of the Intermontane West in the latter half of the 19th Century was one of boom and bust mining
camps; many mining camps only lasted a decade or a few decades before
collapsing.The Mormon Migration to Utah demonstrated that through diligence one
could establish an agrarian based society even in a very arid western environment.The
Bureau of Reclamation was created in 1902 to develop irrigation projects in the
West; the idea was to foster a cadre of family farms.Finally, the Bureau turned
to dams and power generation in an effort to subsidize its poorly paying
projects.Even so, the Intermontane West developed a ranching agriculture.While
some people think of cattle ranching as a 20th
century activity, I will show that a cattle ranching is still the dominant form
of agriculture in much of the Intermontane West.
West grew in population during our period of interest; the population of the
nine states considered here more than doubled since 1960(Figure 1).
population increases were in California, Arizona, Colorado, and Nevada;states
that are urbanizing.
the lifeblood of the West, and has been since the Mormons demonstrated that the
West would bloom if water could be brought to the land. This paper deals with
water use in nine western states-states that are generally referred to as the Intermontane
West, with one additional state California.California is included because its
geography and much of its climate, especially in southern California, is
similar to much of the adjoining states of Arizona and Nevada.The water supply
of southern California is intimately tied to the Colorado River.
years the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) publishes a national summary of water
use.Their data show the water withdrawn from the hydrologic system going back
to 1960. (After collecting data, it takes the USGS another five years to
analyze and publish the information-the last published information is for
increased from 1960 through 1985; during this period the growth in withdrawals
generally kept pace with the population growth (Figure
1).After 1985 water withdrawals declined. The decline was marked from
2005 to 2010; looking at the state data the declines after 2000 were especially
large in California, Colorado, and Montana.The question is why the decline in
withdrawal after 1985?
Why a Decline in Withdrawals?
answer is the U.S. stopped building dams. Large scale dam building started in
the U.S. in the 1930s with the first project being Hoover (Boulder) dam on the
Colorado River. It was followed by numerous other large dams: Bonneville on the
Columbia River, numerous dams of the Tennessee River Authority, Fort Peck and
other dams on the Missouri River, among others.It was a 45-year era of dam
building financed by the Federal Government; only the Federal Government had
the resources to build these huge projects.Dams have multiple purposes: flood
control, recreation, navigation, and water supply for various purposes.The dams
facilitate additional water supply by storing water during periods of high
runoff for use later.In the West they store spring runoff.
The era of
dam building ended in the 1980s as the country turned away from further dam
building--finding other uses for scarce funds.The capacity of dams built in the
U.S. during the 20th Century
substantially increased during 1920-1980 (Figure 3).
3 illustrates the country’s craze for
dam building in the decades of 1940s through the 1980s. The fact that major dam
building ended in the 1980s meant that the water supply in the semi-arid West
was fixed; it no longer grew.This is reflected in the withdrawal data (Figure 2).
manages its water resources.The Doctrine of Prior Appropriation guided
development of surfacewater in most western states.Good water rights on the
principal streams of the West date back to the 1800s.By the mid-20th Century all of the reliable surface water in
the West was spoken for-someone laid claim to all of it.
A new user
coming into the system must acquire his or her water from an established user
because all available surface water has been previously appropriated, and those
earlier water rights have seniority.The fact that all the water is currently
used has led various authors to suggest that there is a crisis in water
availability.Society generally allocates commodities using a market; however,
there is a very limited market in water.Water is administered and allocated as
a public good by a variety of federal, state, and local agencies.
A number of authorscommented on water resources; among them:Postal
and Pearce addressed a global water
shortage.Worsted, Reisner , Hundley , and
Glennon [20,21]focused on regional and local
problems in the United States.Perhaps more than other authors,Glennon  thought that the
situation was in crisis; he titled his book Unquenchable: America’s Water
Crisis and What to Do about It.
is defined as a problem that needs immediate attention.If the fact that all the
water reliably available in the West is claimed by someone constitutes a crisis,
it implies that all the current water uses should continue unabated.The
dominant water user is irrigation; a water crisis further suggests that the
current irrigated agriculture should continue unchanged.Remaining unchanged is
unrealistic as this analysis indicates.
Reisner’s book Cadillac Desert: the American West and its Disappearing Water,
while published in 1986, is still a classic description of the water resources
of the West.In 1992, Reisner published a second edition of Cadillac Desert.For
this later edition Reisner wrote a lengthy afterword that expressed his view of
the western water world in 1992.Reisner stated:
It’s only recently-mainly in the years since this book first appeared-that Westerners have begun
to ask where their water goes, what it costs, and what it earns.This inquiry
may produce the most revolutionary results since the Reclamation Act.Unfortunately,
Reisner died in 2000 at age 51-a great loss to the community. This paper is
written in the spirit of Reisner’s remarks.
water use data shows that all of the available reliable water was being used by
the 1980s. From that point onward, the water supply could not grow to keep up
with the population growth.Withdrawals actually declined after 1985.The
withdrawal declined further in 2005 and 2010 in response to drought, further
evidence that all the water was being used by someone.
dominant use of water in all these states is irrigation; it is of interest to
see how water is used in this activity.
above, all the water available was spoken for-the USGS water use data indicates
this (Figure2).Meanwhile the population
increased (Figure 1), especially in the
southwest, and Colorado were rapidly urbanizing.It is enlightening to look at
how water is used by irrigation, the dominant water use(Figure
in the nine states, except Nevada, the percentage of water withdrawal going to
irrigation is more than 70 percent.Nevada is skewed by withdrawals for Las
Vegas, and the fact that there is limited irrigation in Nevada.In five of the
nine states, the percentage of water withdrawn going to irrigation is more than
California, there is a constant tension over water between the environmental
community and the irrigated farming community.The environmentalists argue for
more water being left in the stream to support the aquatic ecosystem,
especially salmon.The farmers argue for more water for irrigation to grow the
country’s food supply.Both groups are ardent and vocal. Both perspectives have
states a large part of the withdrawals is supplied by groundwater (Figure 5).
