Shawn Regan of PERC on Managing Conflicts Over US Federal Rangelands

The national conversation about managing grazing on public lands is becoming more thoughtful as groups across the country weigh in, many pointing to helpful publications that predate the events at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. One of those organizations approached BlogWest and we appreciated the perspective they had to offer. The Property and Environment Research Center (PERC)’s Shawn Regan, a prolific writer whose work you’ve probably seen in the High Country News, Grist, and the Wall Street Journal, posted a piece on January 8th entitled “Managing Conflicts Over US Federal Rangelands” that appears on the PERC site and as a chapter in a larger publication Ranching Realities in the 21st Century (Fraser Institute, November 2015). The author takes seriously the issues of property and water rights, and provides a comprehensive and understandable explanation of how convoluted and prone to conflict the legal and administrative structures that govern public lands have become. Our thanks to Shawn for his efforts in helping us think about these issues.

Essential Reading on the Incidents at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

Our good friends at The Institute for Mountain Research at Westminster College asked BlogWest administrator Leisl Carr Childers for a compilation of valuable resources that can help readers understand events at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge this past week. Click here to peruse the list.

Federal Policy, Western Lands, and Malheur

At the root of these controversies was not just “interest” in the conventional sense of an economic stake but values. The economic interest of producers undergirded their opposition. But at a deeper level of human response was the degree to which producers’ values were offended. They could not accept the notion that what environmentalists thought was useful and valuable was, in fact, so.

Samuel Hays

The federal government administers a lot of Western land.

Western federal lands.

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To people like those occupying Malheur, that large portions of the West are under the administration of the federal government is an affront to their sensibilities. These lands, they would contend, deserve to be opened up and sold to private entities, to expand private property ownership in the West and allow the land to be put to “productive” use. The continued presence of federal ownership, they’d argue, threatens the sovereignty of states and individuals. But these lands were never meant to be a “theft” from production. Quite the opposite. Except for wildlife preserves, most federal land management encourages the use of these lands—for recreation, grazing, military testing, and so on. Although these lands are regulated in the kinds of use they contain, they are, ultimately, used.

But that very use introduces a complex political problem referred to as “multiple use.” The western federal lands have many interests that need to be served. Multiple use urges “harmonious and coordinated management of the various resources” to “give the greatest dollar return or the greatest unit output.” By and large, although both sides might grumble about each other, public land officials and ranchers tend to work together—and must if we hope to reach a balance between the protection of land and its use for production or leisure.

The militants represent a long debate in the West. Many are pointing to the Sagebrush Rebellion. An apt comparison, in this case. At the policy level, public grazing law underwent dramatic changes beginning in 1970 with the National Environmental Policy Act, followed by the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 and the Public Rangeland Improvement Act of 1978. The combination of these legislative actions endorsed the environmentalist critique of livestock on the public range and sanctioned the reduction of livestock, which prompted a sharp reaction among ranchers in the West. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, what became known as the “Sagebrush Rebellion” called for the privatization of public lands.

The development of modern rangeland policy dates to 1934 with the passage of the Taylor Grazing Act, which placed all public domain lands under the control of the Department of the Interior that had been previously managed by the U.S. Forest Service. Furthermore, the act formed grazing districts under the control of local ranchers that had the power to issue, deny, and admit new grazers to the range. Secretary of Interior Harold Ickes formed a Grazing Division to monitor the grazing boards, which became the Grazing Service in 1939 before it was dismantled in 1946 and replaced again by the Bureau of Land Management. Although the Grazing Service was under the control of local ranchers, they nonetheless lacked the sort of control over public lands they desired. The Forest Service, which was not under local rancher control, administered greater regulatory services on the public range. Administrators in the Forest Service maintained that grazing permits were government-granted privileges for ranchers using public lands, and the permit did not grant ranchers private claims. This conflict—over who controlled the public lands—formed the basis of disagreements well through the 1970s and 1980s. The Taylor Grazing Act and the bureaucratic battles that emerged from it fueled early resentment towards government regulation of the land.

If the 1930s stirred western resentment, the 1940s placed ranchers on the defensive. Early in the decade, the House Appropriations Committee demanded an increase in grazing fees from the Grazing Service, followed by the Forest Service calling for herd reductions in National Forests in the years after World War II. Ranchers criticized the activist federal government as a giant leviathan encroaching on private property rights and free enterprise. As evidence of this growing controversy, government hearings over public land disputes ran almost continuously between 1941 and 1948. Public land controversies died down in the 1950s and remained relatively quiet until the 1960s and 1970s as the polarized politics between organized ranchers and environmentalists exploded over the issues of grazing on the public lands.1

The first stage of the battles between environmentalists and ranchers emerged with the implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in 1970, which allowed federal agencies to take “actions significantly affecting the quality of the human environment” to “assure for all Americans safe, healthful, productive, and esthetically and culturally pleasing surroundings” and required agencies to provide detailed assessments of environmental impacts.2 Environmental impact statements, or EISs, became a source of legal conflict as environmentalists filed suits against the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), challenging their ecological assessments of the impact livestock grazing had on public lands. The first of these came from the Natural Resources Defense Council, which filed suit in 1973 to contest an EIS the BLM completed in evaluating its grazing program. The National Resource Defense Council argued the EIS insufficiently detailed the specific impacts at the local level. In December 1974 a federal judge agreed, saying that the EIS was not “fine-tuned” and failed to account for “individual geographic conditions.”3 The mounting pressure from environmentalists forced the agency to react and set in motion tremendous changes in public grazing policy to such an extent that a group of legal scholar noted “future historians may date the beginning of modern rangeland management from December 1974 when a federal district court ordered the BLM to comply with the NEPA.”4

Western federal land administration.

