Water Conservation, Yesterday and Today: A Story of History, Culture and Politics
Recently very much center stage and in the spotlight, water conservation seems to be an idea whose time has come. If, however, we define water conservation as the careful use of water to better maintain current supplies, then water conservation is not a recent development. What is relatively new is our current perception of water conservation.
Water conservation has been practiced in one form or another in what is now Arizona for a very long time, ever since the first humans arrived. Upon observing the scarcity of water in these desert lands, early inhabitants then calculated what efforts would be required to live with the available supply. They then lived their lives to fit the arid conditions of the area, taking care that the sparse water supplies were carefully and fairly used.
Now fast forward to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: Later arrivals, now called Arizonans, also confronted desert dryness and lived accordingly, but due to their technological prowess, they soon found ways to circumvent arid conditions. In the face of water scarcity, they built concrete dams, reservoirs and canals, to capture, store and deliver water. They sought new supplies by pumping water from underground and later from distant locations.
Backed by the wealth and power of the federal government, many Arizonans in the early and mid-twentieth century believed new water supplies would be forthcoming to meet whatever future needs might arise. These were the salad days of water resources development. During these times, Arizona had as little interest in water conservation as it did in developing its own foreign policy. In fact, many Arizonans at this time likely viewed water conservation as a foreign policy.
(In truth, a utilitarian version of water conservation was being honored. Espoused by Gifford Pinchot, U.S. Forest Service head and close associate of Theodore Roosevelt, this philosophy advocated using natural resources to the best benefit of humankind, with resources developed for "the greatest good, for the greatest number, for the longest time.")
Whatever illusions Arizonans might have had about unlimited water supplies were eventually cut short by reality. Projects to obtain additional water supplies were proving to be prohibitively costly, both economically and environmentally. Not only that, but all the available water sources had been tapped, and Arizona had run out of renewable water supplies to exploit. A federal water resource project of grandiose proportions, the Central Arizona Project stands as a monument to the Age of the Big Water Project, its last hurrah.
Water managers now increasingly turned to what economists call "demand management" or, in other words, water conservation measures. This represented a major shift in the managing of water resources. Practiced in the past to help resolve problems of water shortages, water conservation now gained official status, to be used to help resolve the dilemma of attempting to meet growing water demands with insufficient supplies. What was previously provided by new water development projects — pumps, canals, reservoirs, etc. — would henceforth be accomplished by public media messages, printed materials, education programs, rebate and retrofit device offers, landscape and plumbing ordinances and changes in water rate structures and price levels. Water conservation entered its modern phase.
Water Conservation as Idea
The following brief review of the current status of water conservation in the state is to encourage a broader understanding of the concept, beyond the view that water conservation begins and ends with the do's and don't's of saving water. For example, in line with most people's understanding of water conservation, a Connecticut water utility offers a brochure titled, "Water Conservation Starts by Fixing Leaks..." As the previous discussion demonstrates, however, water conservation is more than fixing leaks, installing low-flush toilets and planting desert vegetation. Water conservation also can be viewed as an idea that has evolved over time, in response to various historical, cultural and political forces.
In this light, it is not an exaggeration to consider water conservation as an exercise in democracy. Citizens are participating directly in a community cause when they practice water conservation. Unlike lawmaking, which involves citizens indirectly as they vote for candidates who then write and pass laws, water conservation involves direct citizen action. A householder either does or does not conserve water. And just as informed voters make better choices at the polls, consumers who more fully understand water conservation, its historical, political and cultural implications, are more likely to have a greater interest in saving water. Following, therefore, is a course of study of water conservation, its theory and practice, beginning with early frontier times.
The above families did not think of themselves as practicing water conservation. In fact, Stegner speaks of the "folklore of water" when relating his family's early water-saving experiences. Before law and public policy ruled the land, what was done to live in a land of scarce water reflected the customs, beliefs and traditions of the people settled there. Yet, at the same time, their efforts surely would meet the Environmental Protection Agency's definition of water conservation: "Water conservation consists of any beneficial reduction in water losses, waste, or use."
Such stories of life on the frontier often are told to flaunt the bravado of rugged Old West individuals, to show that they are a race apart from contemporary westerners. They may or may not have been. What the stories do clearly demonstrate, however, is that water conservation in this setting was an unavoidable task, another necessary chore to perform like planting crops and milking cows. Success at conserving water determined whether or not a family coped with frontier conditions. Further, by carefully using water, frontier folks recognized and accepted the limitations of the natural environment. The psychology of water conservation operated at a very basic level. The politics of water conservation did not yet exist.
This is Pete the Beak in 1982, with the secret words, "Beat the Peak"
Early City Dwellers Save Water
Dwellers of early urban areas — or what passed for urban areas on the frontier — faced their own challenges for getting and using water. Americans occupying the former Spanish Presidio of Tucson relied on the services of water vendors for some of their water supplies. Each morning a water vendor would drive his burros to a spring, to fill hide or canvas bags. His stock replenished, the vendor would then herd his laden burros through the dusty or muddy village streets, announcing in song that water was for sale, five cents per bucket.
