Climate Change, Water Rights, & Maybe Even Rebellion

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One great movie I’d recommend to anyone is The Milagro Beanfield War. In the film, a small town in northern New Mexico has a problem. A big developer bribed the state and bought up all of the water rights. The families that had been there for hundreds of years were left without a way to maintain their way of life. Many left the little village, and those who remained were impoverished. The development, which initially promised great jobs for the residents, instead brought white people in from out of town to do the work.

One resident, Joe Mondragon, was getting toward the end of his rope. Not only would the development not hire him (racism was implied here). His dad had moved away, and had since passed, leaving him with a beanfield, but no access to any water. In frustration, he went to the field and prepared to sell it to the developers.

After accidentally watering the field, he planted beans and started illegally growing a crop. This made him the enemy of rich and powerful people, including the governor, who sent a dirty cop to go rough him up. The movie culminates in a full-on rebellion, with residents ending up in an armed standoff with state law enforcement.

It’s a great movie that touches on a variety of topics while faithfully representing New Mexican culture. It also has great actors and characters that makes for a very entertaining story. It’s got enough of a cult following that the town of Truchas, New Mexico proudly keeps some of the original movie sets intact for visitors to come see.

The Problem Of Water In The American West is Very Real

In many places, water is taken for granted. There’s so much of it that farmers have to work to keep too much of it from sitting in their fields. At worst, it can flood them out entirely. The American West doesn’t often have that problem. Instead, running out of water is the challenge. Extensive networks of dams, irrigation structures, and even massive canal systems extending across whole states so people can drink, are the norm.

There’s a problem, though. In the mid-20th century when most of these plans were made, water was at record levels. The people measuring what was coming down certain rivers didn’t know that their averages didn’t represent even a normal year, let alone droughts. Climate change has only made this problem worse, with many of the reservoirs drying up majorly over time.

Don’t believe me? Let’s look at a few lakes and reservoirs in a Google Earth timelapse.

The sad fact is that everyone can’t get the water they were promised. Farmers, cities, Native American tribes, and everyone else who needs water are left fighting each other for scraps, with many an epic legal battle over who still gets what. Even without new development in an area, the situation is very bleak. Unfortunately, it’s starting to heat up to the point where it could lead to open warfare.

Setting Up Camp Next To A Dam In Oregon

One place that’s getting hit hard by drought this year is the Klamath Basin in Oregon and California. With record low flows on the Klamath river, there’s not anywhere near enough to go around. Farmers and tribes want water, and the federal government is telling them that they can’t have any this year. The Endangered Species Act requires that a certain amount of water be kept in the river for several species, and there’s not even enough for that, so everyone else is out of luck.

Now, People’s Rights, a group founded by Ammon Bundy, has set up shop at the closed diversion dam. For those unfamiliar, the Bundy family has been in armed standoffs with the federal government on at least two occasions, once in 2014 in Nevada, and again in Oregon in 2016. While the incidents didn’t end peacefully (one man was killed by law enforcement), they teetered on the brink of open warfare that thankfully didn’t occur. Cooler heads on both sides of the conflict prevailed.

Unfortunately, media outlets are playing up the connection to Ammon Bundy, and not looking at the situation in the wider context.

We do need to be fair here. There’s a history of protest and civil disobedience along the Klamath River over water, but no indication that any kind of armed standoff is developing. In the past, a few people cut fences and opened the dam’s gates, and that’s the extent of things. This time, activists bought private property near the dam and set up a big tent, which they’re calling the “Water Crisis Info Center.”

When asked if they’ll illegally open the gates again, media wasn’t given a straight answer, so that remains a possibility that leaves other farmers concerned. They don’t want to see any major problems that turns the public against the plight of the farmers.

The Wider Lesson Here

I’ve seen people both in media and on social media sensationalize what’s going on in Oregon. The focus in those cases is on short-term concerns and not on what the long-term problem is here. Movements, individual farmers, and even armed standoffs come and go, but the problem of water drying up in the American West is something that’s just not going away anytime soon.

Deciding who the good guys and the bad guys are today doesn’t help get to the root of the problem.

The primary problem we need to be addressing here is climate change. We can reallocate water, add or remove dams, and even end agriculture in an area (as painful as that would be for people), but all of those solutions are like putting band-aids on a bullet wound. The patient continues to bleed and die.

We need to understand that continuing on the current trajectory means we’ll see even more competition for scarce resources, which can then lead to conflict and violence. Clearly this isn’t a road we want to be on long-term.

Images by Jennifer Sensiba


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