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The management and regulation of public grazing felt the impact of two more legislative measures before the close of the decade. The Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) passed in 1976 addressed a series of issues related to Bureau of Land Management lands. Specific to grazing, the act took into greater account wildlife and recreation interests in setting range policy and declared that “the public lands be retained in Federal ownership.” Thus, the possibility of privatizing federal land was removed from consideration. Two years later, Congress passed the Public Rangeland Improvement Act (PRIA) that gave priority to range management, directing that range plans be “tailored to the specific range conditions of the area to be covered by such plan” and whether the plan would “have been effective in improving the range condition of the lands involved.” Legislation and federal rangeland administration gave rise to western resentment over land management.

The emergence of federal rangeland legislation in the 1970s coincided with the growing environmental movement and the concerns of consumers. Consumers questioned the application of chemicals to the foods they ate, such as growth hormones for beef and dairy cattle or genetically modified crops. Farm researchers at the end of World War II believed the use of chemicals would solve production problems and stressed technological efficiency that would improve crop and stock production.5 By the 1970s consumer-interest groups lobbied for food-processing companies to halt their purchases of agricultural commodities they concluded were unsafe, even if scientific evidence was inconclusive about the long-term health effects on humans. Consumers also expected safe drinking water uncontaminated by agricultural pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, and runoff from large cattle and hog feedlots. Natural resources in the West were, in the words of Arizona Senator Paul Fannin, being “revalued in a Nation where open space, clean air and room to stretch and roam are becoming priceless commodities.”6

To western ranchers, environmentalists were conspiring to upend rural communities. In 1974, the South Dakota Stockgrower, a publication of the state’s cattle interests, wrote that “[ranchers must] become involved in plan policy making for his own well-being, otherwise, he may discover that pressure groups, technical planners and government agencies have established the policies for him.” The heated debates between ranchers and government regulation arose from a belief among ranchers that public lands were their land rather than land privileged to them. Ranchers complained that land planning threatened the “time-honored concept that the land-owner may do with his land as he ‘darn well wishes.’”7 Complicating matters further was the process of range permits that appeared to confer a right to use property. Thus, when environmental and rangeland regulations emerged from Congress, ranchers asserted their rights against what they saw as an oppressive federal regulation of public grazing administration. The lack of local input and perception of endless bureaucratic red tape fueled the call of ranchers accusing the federal government of replacing law with overarching administrative power and bowing to the interests of an environmental lobby.8

But it’s not just about the Sagebrush Rebellion, or the ones that preceded it in the 1920s, 1940s, and 1950s. The anti-government militants are tapping into a mythology almost as old as the West itself: that these small-time farmers are simply watching out for themselves and hoping to keep federal power from encompassing their lives and liberties. The militants in Malheur point to a “golden age” when the lack of federal oversight meant unfettered access to their lives and land. But that story overlooks a long history in the West of a few large land interests monopolizing thousands of acres to control access to water and rangeland. In the process, these cattle barons locked settlers out of vast territories. Only during the anti-monopoly age of the 1880s and 1890s were these empires dismantled as tensions and violence ran high among small farmers and ranchers, furious at monopolistic interests that tied up the West’s lands.

Yet this very concern over the government’s overreach collides with a dissonance that the federal government massively subsidizes production on the nation’s public lands. Ranchers pay low fees to work the land administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). At market prices, most small-time ranchers would be looking for other work. Land subsidies mean ranchers often receive a 93% discount on the land. Not to mention that the federal administration of public lands saves states massive amount of money they otherwise would spend on administrative costs, and much of the money collected by the government is funneled back to states to cover the possible loss of taxes they would’ve levied otherwise.

And let’s not forget: this is Pauite land, whose land claims were dismantled and eventually transferred to public domain as retribution after an uprising in the late nineteenth century. But the militants are not so concerned about the loss of Native sovereignty.

Ranchers deserve some empathy. They’ve been asked to adapt continually to changing political pressures and land management regimes. But the stridency of resistance has grown more violent, as High Country News reported last summer. And the militants in Malheur have claimed they don’t intend harm unless there are threats to remove them from the building. Ranchers have their place on the nation’s public lands, but those lands are subject to multiple interests—wildlife, recreationists, and so on all use these lands, and no group has exclusive use of the lands. We cannot forget that we, as a society over time, decided that these lands are worth protecting.

The complexities of the past have been replaced by the tidy myths of the present. We should continue striving for the equitable and collaborative use of public lands.

This post is cross listed with

  1. Karin Merrell, Public Lands and Political Meaning, 12-13; William Rowley, “Open Range to Closed Range,” 106-109. To complicate matters further, the Interior Department’s first director of Grazing, Farrington Carpenter, interpreted the Taylor Grazing Act as establishing range rights for ranchers, an interpretation Secretary of Interior Ickes stridently disagreed with. Ickes recognized the local thortonomy in the grazing districts, but sided with the Forest Service in maintaining that ranchers had not gained any rights to the public domain. See Merrell, Public Lands and Political Meaning, 135-168.
  2. 42 U.S.C. §§ 4321-70a (1988). The quoted language is from 42 U.S.C. §§ 4331(b) (1988).
  3. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc. v. Morton, 388 F. Supp. 829, 840 (D.C. Cir. 1974), Pacific Legal Foundation v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 427 U.S. 913 (1976).
  4. Merrill, Public Lands and Political Meaning, 206; Charles Wilkinson, Crossing the Next Meridian: Land, Water, and the Future of the West (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1992), 95-98; George Cameron Coggins, Parthenia Blessing Evans, and Margaret Lindberg-Johnson, “The Law of Public Rangeland Management I: The Extent and Distribution of Federal Power,” Environmental Law 12 (1982): 535, 554.
  5. James Sherow, “Environmentalism and Agriculture in the American West,” in The Rural West Since World War II, ed. R. Douglas Hurt (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998), 61.
  6. Fannin, quoted in Brian Q. Cannon, Reopening the Frontier: Homesteading in the Modern West (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2009), 154.
  7. “Land Use Laws Are Here To Stay, So Get Involved In Planning,” South Dakota Stockgrower (June 1974): 18.
  8. R. McGreggor Cawley, Federal Land, Western Anger: The Sagebrush Rebellion and Environmental Politics (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1993), 4-5; Merrell, Public Lands and Political Meaning, 202-204.

