Rounding the Four Corners – December 2013

With the publishing of this article comes the end of an era.  This installation of “Rounding the Four Corners” – which started out as “Rock Talk” in the early days of Gallup Journey history – is Larry Larason’s last.  We are incredibly grateful for the many years and many words he has shared with us and our readers!  We wish him the best for whatever adventures lie ahead.  Thanks, Larry, you rock!

Arizona Declares War on California!

By Larry Larason

Remember when Arizona nearly started a new civil war?  Well, probably not.  It happened in 1934.  That’s before even I was born.  What caused the dispute?  Water.

In 1934 water was in short supply across much of the nation.  This was the era of the dust bowl on the high plains.  A severe drought was crippling agriculture in several parts of America.  Hoover Dam was under construction; it was started in 1931 and completed two years ahead of schedule in 1936.  But in 1934 construction of another dam on the Colorado was begun by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation near Parker, Arizona.  When the governor of Arizona learned of this action, he declared martial law on the east bank of the river and sent 100 National Guard members to defend the sovereign soil of his state.  What led up to this?

There’s an old saying that in the American West, “Whiskey’s for drinkin’, water’s for fightin’.”  This sounds like something that Mark Twain might have said, and the remark is often attributed to him, although Twain scholars have never been able to verify that he said or wrote it.

Parker Dam Gallup Journey

View of Parker Dam on the Colorado River from California side. (Photo by Larry Page)

Disputes about the Colorado River, the only major stream in the Southwest, began early.  In the West we have the Law of Prior Apportionment that says the first party to claim use of a water source has rights to it forever.  California began claiming river water at the beginning of the twentieth century.  The other Colorado River states sensed a threat, although they had little use for the water at that time, and formed a compact in 1922 that divided the water between the two basins the river flows through.  The Upper Basin – Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico – claimed half the water.  The Lower Basin – California, Nevada, and Arizona – claimed the other half.  [Why is New Mexico included in the Upper Basin?  Because the San Juan River is a major tributary to the Colorado.]  After some legal wrangling, in 1928 the U.S. Secretary of the Interior came up with allotments for the lower basin:  California received 59 percent, Arizona 37 percent, and Nevada only 4 percent.

Consider this: the river forms the border between Arizona and California, but on the west bank of the river is a desert lying in the rain shadow of the Sierra Mountains.  So California’s contribution to the river’s flow is almost nothing, but it claims the lion’s share of the water.  One of the major reasons for the building of Hoover Dam was to provide irrigation water for California’s Imperial and Coachella Valleys.  Given the perceived unfairness of this situation, seeing California as a water bully, Arizona refused to sign off on the Colorado River Compact.  It was only in 1944 that they finally agreed to it.

The fourth governor of Arizona, Benjamin Baker Moeur, was a physician, who had grown up in Tennessee and relocated to Tempe in 1896.  As a physician he was considered compassionate; as a politician he was noted for his short temper and salty language.   When he sent the National Guard to Parker, he told them to do whatever was necessary to protect the sacred soil of Arizona.  The guardsmen took him at his word and even transported machine guns with them.  Although no shots were fired and no one was hurt, facing armed military men with menacing weapons brought a swift halt to the construction work.  The issue ended in court with a suit brought by the Department of the Interior.  The national press had a lot of fun at the expense of Governor Moeur, but he had the last laugh.  The Supreme Court surprised everyone by siding with Arizona.  They ruled that the dam had not been authorized by Congress and California had no right to build it without the consent of Arizona.  After some negotiations took place, work began again.  The dam was finished in 1938.

Parker Dam was financed by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. However, since construction, it is owned by the Bureau of Reclamation.  Building the dam was difficult.  Deep excavation was necessary to reach bedrock for footing the concrete; the dam is 320 feet high, but 235 feet of that [73 percent] of the structure lies below the river bed.  The reservoir behind the dam is called Lake Havasu.  It provides water to two major aqueducts.  The first, and the reason for its construction, is the Colorado River Aqueduct, which sends close to one billion gallons of water to greater Los Angeles and San Diego each day.  The second is the Central Arizona Project Aqueduct, which was begun in 1973, that serves mainly Phoenix and Tucson.  Electricity is also generated by the Parker Dam, but half of it is used to pump the water to Southern California.

Access to Colorado River water has been and will continue to be contentious.  I came across a concise list of legal actions in this regard on the internet; it may have been concise, but it was longer than I wanted to read.  The water wars are not over but now they are fought in the courts, especially as Indian tribes and Mexico assert their rights to the water.  Part of the problem is that the river’s flow was measured before 1922 and the results were used in designing the compact; but more recent studies have shown that those numbers did not reflect the actual average annual flow.  The allotments made, and California wants more; at least once it was ordered to stop exceeding its allotment.
Drought has left the major reservoirs on the Colorado, Lakes Powell and Mead, at about half their capacities.  They are disbursing more water than they receive.  So, we can promise as much as 25 percent more than the amount of water that is really available.  Expect more dissatisfaction and disagreements in the future.  In 2008 Senator John McCain said that the compact should be scrapped and negotiations undertaken to design a new plan.  I think he was right.

1 Comment

  • mary ann gove (AZ native, writer, columnist) says:

    Keep up the dialog. More folks need to know how important water conservation is.

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