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Why is water in the west so complicated? Fresno State professor dives in with new book

Tom Holyoke

Water policy in the west is complicated and convoluted.

And, according to Fresno State political science professor Tom Holyoke, there’s a reason for that. In his new book, Water Politics, Holyoke explores the political pressures as well as competing interests from industrial water users, developers and environmental groups that have shaped and shifted water policy over the last century.

In this interview, Holyoke sat down with KVPR’s Kerry Klein to discuss the origins and fragmentation of “reclamation policy,” which originally came about to capture water for westward migrants and small-scale farmers.

Listen to the interview in the player on this page, and read the transcript below.

TOM HOLYOKE: Reclamation policy was originally designed to bring really the unemployed masses of the East out into the West for small-scale farming. The idea was that there was a lot of unused land or, at least, land that the government considered to be unused. The natives living there might have had a different idea on the matter, but no one asked them. So the federal government was going to provide infrastructure—dams and canals—to impound water from the West's few flowing rivers and make that available for irrigation so that these small scale farmers could thrive out there. That was the original intention. There was not supposed to be any farms in excess of 168 acres. And then, within a few decades, this reclamation policy transforms into providing irrigation water on truly vast scales, you know, providing water for a lot of the great mega farms we have here in California or in Arizona or in Colorado. But even more than that, it becomes a major water provider for a lot of the big cities. In fact, we would not had the kind of urban growth we have seen in the west without reclamation policy.

KERRY KLEIN: Right. And so how did that change come about?

HOLYOKE: Well, political pressure, really. When reclamation policy was initially enacted, we were still in what we refer to as the “progressive era,” a time when the government was seen as a positive, proactive force that was, you know there to help the little guy out. Within a couple decades, that mindset went away, people started to see government as more problematic. And [the Bureau of] Reclamation itself was hurting itself because they were not implementing their policy particularly well. The people who worked for Reclamation were good engineers, but they knew almost nothing about agriculture. So they started to have all these settlements on extremely poor land. And farmers were just not making it, and they’d complain to Congress, Congress gets angry. So Reclamation was faced with extinction by the 1930s. So in order to survive, they had to adapt and they adapted by becoming this, you know, service agency for big city growth and for big agricultural growth, abandoning its original social mission to bring the unemployed out for small-scale farming.

KLEIN: And then you argue that reclamation policy evolved to be there to serve all interests and, in doing so, that meant that it kind of served none of those interests particularly well.

HOLYOKE: Yeah well, any kind of policy that tries to do that suffers that fate. If you try to please everybody, you please nobody. But I mean, to explain that a little bit more, by the 1950s and 60s, American attitudes had begun to change. Environmentalism arises first as just an awareness amongst people that, you know, we've really done a lot of damage to the environment around us. And of course that includes water and then it became a political force, something that galvanized people into taking political action. And we wanted to do things, to clean up the rivers, stop fish species from going extinct, and that was really very much at odds with reclamation policy. Because reclamation policy was causing these things to happen. Reclamation tried to adapt, again under a great deal of political pressure, to become a bit more of a water management agency than a building agency. But it still tried to keep the building mission there too, because that was also serving a political constituency. So by trying to serve constituencies with needs that were on cross purposes with each other, that meant Reclamation couldn't actually serve anybody. The only thing that people that everybody could agree on was that Reclamation was doing a terrible job.

KLEIN: Right, and you mentioned the environmental movement. And you discuss how that was actually a driving force for this policy fragmentation over time.

HOLYOKE: Absolutely. You know, environmentalism really gets it start with dealing with water and federal government water policy through the Bureau of Reclamation. Even long before we had famous books like Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, we already, years earlier, had people like David Brower at the Sierra Club acting to stop the government from building dams in national parks and national monuments.

KLEIN: Right, and so the environmental movement may have had a lot of successes in terms of what they were advocating for with the government, but in effect they also kind of weakened water policy and reduced how consistent it was in sort of regulating and managing water.

HOLYOKE: Right. I mean, ultimately what they wanted to do was turn government water policy into something else. They didn't succeed at that. They succeeded in stopping the government's water policy, reclamation policy, but they weren't able to capture it entirely, because the political forces that they were fighting were still pretty strong.

KLEIN: So now here we are, a century after some of this original reclamation policy. What are the consequences of such fragmented water policy in the U.S. in particularly in the west?

HOLYOKE: Kerry, we see it all around us here in the San Joaquin Valley. We see all this fighting between farmers and environmentalists over water allocations through the federal government's Central Valley Project and its cousin the California State Water Project, which used to provide water on a pretty reliable basis to farmers here in the valley. Then, after the environmentalists won some pretty significant political victories and court victories, now farmers from year to year don't know what they're going to get. But that's because the environmentalists are able to keep significant amounts of water in rivers in order to restore fish species, or at least prevent them from going extinct. So because the environmentalists have won some battles, but have not been successful in dismantling the entire reclamation system—which I think it's fair to say they would like to do that—instead, we have this fragmentation, where, maybe we'll save the delta smelt and salmon from going extinct, maybe not, no one quite seems to know. Maybe agriculture will be able to survive in the Valley, although, at a reduced production level, it's not clear.

KLEIN: Is there a way that reclamation policy could be improved and could be better? Or is it just going to be impossible to serve everyone and make everyone happy because there's not enough water?

HOLYOKE: Well I think now that we're at a point where the various sides have completely exhausted themselves. You know, we've gone through two decades now of litigation and efforts to lobby Congress, which really, those are battles that no one really won and everyone's exhausted now. The best way to handle any situation like this is to reduce tensions by increasing the supply of water. Well, that of course is an extremely difficult thing to do, especially in a drought-prone environment. But it's not impossible. And this doesn't rely on anything like, you know, cloud seeding or technology like that that doesn't work. It requires, first off, being able to use water more efficiently in people's homes. We can learn to use water more efficiently, and we've made some strides in that, but actually urban waste is one of the biggest problems with water. Agriculture has actually done relatively well in terms of efficiency. But probably the biggest thing is to be better at water recycling. California is not actually that good at water recycling, using water multiple times. That is a good way to increase water supplies, by simply taking the same amount of water and using it again and again and again. And we can do that with water purification. In fact, using water on crops does not necessarily mean re-purifying it to the same level where people can drink it. And of course there's other things out there, you know, desalination is going to relieve some of the pressure too. But desalination is an energy intensive process, and then what are you going to do with the wastewater the brine that comes away from that? No one's figured that one out yet that I'm aware of.

KLEIN: Right. Tom Holyoke, political science professor at Fresno State. Thank you so much for speaking with me. This is a really interesting book.

HOLYOKE: Thank you, Kerry.

Kerry Klein is an award-winning reporter whose coverage of public health, air pollution, drinking water access and wildfires in the San Joaquin Valley has been featured on NPR, KQED, Science Friday and Kaiser Health News. Her work has earned numerous regional Edward R. Murrow and Golden Mike Awards and has been recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalists and Society of Environmental Journalists. Her podcast Escape From Mammoth Pool was named a podcast “listeners couldn’t get enough of in 2021” by the radio aggregator NPR One.