Cliven Bundy Revisited

I take back the term “empathy.” I’m not even sure I’m sympathetic at this point. Over the weekend, after the completion of a peaceful protest by several hundred marchers in Burns, Oregon, according to The Oregonian/, “a group of outside militants drove to the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, where they seized and occupied the refuge headquarters.” Among the militants were three sons of Cliven Bundy. Major news networks, ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, and Fox, reported the event, several acknowledging that the unwelcome presence of the militia and the brothers.

The Bundy brothers were there to support the Hammond family, whose patriarch Lincoln and son Steven had recently been convicted of illegally setting two range fires and sentenced to the minimum of five years in prison. But, the demeanor of the Bundys is absolutely out of line. Though the brothers affirm that they are not “looking to hurt anyone,” they threaten violence if anyone threatens to remove them.

It is this position that places them outside the realm of empathy. Last summer, the High Country News investigated the incidents of violence against federal land management employees. In their efforts to protect their perceived rights–their unchanged access to public lands–they have dehumanized the personnel who strive to facilitate and regulate that access.

This is where I lose my grip on empathy. The nature of public lands, since their inception–first as property owned by the federal government under the Land Ordinance of 1785 (this predates the US Constitution itself) and then as property permitted under the Forest Reserve Act of 1891 and the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934)–necessitates collaboration. There are a wide array of interests represented on public lands, and all of these interests have legal and historical standing.

Public lands ranchers have a place on public lands, but they aren’t the only ones. Because of the multiple use concept, wildlife have shared equal footing with ranchers under the Taylor Grazing Act. As of the mid-1970s, wild horses and burros and outdoor recreationists receive similar consideration. And, the military has historically had more access to public lands than any of these groups. However, no one group is allowed to maintain exclusive control over this real estate. The nature of public lands and the multiple use concept which governs it necessitates collaboration and flexibility.

This seems to be what has been lost in the conversation: too many public lands users feel they are entitled to a majority share of those lands without consideration for other users. Some of this entitlement comes from their interpretation of what it means to be a historical user, some of it comes from the ways in which they interpret the very different pieces of legislation that govern public lands, and some of it is derived from the fact that private water rights provide powerful anchors to public lands use.

Even so, we all must work to accommodate each other on these lands–they are ours, what we have saved, both the iconic landscapes and the leftovers. If I have empathy for anyone at this point, it is for every single public lands rancher and official who strives with unending energy and patience to work out the kinks in pubic lands policy so that all can benefit.

Leisl Carr Childers is assistant professor at the University of Northern Iowa and author of The Size of the Risk: Histories of Multiple Use in the Great Basin.

Remembering a Mushroom Cloud

by Joseph E. Taylor III

I come from a place that knew what a mushroom cloud looked like well before Nagasaki, Hiroshima, and Alamogordo. That place is called the Nestucca Valley, but the relevant landscape is known more simply as “The Tillamook.” The relevant date is August 24, 1933. The relevant image is this:

US Forest Service, View of Tillamook Fire, Oregon from airplane, August 1933, National Archives

US Forest Service, View of Tillamook Fire, Oregon from airplane, August 1933, National Archives

The story is well known. On blistering hot day in mid-August 1933, a slash fire erupted on a logging operation in the Gales Creek watershed of Washington County, Oregon. The fire immediately ran out of control and into the Tillamook Bay watershed, consuming sixty-three square miles of old growth.

Then a blanket of fog mercifully quelled the flames. Trees still smoked, however, and in the early morning of the 24th a convergence of natural forces turned what had been a bad burn into a historical moment. The fog that had throttled the fire receded. Humidity again plummeted, and a hot, desiccating east wind kicked up.

East winds are never a good thing in the Pacific Northwest. Oregon folk wisdom about them parallels southern Californians’ tales about the Santa Anas. They last three days. They make people crazy. Something bad happens. In August 1933, catastrophe didn’t wait long.

Friends and relatives who lived through that night recounted their experiences decades later. People in Pacific City, Tillamook, Astoria, West Linn, and Salem awoke to a “kaboom.” The best guess is that those 63 square miles of scorched timber spontaneously recombusted, propelling a giant, wholly natural mushroom cloud into the stratosphere, some 40 to 50,000 feet.

Everyone even remotely close fled in terror. The fire burned an estimated 375 to 420 square miles of forest within a day. As a mental exercise, mark off a 20-mile by 20-mile square around where you live. Then imagine it going up in flames—all of it—within twenty hours. The forests burned for weeks and then smoldered for months. And then it burned again every six years in 1939, 1945, and 1951.

Russell Lee, Tillamook burn, October 1941, Tillamook County, Oregon, Library of Congress

Russell Lee, Tillamook burn, October 1941, Tillamook County, Oregon, Library of Congress

The devastation was total. Even the soil nutrients burned. It took heroic efforts to reseed the land. In the 1950s families planted seedlings in a publicized campaign to resurrect “The Tillamook,” but planes and helicopters did most of the work, casting seeds by the millions from the sky for years.

Those stories came back to haunt me this week, and not just because the West is burning. The West burns every year, and, at least to my mind, it ought to burn. Western North America is a vast disturbance ecology. For millennia fire was an intrinsic part of this half of the continent, at least until Gifford Pinchot and the Forest Service decided that fire was inefficient and must be stopped.

Generations of kids grew up memorizing Smokey the Bear’s admonition, “Only you. . . ,” only to learn later that all that responsibility set us up for something much worse. The reckoning came in Yellowstone in 1988, in the Kalmiopsis twice, in the Bob seemingly every year, and in many other forests as well. The absence of fire has turned the West into a pyro time bomb, the implications of which came rushing back in a photo from Saturday’s Portland Oregonian that others replicated on Twitter.