Later, carts replaced burros, enabling the vendor to carry more water, thus increasing delivery capacity. More water could now be delivered more efficiently. A bucket of water sold for five cents, with payment made either at the time of delivery or weekly. Door jambs served as ledgers, with vendors recording amounts due on the strips of wood.
Early Tucsonans, however, had other sources of water when less high quality water would serve the purpose at hand. In efforts to stretch their budgets, residents reserved the pricey, five-cent water for drinking and relied on other sources of water for various household uses. For example, wastewater irrigated trees and gardens, and Santa Cruz River water would be fetched for bathing and laundry.
Viewed in a modern context, the water vendor might be considered the precursor of a water utility. Early residents of the Old Pueblo now become water consumers. This is a significant moment in the history of water conservation in the state, with both water provider and water consumer sharing an interest in the economics of water. The water vendor or provider seeks profits, and residents want the most goods or services from their expenditures. Water conservation becomes an economic strategy to help balance the household budget. In this context, water becomes mainly a commodity. The folklore of water is replaced by the economy of water. Early Tucson residents appear to be practicing water conservation partly as we understand the concept.
(Perhaps two stories of Saturday night baths might dramatize this difference in attitudes about water, between water as a respected and valued resource and water as a commodity. Previously, Juanita Brooks was quoted describing how Saturday bath water would serve several needy bathers before being used for laundry and cleaning, then to water plants. In Flagstaff, another kind of bath-time ethic arose. Local legend tells of the custom of checking downtown saloons on bath night for neighbors with piles of chips before them. Such individuals were likely to be long occupied in playing poker. Their unguarded water barrels were soon emptied to provide an ample and luxurious bath to an unscrupulous opportunist. Both of these accounts are of people taking best advantage of available water resources, but with a striking difference.)
Individuals engaged in conserving water to maintain life on the frontier might represent a personal commitment to careful water use. With increased settlement and with more people competing for limited water resources, water use became a community concern and cooperation a necessity, for one and all to survive. When agreements or laws were worked out to determine water use, community attitudes and values played an important role. Since water conservation is the flip side of water use, examining these attitudes and values will provide some clues to understanding certain public responses to water saving strategies in this region.
Water and Culture
Depending upon the perspective, water can take on many meanings, whether interpreted by a hydrologist, a lawyer or a farmer, to name just three interests. Not often thought of as a commentator on water, an anthropologist also might have something to say on the subject. This is because water can be thought of as cultural artifact, with various cultures and societies interpreting its significance differently. For example, three early cultures to have inhabited Arizona and the Southwest — Indian, Spaniard and American — valued water in different ways. A brief discussion of how each of these cultures valued water will show some compatibility and incompatibility with modern water conservation sensibilities.
Indian In many traditional Indian societies water had a spiritual significance and was prominent in myth and ritual. Rain might be considered a blessing and drought a punishment, with humans benefitting or suffering depending upon what they did or failed to do. For example, the Tohono O'odham perform a saguaro ceremony to bring rain.
For some tribes, nature had an intrinsic value unto itself, beyond whatever physical benefits it provided humans. Some tribes even attributed thoughts and feelings to animals, plants, stones and springs. More than a physical reality of various categories
— water, minerals, plants, and animals
— nature formed an interconnecting web,
with the boundary between the human and nonhuman not always clearly drawn. Some tribes even believed that humans, through their own efforts or the machinations of others, can take on the form of rocks or become trees, coyotes, fish, ducks or other creatures.
The idea that water can be owned, to be bartered or sold, was foreign to many Indians. Water like land transcended the needs or desires of any individual, or even group of individuals; instead water was an essential element of nature to be shared by humans, animals and plants.
Spanish To the Spanish, nature was not sacrosanct. What it bestowed — rivers and streams, woodlands, minerals, soils and animal and plant life — might be considered a divine gift, but one to be subdued and exploited for the glory of God and civilization. Las Siete Partidas, a 1265 codification of Spanish law used as the basis for the legal system in the New World, stated, "Man has the power to do as he sees fit with those things that belong to him according to the laws of God and man." Above all else, however, water was to be used to ensure survival of families and local communities.
To the Spanish, ownership of water was not a troubling issue. Spanish law clearly determined the crown to be the preeminent owner of lands and waters in the New World. The crown, or more likely its designees, could either grant ownership or merely temporary use. Until such allocations were made, New World settlers shared the royal patrimony.
Adopted about 1783, the Plan of Pitic defined community water rights along what is now northern Mexico and the U.S. Southwest. Basic to the plan was the right of all citizens to share the town's water, along with other natural resources. Since water was for the benefit of all, no one possessed a superior right, to be applied to the disadvantage of fellow residents. Neither a person nor a family could claim rights to specific volumes of water. The quantity varied according to individual and community needs and the available supply.
Americans With the Americans came another understanding of water, one more suitable for a nation of individuals, with each citizen believing in a right to pursue a personal destiny, even if the quest is not in the best community interest.
