Whiskey is for Drinking, Water is for Fighting
Water and Agriculture in Colorado and The American West – First in Line for the Rio Grande by David Stiller
By Owen Woods | email@example.com
“It’s too cold and it’s kind of a Spartan place to live. … It never rains here, so water is applied as it’s needed, not when Mother Nature decides it.”
This quote by former Rio Grande Conservation District general manager Steve Vandiver, cited in David Stiller’s 2021 book Water and Agriculture in Colorado and the American West – First in Line for the Rio Grande, perhaps succinctly tells the story of our tumultuous relationship with water. It also paints a picture of the people who move here, stay here, and fight for the right to live here.
The book winds through the San Luis Valley’s water history in much the same way as the Rio Grande and all the little branching creeks that wind through the Valley: it’s immense and there’s no good way to show it all.
A well-versed history lesson of acequia and water-sharing cultures in San Luis, along Culebra Creek, sets the tone for the rest of the book and how crucial water is and was, and why understanding San Luis’ role then, matters today. People knew back then that the spring offload of snowpack created a crucial window to irrigate crops, whether for production or personal use.
The keen understanding of the land would be shared across generations.
From the Utes’ use of water to the early Spanish settlers, then to the expeditions that tried to cross the spring-flooded Valley floor on chuckwagon and horseback, and eventually to the current water battles we face today, this book tries to paint the picture of how water has been used throughout time.
The only downfall of painting that picture is that you’d need to do it in more than 150 pages. That, alone, is a titanic undertaking for anyone. To condense 250 years of history in that amount of space doesn’t paint the whole picture or tell the entire story, but it does tell the points that matter the most to the bigger, overarching story of water’s history and how in that amount of time so much has changed. And how much of that is still changing.
Through trials and litigations, compacts and subdistricts, water use is an unstoppable opponent. An opponent that has ultimately created differences and put differences aside, so it goes.
“Certainly there are bouts of frustration and anger, but a western counterpart to the historic Hatfield-McCoy feud does not exist in the San Luis Valley.”
A chapter highlighting mining’s wayward and gold-blind ventures west in the middle of the 19th century is written with an objective, but outward and harsh criticism – particularly of how mining’s use of water and utter disregard for waste runoff had everlasting impacts on the watershed, and how that complete lack of environmental concerns drove some creeks to dry up. This forced hard-working folks who moved their entire lives out west to up and quit. This, of course, caused some quick thinking people to make the transition to agriculture.
If they couldn’t get gold, silver, or copper from a rock, then certainly they’d fare much better digging up potatoes and barley from the earth. Most (ex)miners in the Valley at the time had a good idea of where the best farmland close enough to water would be, and figured that miners have to eat. This, among other reasons, was a catalyst for the spark in agriculture in the Valley.
“The need to feed miners and millworkers in the mining camps helps explain the origin and growth of farming and ranching in Colorado and the West.”
The argument is made throughout the book that water’s role in agriculture is subject to fundamental change, and that if agriculture in the American West is to survive, it will need to rely on less water and learn how to do it quickly.
The historical context of Bonanza Agriculture, where farmers, ranchers, and miners, were using water without any real forethought into what unscrupulous water use might one day cause, makes up a large portion of the book. Historically in the San Luis Valley, there seemed to be, every spring, a washout of Rio Grande nectar that anyone could sup from. Nowadays, those events are few and far between.
Stiller states later on that the principle thesis for the book is, “agriculture is the overwhelming user and consumer of water in the west. This could not occur unless agriculture had acquired substantial control over the resource through water laws based on the Doctrine of Prior Appropriation.”
Once use was measured and the aquifers were getting whacked at with estimates, the agricultural demand for water not just in the San Luis Valley, but downstream in New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico, had water users ripening their legal arguments, holding water users in the San Luis Valley fully and totally accountable.
With the compacts came detailed water levels and accurate acre-feet measurements, which only fueled the fire for our debts to come to the surface and pit Rio Grande water users against downstream users – that some rightfully regard as unfair. But, Stiller argues, if the Valley’s downstream commitments weren’t an issue, the regard for use here would be storage. If we could take all that downstream acre-feet and use it for ourselves, perhaps a lot of economic issues would be skirted and people would have one less water topic to discuss at length with a swollen forehead vein.
“Without storage, irrigation and farming in the San Luis Valley would have been handicapped in the nineteenth century.”
Stiller has a gonzo-style approach to the book’s narrative that is seamlessly interwoven into the history, politics, and carefully trodden earth which helps to connect the reader to a writer who set out on a journey of water. This personal view into water managers and engineers, and local flavors, gives the book a much more personal connection that any old local who picks this book up might just visualize the world with little effort. For the non-local reader, it paints a picture of people who have given their entire life to water. Having a writer include their views and perspective broadens the prospective outsider from feeling welcome in this world that the people of the San Luis Valley live in every day.
With that personal narrative there comes a flaw in the structure. The present-day sections of the book that put the reader in the room during water meetings and interviews lack a time element. Sometimes the timeframe is explicit; other times there seems to be no indication of when interviews are being conducted and when sections of the story are being written.
Context can help provide clues, but for the reader who has no local context, this becomes an issue of placing the urgency over the water. Which, itself presents a picture of the timelessness of the water issues we face, but ultimately not having a time frame serves an injustice to the reader.
Stiller dedicates the last few chapters to expanding the view from the Rio Grande to the rest of Colorado and the Intermountain West. This further disintegrates the illusion of the Valley’s microcosm. There are water issues all over the world and expanding that view to a global problem tells the reader – and the Valley local – that we are not alone in this fight: the fight against history’s bad decisions, the fight against water exportation, and the fight against climate change.
“Water’s scarcity made it as valuable as gold. But where gold had a cash value, water was free.”
The educational aspect of the book is straightforward, but broad, which in some cases can present problems. This is an example of having a throughline that not only captures just the Valley’s problems but the entire Intermountain West and expands the perspective to enhance the theme of having to deal with a global issue on a minute scale.
Stiller’s book is worth a read. Especially now with the looming threat of RWR’s proposal to export Valley water. If you’re looking for a shorter read on the water’s history, this is a book you can digest and enjoy. It is a historical account, but far from a boring historical account. Stiller’s prose is laid back and enjoys colloquialisms and sometimes favors flavorful language. Overall, the book is just a small piece of the issue, but does a good job of making it easy to understand just how dire the whole situation is.
“In Colorado and the American West, little spooks farmers and ranchers more than a threat to their water.”
Water and Agriculture in Colorado and the American West – First in Line for the Rio Grande, David Stiller, 2021, University of Nevada Press