‏@mskatemills, August 22, 2015, Twitter

‏@mskatemills, “I woke up to this view of Portland, blanketed by smoke. There are 30 wildfires burning in Oregon and Washington.” August 22, 2015, Twitter

Portland was blanketed by smoke from the fires in eastern Washington. The foul air surged into the metro area on an east wind. The worst air quality of all (PM2.5 166) was in Beaverton, where my daughter lives. Happily, she was in Bend that day, but I know about bad air. I was born in South Central Los Angeles. It was an atmospheric sump in the leaded gasoline era, and the smog fouled everyone’s lungs. By the time I was four I had intimate knowledge of the inside of an oxygen tent. I do not wish that kind of coughing on anyone, let alone my daughter.

Yet here we are. I have watched fire seasons for a half century, and more and more I think about the next holocaust. It has been a very very long time since some forests burned. The blue oblong on this recent fire map highlights a large area of absence along the coast, and it no longer seems a blessing.


The Portland Oregonian‘s Interactive Real-time wildfires map

I have read ethnographic accounts by coastal Indians, tales told in the early twentieth century to anthropologists from Columbia University and the University of Washington. The Coos recalled a huge fire that swept westward over the Coast Range. Charcoal records suggest it happened in the early 19th century, well before settlers arrived. Fueled by an east wind, the flames were so intense they drove humans and animals alike onto the beaches. Descendants spoke of coons, deer, elk, wolves, cougars, and bears huddled in fear. It reads like a Rousseauian truce of the food chain, at least until Hell passed.

It has been a long time since we saw anything like that, 1933 to be exact, but the accumulated deadfall in the Coast Range, the product of fire suppression and reduced logging, is now converging with a warming and drying climate. I think about all this and wonder not whether but when an east wind in August will bring the next mushroom cloud.

Joseph E. Taylor III is a professor of History at Simon Fraser University.

Charles Redd Center to Webcast Its Fall Lecture Series

crcwsMake sure to mark your calendars for this year’s Charles Redd Center for Western Studies Fall Lecture Series on the American West, which will be webcasted live on the center’s Youtube channel.

The series will start off with University of Nevada, Reno art professor Peter Goin’s talk “Re-Visiting Tahoe: Then & Now, A Visual History” on September 17 and wrap up with our very own Leisl Carr Childers, who will be presenting her recent work in the lecture “Making Sense of Mustangs and Mushroom Clouds” on November 19 (OK, we might be a bit bias towards this one). Other speakers include UCLA’s Peter Nabakov, Carleton University’s Michael Hogue, Freelance writer and editor Sarah Fox, Emeritus Professor of History and Geography Richard Francaviglia, and Brigham Young University’s Jacqueline Thursby.

“The Redd Center has a long tradition of hosting scholarly lectures of the American West on campus, but while the quality has been great, the audience has been somewhat limited to those on campus,” explained Charles Redd Center Assistant Director Brenden Rensink on the center’s move to love cast the series. “We are excited to begin live webcasting our annual Fall Lectures Series so more can participate.”

Each lecture will take place at 11:00 a.m. Mountain Standard Time on the dates noted bellow. Audiences will be able to live tweet their questions for each speaker at @byureddcenter and on center’s Facebook page.

“One desired outcome would be for this to become a regular part of Western Studies professors fall prep – checking to see who the Redd Center is hosting and adding the events as meaningful parts of their undergraduate and graduate courses every fall,”said Rensink. Adding, “We hope the live streams will enable more of the general public to participate as well.”

Schedule of Lectures:

17 September 2015:

Peter Goin, Foundation Professor of Art, University of Nevada, Reno

Re-Visiting Tahoe: Then & Now, A Visual History

1 October 2015

Peter Nabakov, Professor of World Arts and Cultures, University of California, Los Angeles

How the World Moves: The Odyssey of an American Indian Family

15 October 2015

Michel Hogue, Assistant Professor of History, Carleton University

Metis and the Medicine Line: Researching and Writing the Transnational Histories of Plains Indigenous Peoples

29 October 2015

Sarah Fox, Freelance Writer and Editor

Stories from Downwind: A People’s History of the Nuclear West
5 November 2015 (7:00 PM, MST)

Richard Francaviglia, Emeritus Professor of History and Geography, University of Texas in Arlington

Map-making and Saint-making: A Cartographic History of Mormonism

12 November 2015

Jacqueline Thursby, Professor of English, Brigham Young University

Basques in the American West: Cultural Maintenance and Legacies

19 November 2015

Leisl Childers, Assistant Professor of History, University of Northern Iowa

Making Sense of Mustangs and Mushroom Clouds

The Final Intake: Las Vegas’s Search for Water Security

Assembled Intake Structure being transported across Lake Mead. Courtesy of SNWA

Assembled Intake Structure being transported across Lake Mead. Courtesy of SNWA

By Christian Harrison

On December 10, 2014, the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) reached a major milestone. On that day a massive, six-hundred foot long boring device finished digging a three mile tunnel, two hundred yards underneath the surface of Lake Mead. The tunnel is part of a new water intake system and comes up through the bottom of the lakebed. The concept is similar to the drain in a bathtub—SNWA engineers specifically adopted this design feature to access Colorado River water no matter how low Lake Mead dropped. The pipeline was designed for an extreme environmental eventuality that, at the time of writing, seems increasingly likely to occur. Begun in 2005, the third intake was built specifically in response to the increasingly severe drought gripping the entire Colorado River Basin.