largest groundwater withdrawals are in California (San Joaquin Valley), and in
Idaho (Snake River Plain aquifer).Much of the groundwater pumped in California
is from aquifers that are in overdraft; groundwater is being “mined” in
California, especially in the San Joaquin Valley.The legislature of California
moved in 2016 to bring groundwater pumping under State control; however, the
groundwater law will not be fully implemented until 2040.Most other western
states had long since moved to control groundwater development.
enlightening to look at what crops are irrigated.A question arises as how to
make this analysis.Every 5 years the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)
conducts a Census of Agriculture: the last Census was 2012. The Census reports
the value of agricultural products sold in the U.S. by state (Figure 6).
stands out; approximately one-half of what the U.S. eats on the table is grown
in California.The value of the California crops is ten percent of the total
value of the nation’s agriculture.The category of “other” in
includes cotton, rice, and alfalfa.The only other two states with significant
vegetable products are Arizona (lettuce) and Idaho (potatoes). Table 1 shows the acreage being irrigated for selected
interest is that there is more than 1 million acres of rice, approximately
175,000 acres of cotton, and more than 650,000 acres alfalfa grown in
California in 2013.Otherwise the pattern of irrigated acreage reflects the
value of crops depicted in Figure 6.
to Figure 6, cattle are ubiquitous in all nine
states, and dairies are present in all states except Montana and Wyoming.Cattle
ranching is certainly still a viable agricultural enterprise.The Census of
Agriculture counts the numbers of cattle (Figure 7).
are approximately 18 million beef cattle in the nine western states, this
represents less than 20 percent of the total cattle population of the U.S.It is
worth reminding ourselves of the value of cattle and dairy products in the nine
inter-mountains states-more than $25 billion (Figure 8).
illustrates that cattle ranching is ubiquitous throughout the nine
states.Dairies are also important in California, Idaho, and New Mexico.A large
fraction of irrigated land is devoted to growing feed crops(Figure 9).
Six of the
nine states-Colorado, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming-devote
more than 50 percent of the irrigated land to feed crops; in five of the states
the percent going to feed is more than 60 percent.Feed is both for cattle and
dairies as shown in Figure 8.
draw a number of conclusions from theforgoing information:
All of the available water is claimed (appropriated); the
USGS water use data confirms this.
Some authors have suggested that there is a water crisis.Others suggest that
diverting water away from agriculture will impact the nation’s food supply.
Only California, Idaho, and Arizona grow significant amounts of vegetables.Only
California has significant fruit, nuts, and vineyard agricultural products.Ten percent
of the nation’s agricultural products are grown under irrigation in
California.A decrease in water supply in California could impact seriously the
nation’s food supply.
In all of the states considered, except for Nevada, more
than 70 percent withdrawn goes to irrigation.Even
individuals who recognize that irrigation takes lots of water are surprised by
the fraction of the total water withdrawals that go to agriculture. In five of
the nine states more than 80 percent goes to irrigation.Even in California
almost three quarters of the water withdrawn goes to agriculture.Except for
Montana and Wyoming, groundwater is an important part of the water supply.
Cattle’s ranching is a traditional agricultural activity in
the West.Ranching in the West is subsidized by cheap water from
Bureau of Reclamation projects, and by grazing permits on the public
land.Grazing rights are treated like property rights and are passed along from
seller to buyer when ranches are sold.Cattle’s ranching is deeply entrenched in
the five states that devote more than 60 percent of irrigation water to feed
crops (Figure 9).Approximately 20 percent of the
cattle raised in the U.S are raised in these nine western states where ranching
is so much of the culture.Nevertheless, cattle can be raised throughout the
U.S.; they are not unique to the West where it takes lots of water to raise
cows.A decrease in water for ranching probably would not greatly impact the
nation’s supply of beef.
The drought in the West during the 21st Century has caused irrigators in the San
Joaquin valley among other places to pump groundwater very aggressively.One can
see the impact of the drought in the withdrawal data depicted in Figure 2; there is a marked decrease in withdrawals in
California in 2005 and 2010.
Groundwater has made up in part for a lack of surface water; groundwater
pumping has gone on virtually uncontrolled by the state. Whether this drought over
the Southwest is a harbinger of Climate Change or the result of normal wet and
dry cycles is still being debated; even so, it places further stresses the
New users coming into the system obtain water either from
conservation, reuse, pumping groundwater, or from a transfer from agriculture. Parts of the Intermontane West are growing rapidly,
especially Nevada, Arizona, California, and Colorado.Most investigators agree
that there are structural impediments to moving water from one sector of the
economy to another sector.Looking again at Figure 4,
one finds that the percentage of water withdrawn devoted to irrigation declined
from 2000 to 2010 in every state except Wyoming.The declines over the 10-year
period ranged from 5 to 10 percent.This indicates that even in the face of
impediments water is being diverted away from agriculture at a rate of between
one half and one percent per year. Raising beef is the activity that will be
hit hard as water is diverted away from agriculture.The diverted water goes to
support urbanization.The old adage may be cynical, but it is still appropriate:
Water moves uphill to money.
Rogers and Leal ,
while admitting there are water problems, provide a more hopeful look in which
they suggest ways society can conserve and reuse, thus extending the supply.
West urbanizes, water will continue to be diverted from irrigation to urban
use.As suggested above, the rate of the shift will be slow but inexorable.It is
inevitable so long as long as urbanization continues. Over time cattle ranching
seems likely to decline in importance as water is diverted away.