, water-producing counties were, for the most part, inhabited by poorly educated ranchers, mountain men, and Indians who, desperate for cash, signed over many of their water rights to crafty, water-lawyers representing Denver and other cities on what Army explorer Lt. Stephen H. Long called: the Great American Desert.
Economists who work for the World Bank predict the great wars of the 21st Century will not be fought over access to fossil fuels but, instead, over access to potable water. Eventually, we will learn to use America’s abundant fossil-fuel resources in environmentally friendly ways and/or invent workable alternative sources of energy. But humankind will never invent a replacement for potable water. Without potable water, most people and animals die within a few days.
The main reason Third World countries are so disease ridden is due to the lack of potable water which leads to diarrheal diseases such as: cholera, dysentery, typhoid, hepatitis A and Guinea worm – just to mention a few.
Moreover, Colorado’s current Water Wars have an ethical/moral dimension: Is it right for mountain fish and other wildlife to struggle or die from lack of water while lowland farmers trade their unused water allocations in secondary and tertiary commodity markets for profit? Thus, the water warriors are divided into two camps: Those who see water as a commodity to be traded in the marketplace versus those who see water as a human right – even an animal right. Where are the Lone Ranger and Tonto when the mountain folk and the wildlife need them?
Nationally syndicated columnist, William Hamilton, was educated at the University of Oklahoma, the George Washington University, the U.S Naval War College, the University of Nebraska, and Harvard University.