Shortly after the beginning of the twenty-first century, the SNWA board realized the Las Vegas metropolitan area needed a more reliable means of withdrawing water from Lake Mead. They knew the drought could potentially render the SNWA’s existing infrastructure obsolete in only a few years. In 2008, climate scientists Tim Barnett and David Pierce, working for the Scripps Oceanographic Institute, predicted there was a fifty-percent chance Lake Mead would go dry by 2021.[1] Under this scenario the electric generating turbines at Hoover Dam would cease turning, and a much-diminished Colorado River would flow where Lake Mead used to be. Reinforcing Barnett and Pierce’s prediction, in 2015 Deputy Secretary of the Interior Michael Connor announced he would likely be forced to impose mandatory rationing of Colorado River Water to Nevada and Arizona as early as the following year. This announcement merely confirmed what SNWA officials already knew—the Colorado River Basin was drying out, and Las Vegas’s access to its primary water supply was increasingly threatened.

Water levels at Hoover Dam in 1983 and 2013. Courtesy of SNWA

Water levels at Hoover Dam in 1983 and 2013. Courtesy of SNWA

Water levels in Lake Mead began to drop in 1999, a trend that, at the time of writing, has not yet abated. Scientists who study the region and officials within the Colorado River Basin believe the drought is far from over. Chief among these individuals is Patricia Mulroy. By 2002, Mulroy had adopted a pessimistic, yet proactive philosophy toward water management. In an April board meeting she told her staff “we’ve got to have a plan. We have to live twenty or thirty years in the future, and we have to assume the worst.”[2] Her views are consistent with several scientists who argue that the Basin has entered a mega-drought, a phenomenon that has occurred before and in some instances had lasted up to forty years. The existing science and Mulroy’s recommendation provided the impetus to build additional infrastructure.

The drought has exposed the weakness of the SNWA’s existing infrastructure. There are only two intake structures in place to withdraw all the water the metropolitan area needs, and they are in danger of becoming inoperable. Diminishing lake levels are making the problem increasingly obvious. In April 2015, Lake Mead dropped to an elevation of 1,080 feet.[3] The SNWA only has thirty more feet before it loses its first intake. If and when lake levels decrease to 1,050’, intake number one will begin sucking air. After that, the entire metro-area will be entirely reliant upon a single intake (intake no. 2), which sits at 1,000 feet.[4] And even that may be inadequate. Evidence suggests that Lake Mead could decrease in size to below 1,000 feet in the next decade.

Climate trends convinced the SNWA board that without a third intake, one much lower into the lake, two million people could lose access to their drinking water supply. Acting on Mulroy’s recommendation, in 2004 the board initiated the planning process for the new intake. Two primary considerations influenced the design of the third intake. The first was ensuring access to water no matter how low lake levels became. As previously noted, the lake could very well disappear in the coming decades. The design needed to be able to obtain water no matter how low water levels got, even if there was only a river.


Courtesy of SNWA

Second, the SNWA needed to guarantee access to a clean water supply. As the volume of water in Lake Mead decreased, the concentration of pollutants increased. The metropolitan area disposes of its sewage into Lake Mead via the Las Vegas wash. The wash debouches upstream of the first and second intake. Historically, this has not been an issue since the treated sewage is relatively warm and floats on the surface of Lake Mead. The SNWA typically withdraws water from the cooler and deeper depths of the lake. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, however, the distance between these two levels became increasingly small, evening out the temperature between the two. This increased the chances for drinking water contamination.

To meet these challenges, engineers considered several pipeline designs. The first was a submarine pipeline. The plan seemed simple enough—just lay a pipe along the bed of Lake Mead to a point upstream of the sewage outlay. After closer analysis, however, engineers realized this option was considerably more complex than their initial assumptions. Lake Mead does not possess a typical lakebed. It is a reservoir built in extremely variable terrain. Under this plan, the pipeline would cross several ridges and require a number of concrete support structures, all of varying dimensions. What’s more, the area is geologically unstable. Dozens of faults crisscross the area, and the lakebed is composed of both soft sedimentary deposits and hard volcanic rock. A pipeline of this nature was fraught with risks and worked against the entire point of the project—to bring stability to Las Vegas’s water resource options. Simply put, too many things could go wrong with an underground pipeline. As a result, the SNWA board rejected this preliminary option.

A second alternative was to anchor a pump to a barge on the surface of Lake Mead. This provided the advantage of being able to move the pump as environmental conditions changed, but this option had significant shortcomings as well. SNWA designers worried over how to provide the power that would be needed to lift water from Lake Mead and send it to the Authority’s treatment plants on shore. This would have required either electrical or combustible power, both of which were problematic. Officials were reticent to run electrical cables through the lake to the barge or stockpiling gasoline on the structure to keep the pumps running. The National Parks Service also had concerns about a semi-permanent structure being placed on the surface of Lake Mead. The lake is, after all, a unit in the National Park System. Additionally, a barge required a lake. The Authority’s planners were expecting a contingency in which Lake Mead disappeared. Lake Mead very well may recede to the point at which it is replaced by the Colorado River. A barge simply would not work on a flowing river.


Courtesy of SNWA

The only viable option from the Board’s perspective, then, was to tunnel underneath the lakebed to a point upstream of the sewage outflow. This was the only option that guaranteed access to a clean and reliable water source, and one that could also withstand the challenges of Lake Mead’s underwater topography. In short, it was the most reliable plan available to the SNWA to deliver water to the metropolitan area in an increasingly dry era. Unfortunately, this reliability came at a price—the tunnel option was the most complex, dangerous, and expensive, estimated to cost over 800 million dollars.[5] Despite the challenges, it was the best hope the SNWA had; in 2005, the Board endorsed the underground pipeline plan and voted to begin construction.[6]

Over the next decade, construction crews labored to excavate millions of tons of dirt and rock from beneath Lake Mead. Doing much of the work was a six hundred foot long boring device that inched forward thirty-five feet per day.[7] While work progressed underground, crews simultaneously built and installed the intake structure itself, three miles offshore. In late 2014, the tunneling crew intersected the intake structure, and workers began making the final adjustments to bring the pipeline into operation.

