"Touch water, and you touch everything," John Gunther wrote of the western United States almost half a century ago. Today there is more water to touch, thanks to hydraulic politics that produce dams and canals, but the touchers have firm grips on one another's throats as well.
Water has always meant the difference between life and death in the West; lately it has taken on a marked regional belligerence, with cities like Tucson and Phoenix fighting Los Angeles for a bigger piece of the Colorado River, and water users in California's Imperial Valley saying unkind things about upstream users as far away as Utah. Even that mythic waterway does not transport enough to slake the great concrete sumps that western cities have become, fill the concrete pools in retirement oases and irrigate the corporate megaflora.
Elsewhere in the arid West ranchers, farmers, industrialists and ordinary people are dipping their hoses into the collective streams and aquifers, and coming up dry. Many are at this moment in court, and some will undoubtedly end up in the morgue with their boots on. There is simply not enough water at present to go around, and prospects for increasing its availability are dismal. Real battles will be fought in coming decades, not just for development and urban reservoirs, but for subsistence -- that level of human endeavor where things get nasty.
We need a good book of reporting about water in the contemporary West, a difficult, potentially disastrous subject, not another rehash of hydraulic history. "Rivers of Empire" made me want to tell the writer to go talk to some poor sucker hoeing tomato plants with an AR-15 strapped to his back. I am sick of books about the ruination of the West and the unappeased appetites of developers and the well-fed picking their teeth with bleached bones. It's true, of course, but boredom has become as great an enemy as rapine. The authors, in the process, are usually earning doctorates and working in their expertise on most subjects since the invention of bronze.
"Rivers of Empire" is no exception. It's ostensibly about water in the West, but do not think you're going to escape without an overview of feudal China and India and a few other of what Worster calls "irrigation societies." Irrigation is simply a focus for social analysis, being basic to most human existence. You could almost as easily describe China as a bicycle society and the West as an "all-terrain vehicle society," but no matter.
Irrigation societies in Worster's view tend to become irrigation states ruled by a powerful elite without real roots in the land. Irrigation states are the engines by which the few enslave the many by controlling the means of water distribution, depriving them of enough for their sustenance.
That may remind you of another theory in which the workers are deprived of power by being deprived of the means of production. Worster is fond of Karl Marx, that noted authority on dryland irrigation, and quotes him often. There is nothing wrong with a class interpretation of this gigantic subject, if that's the way one sees it, but the author never comes out and says the workers -- the waterers? -- should have seized the West's rivers. Instead we get a nagging tale of oversight and venality, with references to "the power elite" and "the big money boys" and other paragons of capitalist evil going back to the time of John Wesley Powell, first runner of the Colorado.
Powell advocated a land distribution system in 1890 based upon available water. That was probably the last reasonable water proposal taken seriously by the Congress of the United States. Powell was a principled and tenacious idealist, but less than the visionary Worster and other writers proclaim him. Even if Powell's recommendations had become law, they would have been overridden in subsequent years by demand from thirsty folks over the hill and, industrial societies being what they are, the same hydraulic history would probably have followed.
What Worster wants is an unpaved West where the little farmer waters his crops directly from the silty Colorado, flooding every year in its untrammeled race for the sea, and where indigenous people live in preindustrial simplicity. I want the same thing -- an impossibility. What we are really deploring is the presence of people, the sheer number of bodies that began accumulating with a vengeance shortly after the Civil War and continues apace.
The only thing that could reverse it is that maxim of Worster's distasteful capitalism, market value. Lack of water, pollution of what's left, salination of once-productive range and truck garden, and the eventual death of the Lawn -- which has become the symbol of individual initiative in the West -- eat away at human habitat. Paradoxically, the West might be saved by a pervasive real estate crash.