The West’s Water—Multiple Uses, Conflicting Values, Interconnected Fates

Authored by: David Lewis Feldman

Water Policy and Planning

Print publication date:  June  2016
Online publication date:  June  2016

Print ISBN: 9781482227970
eBook ISBN: 9781482227987
Adobe ISBN:


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This chapter considers the competing values that have animated western water policy. Diverse views toward exploitation and development, allocation, rights, environmental/in-stream needs, and the restoration of rivers have long characterized policy debates. We begin by examining the relative scarcity of water in the region; the drive to overcome shortages of surface water and groundwater through improvised and heavily engineered public works and law; and the encouragement—and consequences of—rapid population growth and urbanization. We then chronicle the role of irrigation boosters and their fervent belief in federally provided water as a means of encouraging self-reliant farmers. By the early twentieth century, Native American rights, environmental concerns, and fervent opposition to many interbasin diversions exacerbated issues over reserved rights and in-stream flow protection. By mid-century, these concerns became wedded to a strong preservationist ethic expressed by artists, writers, and resource protection advocates—while by the end of the twentieth century, changing public attitudes led to efforts to restore urban waterways—an issue that has become entangled in larger debates over gentrification, economic revitalization, open space, and community identity. Changing attitudes have also revived debates over the role of underrepresented groups in shaping water policy. We conclude by touching upon two looming challenges: growing controversies around innovations to relieve climate-related and urbanization-induced water stress, including conservation and supply innovations (e.g., wastewater reuse), as well as changes to the region’s hydrology through reliance upon imported water.

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