In addition to the financial cost, there was also a human toll. In 2011, a jet of pressurized water dislodged a section of the tunnel, which struck and killed Thomas Turner, a forty four year old father of two.[8] His death stands as a stark reminder of the difficulties the SNWA faced during construction and of the challenges of maintaining a metropolitan population of two million people in a desert environment.

In 2015, approximately twenty-five million people in seven states and two nations depended on the Colorado River, taxing both the legal and physical infrastructures that managed thousands of competing interests. Las Vegas figures prominently in media accounts covering environmental challenges in the Colorado River Basin. Invariably, reporters utilize the Bellagio fountains as a symbol of the hubris of attempting to live in the desert and the impending environmental catastrophe.[9] Las Vegas assumes the role of the canary in a coal mine over whether life in the desert is ultimately sustainable.


Courtesy of SNWA

While there may be some truth this assertion, it is highly simplistic. Most media treatments of water and Las Vegas do not fully recognize the level to which the Law of the River influences political, economic, and social trends in the Colorado Basin. Nor do they examine how twenty-first environmental trends are rendering the Law of the River obsolete. The SNWA has had to address a legally imposed shortage since its inception and has radically altered the manner in which Las Vegas residents use water. Colorado River users in other states have thus far had a much greater amount of water at their disposal and are only now being forced to address the challenges the SNWA faced the day it was created. Unless commentators, scholars, and politicians study the economic uses of water within the Basin and how the legal proscription against interstate water transfers uniquely penalizes Nevada, future negotiations over Colorado River water will lead nowhere.

The enormous scale of the third intake belies a basic reality about Las Vegas water policy. Even though the SNWA continues to build its largest capital works project to date, and even though the most severe drought in centuries persists, the Law of the River is still the most consequential factor dictating Las Vegas’s access to water. Long before the lake dwindles to the point at which it makes the engineering features of the third intake necessary, the Secretary of the Interior will impose a mandatory shortage upon the states of Arizona and Nevada. In 2007, delegates from Nevada, Arizona, and California agreed that Nevada and Arizona would accept limitations to their annual Colorado River allocations should lake levels continue to drop. California agreed to limit its consumption to 4.4 million acre-feet, its legal allotment. Previously the Golden state had been consuming an average of 5.1 million acre-feet. So, in a sense it was accepting a limitation on its water supply. Arizona and Nevada, on the other hand, will see their allocations decreased below their legal entitlements.

When Lake Mead drops to elevation 1,075’, the Secretary will withhold 13,000 acre-feet from Nevada’s normal allotment. The next round of cuts will occur when the lake reaches 1,050’. At that point, Nevada loses an additional 4,000 acre-feet of water.[10] Las Vegas’s water situation bears repeating, especially given the amount of coverage about the drought: potential water shortages in southern Nevada are entirely the result of legal stipulations.

Even though precipitation has decreased throughout the Colorado River Basin, there are still a number of ways to increase efficiency and send water to the urban areas that are now facing shortages. One method a number of state and local governments have already tried is to pay farmers to fallow fields and free up agricultural water for use elsewhere. In Southern California, this has had a significant effect, transferring tens of thousands of acre-feet per year from Imperial Valley farmers to coastal metropolitan areas. While this has proven beneficial to many in Southern California, this option does nothing for Nevada. The Law of the River prevents interstate transfers of Colorado River water. Las Vegas has no option to utilize water previously allocated to agriculture. None of the state’s Colorado River allocation was designated for agricultural use. As such, there is no water to transfer. And, as chapter four showed us, despite years of attempts, the other Colorado River Basin states have prevented Nevada from changing the Law of the River to allow interstate water transfers.

There is no doubt that climate change presents a major challenge to the states sharing the Colorado River. However, when considering these challenges one must first understand where the vast majority of Colorado River water is used. Approximately eighty-five percent of the Colorado’s water presently goes to agriculture. And much of this amount is used to irrigate alfalfa, a crop not for human consumption, but for livestock. According to the Pacific Institute, “ninety percent of pasture and cropland in the 256,000-mile Colorado River Basin requires irrigation, with about sixty percent of the irrigated acreage devoted to pasture, alfalfa, and other forage crops used to feed cattle and horses. These forage crops consume about five million acre-feet of Colorado River water per year, equivalent to a third of the river’s annual flow.”[11] There’s no question that more suitable areas farther east exist for raising cattle. Much of the nation’s supply of beef comes from places like Kansas, Texas, and Florida, all of which possess greater amounts of annual rainfall than the states in the Colorado River Basin.[12]

Agriculture in the Imperial Valley

Agriculture in the Imperial Valley

After agricultural interests take their legal entitlement from the Colorado, the Basin’s urban areas then divide the remaining fifteen percent. This urban population is substantial; ten of the nation’s fifty largest cities—over ten million urbanites—rely on the Colorado River for all or part of their water supply. This total does not include the hundreds of small to medium sized suburban enclaves also dependent on the Colorado.

Urban areas form the basis for the Colorado River Basin’s economy, and dwarf agriculture’s economic contribution. In 2011, the Imperial Valley, the most valuable agricultural area to use Colorado River water, generated just under two billion dollars in agricultural output.[13] While this amount may sound substantial, it pales in comparison to the economies of the coastal cities to the west. During the same period, the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana standard metropolitan statistical area generated nearly 750 billion dollars.[14] In fairness, Los Angeles does have a number of water sources it utilizes in addition to the Colorado River: the Owens and Los Angeles Rivers, and the Central California Aqueduct. However, Las Vegas, like the Imperial Valley, uses only Colorado River water, and the southern Nevada metropolis generated over ninety billion dollars during the same period.[15]

Furthermore, western American agriculture receives government-subsidized water. As Climate Scientist James Powell points out, “Imperial Valley farmers recently paid less than fifteen dollars per acre-foot, one twentieth the price of water in nearby San Diego.”[16] It should be noted, both Imperial Valley and San Diego rely on Colorado River water. Urban taxpayers are subsidizing water for farmers to grow crops that are either unneeded or grown more efficiently outside the Colorado River Basin. And while some supporters argue that these farms are growing the crops that feed the cities of the basin, this is only partially true, as significant portions of the Colorado River Basin’s agricultural production is exported to destinations around the globe.[17] In 2012, farmers in the Colorado River Basin exported the equivalent of over 150,000 acre-feet of water in hay alone.[18] This is half the amount of Las Vegas’s Colorado River allotment, an amount large enough to support nearly one million people.