To the Americans the western lands were a treasure trove, their gifts for the taking. Like the Spanish, the Americans valued the environment, not because of any intrinsic values of its own, but as a means of political, social and economic gain. An essential difference between the two cultures, however, must not be overlooked. Hispanic culture was more communal, with a greater reliance on authority, both God and king..This view contrasted sharply with the American tradition that believed in individual rights and minimal governmental interference.
Conditions in California seemed to favor this latter approach. Government institutions and authority were remote, and miners confronted immediate problems. For example, miners needed water for various mining operations. The land might be blessed with minerals, gold being the most desirable, but water was needed to extract the precious metal. Water supplies, however, were limited, with relatively few rivers, and precipitation was infrequent. Further complicating the problem, the ore-bearing soil often was located at a distance from a stream or river, frequently many miles. The obvious solution was to divert water from its source, and miners, ever hopeful of striking it rich, did divert. They expended great labor to build "wooden sluices, iron pipes, ditches, and whatever else that worked."
What became obvious to all, even to the most hell-bent, self-serving prospector, was that uncontrolled or unregulated diversions meant ruin. With no advice forthcoming from government — nor, of course, was any desired — miners set out on their own to allocate water. According to frontier tradition, an authority miners respected, those who arrived first possessed superior rights. First applied to land and mineral claims, this principle also served for water and became the foundation of the prior appropriation doctrine.
Usually summarized by the aphorism, "First in time, first in right," the prior appropriation doctrine ensured that those who first used water could not be deprived of their rights by latecomers. Maintaining this privileged water right involved certain minimal requirements; i.e., a water user must continually use the water for a beneficial use. Beneficial use at first meant mining, but was later applied to agriculture, manufacturing and other purposes deemed to be beneficial. Arizona surface water law is based on prior appropriations.
The prior appropriations doctrine represents one of the earliest official strategies of allocating scarce water resources among competing water users in the American West. The doctrine is based on an assumption that remains active today: i.e., water is a commodity to be used, its value determined by whatever material benefits are gained through its use, whether corporate profits or a residential swimming pool. This assumption is a thread that runs through much of western U.S. history and is a challenge to water conservation efforts today.
Tapping the Hidden Waters
Water conservation is linked to water use. Water being a finite resource its excess use and the resulting shortage often prompts efforts to conserve it. More than surface water, which is regulated by the prior appropriations doctrine and its water-consuming rationale, groundwater, its development and exploitation, provides a study of an awakening awareness of the value of water conservation.
In early Arizona history, reliance on surface water sources limited human ambitions, especially of those settlers anxious to take up ways of life that flourished in other parts of the country. Surface water sources available from the few Arizona rivers and streams would not be sufficient to enable urban areas to grow and flourish and agricultural operations to expand. What was needed was another source of water to enable settlers to develop what they believed to be the full potential of the region. Groundwater was this other source of water.
Groundwater use would eventually raise serious concerns about depletion and the need to conserve water. Preserving groundwater resources would be the cause to involve state government in water conservation, with laws passed at various times in efforts to regulate groundwater withdrawal. Also of significance, pumping groundwater required major technological innovations, thus raising an important issue — the use of technology in developing water resources. All this would come later; at first, however, groundwater was a limited and a generally inaccessible resource.
Early settlers in the area were aware of the existence of groundwater. Spaniards had dug wells in areas with a high water table. In fact, water tables were sufficiently high in early Tucson history that wells were fairly common.
Around 1870, windmills began to be used, tall, gangling structures with rotating blades to bring groundwater to the surface. An early account of Tucson at this time describes most homes and business as having windmills to provide individual sources of water. Historian Walter Prescott Webb wrote, "The windmill was like a flag marking the spot where a small victory had been won in the fight for water in an arid land." It would seem that Tucson was celebrating a string of victories within its desert setting.
Hand-dug wells and windmills provided settlers with rather limited groundwater supplies since their subterranean range was rather shallow. Steam powered pumps, in use by the end of the nineteenth century, allowed greater access to groundwater. In 1899, the Tucson Water Company's first steam-driven pumping plant could pump 1,250 gallons per minute from a 40-foot well. Pumping technology continued to improve, and in 1914, new and improved pumps were installed for use in six wells, each capable of pumping one million gallons of water per day from greater depths than were previously tapped.
Previously mostly out of reach, groundwater, seemingly a buried treasure, now appeared to be a plentiful resource, at first benefitting mainly Arizona agriculture, but with urban areas soon getting their generous share too.
The 1920s were boom times for Arizona farmers. Not only were pumps becoming more efficient, but the power to work them was inexpensive. Meanwhile cotton prices increased. Good judges of the prevailing weather, economic as well as climatological, farmers took advantage of these favorable conditions to plant more and, as a result, to pump more. Then a drought in the 1930s raised water consciousness in the state. Concerns about excessive groundwater use were raised, and efforts to control pumping began to be taken seriously. Water conservation emerged as an issue.