Excerpt: Hydronarratives

Matthew S. Henry is an assistant instructional professor in the Honors College and an affiliate in the School of Energy Resources at the University of Wyoming. His book Hydronarratives: Water, Environmental Justice, and a Just Transition was published in January.

The story of water in the United States is one of ecosystemic disruption and social injustice. In Hydronarratives Matthew S. Henry examines cultural representations that imagine a just transition, a concept rooted in the U.S. labor and environmental justice movements to describe an alternative economic paradigm predicated on sustainability, economic and social equity, and climate resilience. Focused on regions of water insecurity, from central Arizona to central Appalachia, Henry explores how writers, artists, and activists have creatively responded to intensifying water crises in the United States and argues that narrative and storytelling are critical to environmental and social justice advocacy. 

1. Decolonizing Drought

Indigenous Collective Continuance in the Lower Colorado River Basin

In January 2019 the Gila River Indian Community (GRIC) in central Arizona threatened to withdraw from the seven-state Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan (DCP). This was a big deal: 25 percent of the water Arizona receives from the Colorado River flows through the community as part of the Central Arizona Project (CAP) canal system. Per the plan, Arizona had agreed to cut its allocation of Colorado River water by 18 percent should Lake Mead fall below a certain level, triggering the official declaration of a shortage. In such a scenario, the state hoped to partially make up losses with 640,000 acre-feet of water from the community’s portion of CAP water in exchange for $90 million in development funds for the community, home to Akimel O’odham and Piipaash peoples. GRIC’s threat, which would likely have doomed the DCP, emerged in response to a bill introduced in the Arizona House of Representatives by House Speaker Rusty Bowers. The bill aimed to weaken GRIC’s claims to the Gila River in deference to non-Indigenous farmers upstream in Pinal County, most of whom have junior rights. The state’s “first in time, first in use” policy dictates seniority and tends to favor tribal interests due to the Winters Doctrine, federal water policy guidelines that grant seniority to tribal entities based on the date a reservation was established. In recent years, GRIC has filed several lawsuits to prevent non-Indigenous farmers from hoarding unused waters from the Gila River, a culturally significant waterway.

Bowers eventually shelved the bill, and the DCP was signed into law on April 16, 2019. But his initial response to critics was telling. Non-Indigenous farmers in the area, he protested, have long been “scratching it out” and he could “not see how anyone [would be] harmed by removing a law that has never been exercised except for vengeance.” This represents a remarkable distortion of the historical record. The Akimel O’odham used floodwater irrigation techniques to harness the waters of the Gila for centuries, cultivating a diverse array of traditional crops like corn, tepary beans, squash, and melons, prospering even after their 1859 relocation to the Gila River Indian Reservation southeast of Phoenix. In the mid-1860s, however, white settlers emboldened by the newly passed Homestead Act began settling upstream and diverting water to irrigate their own fields. River flows grew increasingly diminished before reaching the reservation, and tensions arose between settlers and the O’odham. There is evidence that white farmers deliberately diverted and wasted water to deprive reservation farms. With the 1889 completion of the Florence Canal to divert water to settler fields in Florence in Casa Grande, the Gila was effectively transformed into an intermittent stream. Between 1866 and 1918, the reservation’s percentage use of the river’s waters dropped from 100 percent to less than 30 percent. Traditional O’odham agricultural methods became increasingly untenable. The Indian Service was little help, refusing to codify tribal water rights or expand reservation borders, and there were discussions in the U.S. Senate about the potential removal of O’odham peoples to Indian Territory in Oklahoma. Many O’odham were forced to abandon their fields, moving off the reservation in search of work. Crop failures in the 1890s led to starvation and malnutrition, rendering the O’odham increasingly dependent on federal assistance. The legacies of this abrupt shift from subsistence to dependence have been well-documented, with settler water theft directly contributing to cultural loss and food insecurity. Government food assistance, often composed of processed, low-nutrient foods, is considered a primary factor in high obesity and diabetes rates in the community. After eight decades of litigation, the community was compensated with 653,000 acre-feet of CAP water as part of the 2004 Arizona Water Settlement Act (AWSA), representing a path for the community to resuscitate traditional lifeways. Since the settlement, GRIC has initiated the Pima-Maricopa Irrigation Project with the goal of irrigating nearly 150,000 acres of traditional crops.

The GRIC’s offer to give up water to the state during a shortage can be viewed as remarkably generous, especially given that a portion of that water would likely go to vulnerable non-Indigenous farmers in Pinal County. Bowers’s brand of ahistorical grievance politics, framing the community’s assertion of hard-won water rights as “vengeance,” is illustrative of two conflicting dynamics animating contemporary hydropolitical discourse in the western United States. Tribes had until recently been largely excluded from federal water policy discussions, and tribal involvement in the DCP marked an important turning point in participatory resource governance in the region. This is as it should be: Tribal communities in the Colorado Basin hold some of the most senior water rights in the nation, controlling up to 2.8 million acre-feet per year from the river and its tributaries. Like GRIC, the Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT), located along the California-Arizona border south of Lake Havasu, voted to allow off-reservation water leasing and committed to leaving 50 thousand acre-feet in Lake Mead for three years in exchange for $38 million in development funds. During DCP negotiations, tribal governments effectively held veto power over the finalization of a management plan for a river that serves 40 million people and 4 million acres of farmland. Despite this shift, however, regional hydropolitical discourse nevertheless remains inflected by the same rhetoric of Indigenous erasure that has long been used to justify settler colonial domination. Bowers’s claims efface a long history of violence and dispossession experienced by Indigenous peoples in the Colorado River Basin. His comments do not stand alone; during AWSA negotiations in 2004, former Phoenix city water manager (and current director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources) Tom Buschatzke, described tribal communities as “threats” to the city’s water supply.

The presence of this rhetoric in contemporary hydropolitical discourse can be traced to cultural narratives that uphold what the late Patrick Wolfe called settler colonialism’s “logic of elimination,” whereby settler power is contingent on the physical elimination and cultural dissolution of Indigenous peoples. Eliminatory logic drives what Kyle Whyte (Potawatomi) describes as settler colonialism’s imperative to “transform Indigenous homelands into settler homelands” and erase “indigenous economies, cultures, and political organizations.” The lynchpin of settler colonialism in the United States has always been federal land policy, wherein vast swaths of productive Indigenous lands were illegally made available for lease at the expense of forcibly removed Indigenous peoples. Lakota historian Nick Estes points out that 96 percent of privately owned agricultural lands in the United States are owned by white settlers, leading him to situate these processes as a product of racial capitalism, which “use[s] race as a form of rule—to subordinate, to kill, and to enslave others—and [uses] that difference for profit-making.” Tracking the persistence of colonial violence and the persistence of moralizing narratives, discursive constructions, and eliminatory rhetoric is critical in a region that will be undergoing a water transition for the foreseeable future due to what experts view as the most severe long-term drying trend in at least the last millennium. The western United States is facing a critical inflection point for regional water governance, and to ensure a just transition, it is important to call attention to, and counter, settler structures of exclusion. Decolonizing drought discourse requires counternarratives that resist settler logics of elimination expressed in regional hydropolitical discourse.

One thought on “Excerpt: Hydronarratives

  1. Why is our Legislature so afraid to control water pumping by Saudi Arabian businesses in Cochise County. They have restricted water pumping by other businesses why not the biggest user of groundwater leaving many private wells dry.

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