The disparate economic relationship between rural areas and urban has existed within the Colorado River Basin for decades. However, in the twenty-first century, drought and climate change further complicated this tension. As the drought continues, the contrast between Colorado River water users that generate money and those that do not will become increasingly stark. As the relief between these competing demographics increases, political pressure will likely force a change. Given the increasing number of urban voters and persistent drought, lawmakers will inevitably be forced to shift water to the region’s cities. Likely, there will be a difficult political process in which state governments appropriate agricultural water rights (in a fashion similar to imminent domain seizures) for distribution to the region’s urban areas. This process is well underway in Arizona, California, and Colorado, all of which have seen transfers from agricultural to urban interests. However, in all these states, the transfers have thus far been temporary. Future transfers may be permanent. Regardless, these precedents suggest that the process will continue throughout the region, therefore making it unlikely that conditions in Las Vegas will reach crisis levels.

map basinAs the process of water redistribution in the Colorado River Basin progresses, the example of the SNWA can serve as a guide. The Las Vegas metro-area’s water agencies worked at cross-purposes for several decades. Their zeal to protect their water created so much tension among local politicians that commentators saw little reason for optimism. In the mid-1980s very few people would have predicted a time in which the region’s politicians and water managers would work together for the common good of the metropolitan area. But work together they did. As a result of environmental and legal pressure, these officials relinquished a significant amount of their autonomy and joined the SNWA. While the number of competing political interests in the Colorado River Basin is substantially greater than that of 1989 Las Vegas, the history of the SNWA can at least serve as a starting point. If nothing else, the SNWA example demonstrates that conflict is not the only option when negotiating for water.

Unless a fundamental change occurs to the Law of the River, however, the Las Vegas as a model scenario would be truly ironic. If, in the coming decades, state governments initiate a plan of agricultural to urban transfers, it would mark one the most significant political developments in the history of the Colorado River Basin. However, in order to be of benefit to southern Nevada, the Law of the River itself will need serious revision. As long as it prevents interstate transfers of water, it will not matter that other states shift agricultural water to their cities. This may help Denver and Salt Lake City, but it will do nothing for the Las Vegas metro-area. Unlike the other states, which have multiple users of Colorado River water, the SNWA possesses rights to the entirety of Nevada’s allocation. As a result, there is no agricultural water within Nevada to transfer to Las Vegas.

As part of the regional water rights shakeup, it would be reasonable then to propose the creation of a Colorado River Basin Water Authority, comprised of member agencies. Again, the SNWA model serves as a guide. One of the main reasons for the SNWA’s success was that under the Authority’s cooperative agreement, smaller agencies had the same political standing as the larger ones. This simple administrative feature created a shared destiny for the water agencies of the Las Vegas metro-area. They were all in their struggle together. It is time for the SNWA model to expand to the scale of the Colorado River Basin. Water shortage threatens each of the Colorado River Basin states, much like it did each of the Las Vegas metro area water agencies in 1989. It is reasonable to suggest that these seven states begin “thinking like a river basin” and accept their shared destiny and create an administrative agency that can manage the Colorado River as a single unit.[19]

It is necessary, then, to throw out the Law of the River as it is now written. Thus far, the various agreements among states have been a series of half measures. None of them fundamentally alter the structure of the Law of the River. Even with the 2007 sharing agreements in place, agriculture retains a favored position within the Colorado River Basin, courtesy of the Law of the River. A new Law of the River is needed if the urban centers of the Colorado River Basin states are to survive. These cities have proven to be the economic powerhouses of the Colorado River Basin, a status they will need to maintain if the regional prosperity is to continue. Agriculture, on the other hand, has been in decline for decades. It is now time to accept this reality and adopt a legal regime to suit. This trend is well underway, in no small part because of the efforts of the SNWA.


An environmental and public historian, Christian Harrison is currently working on a history of the Law of the Colorado River and of water use in Las Vegas. He is a life-long resident of the Silver State, and teaches American History at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and the College of Southern Nevada when not out exploring the Mojave with his children.

[1] Tim P. Barnett and David W. Pierce, “When will Lake Mead go dry?” Water Resources Research 44 (2008): W03201, doi:10.1029/2007WR006704. deBuys, William (2011-10-28). A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest. Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] Matt Jenkins, “The Water Czar who Reshaped Colorado River Politics,” High Country News, March 2, 2015.

[3] Conor Shine, “Lake Mead’s water levels expected to drop further to unseen levels,” Las Vegas Sun, April 24, 2015.

[4] Phoebe Sweet, “Lake’s ghost town seen as a warning,” Las Vegas Sun, 12 March 2008; James L. Powell, Dead Pool: Lake Powell, Global Warming, and the Future of Water in the West (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 183.

[5] Bronson Mack, Southern Nevada Water Authority Public Relations Officer, Power Point Presentation, Discovery Channel, October 23, 2013, author’s possession.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Kalee Thompson, “Last Straw: How the Fortunes of Las Vegas Will Rise or Fall With Lake Mead,” Popular Science Magazine, June 11, 2014, accessed April 26, 2015,

[8] Henry Brean and Laura Myers, “After seven years of digging, Vegas reaches its last straw,” Las Vegas Review-Journal, December 9, 2014.

