This quote is attributed to Mark Twain, but has been repeated many times throughout time, especially throughout the West. The styles and venues of the fights have changed, but the foundation remains the same. Water, especially in the West, is our most valuable resource, our lifeblood. It is used to grow food and to grow cities. It provides power to run our homes, factories, and businesses. It sustains our forests and deserts for wildlife and recreation. It is our most powerful and yet most fragile natural resource. Asserting and protecting water rights in the West is a time-honored tradition. Many feel fighting over water is a matter of survival.
We've all seen the western movies where the ranchers go to war over a stream that's been blocked, or a watering hole fenced in. But that wasn't just Hollywood fantasy.
The Colorado River Compact, in 1922, divided the waters of the Colorado River between the Upper and Lower Basin states. However, because the compact did not allocate the water among the states, Arizona refused to sign.
Sometimes the fighting, even between states, spilled out of meeting rooms and onto the battlefield. "Water is for fighting" and in 1934, Arizona called the state National Guard and militia units to the California border to protest the construction of Parker Dam and California's diversions from the Colorado River. For a few days, the "Arizona Navy" patrolled the river in commandeered ferry boats -- the Nellie T and Julia B. Fortunately, the dispute was ultimately settled in court.
In the early 1940s, Arizona recognized that to effectively use its share of the Colorado River, the water would need to be delivered to the growing population in the south-central part of the state. State leaders realized support for such a massive reclamation project would be contingent upon Arizona's ratification of the Compact. So in February 1944, Arizona ratified the Compact, 22 years after it was negotiated.
This action paved the way for negotiations for the Central Arizona Project (CAP), but approval for such a project was not likely until California and Arizona resolved their dispute over Colorado River water allocations. Agreement could not be reached between the states, so in 1952, Arizona went to the U.S. Supreme Court for a judicial decision.
This led to one of the longest and most expensive cases in Supreme Court history, lasting 11 years and costing almost $5 million, and it was not settled until 1963.
While the Arizona v. California decision seemingly ended years of fighting, it left the door open for future battles over unused allocations, beneficial use, shortages and surplus, and allocation of water within the respective states. Although the fighting was no longer between armed militia on the banks of the Colorado River, it continued: only the venue was changed. Other parties besides states entered the ring including environmental groups who sued on behalf of endangered species, Indian tribes who looked for settlements of water rights, local communities who fought over groundwater aquifers, and others.
The fighting over water continues in the courtrooms.
You can't do much else with whiskey except drink it. But we need water to survive.