[9] Alisa Barba, “Struggling over water: A series overview,” National Public Radio, 11 June 2007, available from, Internet, accessed 21 August 2013.

[10] Southern Nevada Water Authority, Lower Basin Tour Binder, Las Vegas, Southern Nevada Water Authority, 2008, author’s collection.

[11] Pacific Institute, “Water to Supply the Land: Irrigated Agriculture in the Colorado River Basin,” 9 May 2013, Internet, available from, accessed 18 August 2013.

[12] James L. Powell, Dead Pool: Lake Powell, Global Warming, and the Future of Water in the West (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 242-243; Powell draws a similar conclusion in his book. He calls into question the immutability of the Law of the River and argues that it was a politically created set of laws, and that it can, and must, be undone politically.

[13] California Agricultural Statistics Review, 2012-2013, Internet, available from, accessed 21 August 2013.

[14] Bureau of Economic Analysis, available from, Internet, accessed 18 August 2013.

[15] Bureau of Economic Analysis, available from, Internet, accessed 18 August 2013; Hal Rothman, “It’s time for a new law of the river” in River Basins of the American West: a High Country News Reader. ed. Char Miller (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2009); Charles Wilkinson, Crossing the Next Meridian: Land, Water, and the Future of the West (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1992); both authors call for a radical reorientation of natural resource policy in the American West. Rothman and Wilkinson point out that environmental and demographic realities are significantly different that when most natural resource policies were established. It is therefore time to craft policy to fit this new reality.

[16] James Lawrence Powell, Dead Pool: Lake Powell, Global Warming, and the Future of Water in the West (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2008), 83.

[17] Imperial Valley’s own website describes how the area exports produce throughout the nation. Imperial Valley Agriculture, available from, Internet, accessed 22 August 2013.

[18] Ben Jarvey, “Exporting the Colorado River to Asia, Through Hay,” National Geographic Magazine, January 23, 2014.

[19] Center for Natural Resources & Environmental Policy, The University of Montana, “Thinking Like a River Basin: Leaders’ Perspectives on Options and Opportunities in Colorado River Management,” Internet, available from, accessed 2 November 2013; It is from this report that I borrowed the phrase “thinking like a river basin.”


The Value of Public Lands: A Broad, Quiet Consensus


View of the Cherokee National Forest from Stratton Bald in the Nantahala National Forest. Photo by Chance Finegan.

By Chance Finegan

Back in late March, as Boston was struggling under record snowfall, as Sacramento was praying for rain, as Nashville was reveling in spring, the Senate took up Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s (R-AK) suggestion (officially, SA 838) that the federal government sell all public land save the national parks and national monuments.

In and of itself, ths is nothing particular noteworthy. Republican legislators from the West have a tendency to call for the wholesale disposal of public land on a regular basis. But this time, things are perhaps a bit different. The measure passed with a whopping 51 votes. 51 votes! Easterners and westerners alike supported it.

This includes Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), who represents my native state and is a former mayor of Chattanooga, a pleasant city of about 100,000 people nestled between the foothills of the Appalachians and the Tennessee River. During Mayor Corker’s tenure, the city exploded onto the southern tourism scene. Everyone wanted to be in Chattanooga – for the music, for the food, for the museums, and (perhaps most of all) for the outdoor recreation to be had in the adjacent Cherokee National Forest. In the summer of 1996, the Cherokee briefly dazzled the world as it hosted the whitewater events for the Atlanta Olympics.

Ironic, then, that Sen. Corker would see this land sold off to the highest bidder. Maybe he has forgotten how his city has prospered thanks in no small part to the massive national forest in his backyard. Or maybe he just wanted to be on record as yet again opposing the presumably big, bad, bumbling government.

I would argue, though, that Sen. Corker’s vote is indicative of a larger problem – the idea that public land belongs only to its nearby residents and that they are best-suited to manage it is forged in a crucible created by small minority with a loud voice. A voice that has drowned out the voices of those who value public land.

Consider the following:

Colorado College’s annual State of the Rockies Project consists, in part, of surveys that “explore opinions in each state and for the six-state region [Arizona, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming] concerning conservation, environment, energy, the role of government, trade-offs with economies, and citizen priorities.” The 2015 survey found, among other things, that:

  • Nearly 70% of Western voters view public lands as ‘American’ and belonging to everyone rather than only to local residents.
  • A majority of voters in every state in the survey believe this, as does a majority of self-identified Tea Party members.
  • Over double the number of people believe the top priority for public lands is ‘protecting and conserving natural areas for future generations’ than the number of people who believe it is ‘making sure resources…are available for development’ (82% vs 40%)

When considering Millennials in the West (age 18-32; America’s largest living generation) only, the results become even more lop-sided:

  • 85% of Millennials support the use of the Antiquities Act.
  • 79% of Millennials ‘worry about children growing up today not spending enough time outside.’
  • 75% of Millennials believe the federal government needs to continue to protect public lands from development.
  • 60% of Millennials oppose the sale of public lands to reduce the federal deficit.

That public lands continue to enjoy broad support from across the political spectrum is clear. What is less clear, however, is if the 51 senators who voted to sell off all public land save the parks and monuments are listening to or can even hear the voices of those who believe in the value of public land. The perpetual calls for devolvement of public land to the states and private citizens are loud. Will 70% of all Western voters be heard above those calls? 85% of Millennials in the West?

Chance N. Finegan holds a Bachelor of Science in natural resources management from the University of Tennessee and a Master of Public Policy from the University of Northern Iowa.  He has served federal and state conservation agencies and non-profit organizations in a variety of capacities.  Chance holds professional certification as an interpretive guide through the National Association for Interpretation.  Chance will begin his studies as a doctoral student in environmental studies at York University in September, where he will examine the relationship between indigenous people and national park managers.

This entry is cross-posted at