CRM Journal

Book Review

Conflict on the Rio Grande: Water and the Law, 1879-1939

By Douglas R. Littlefield. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2009; 299 pp., hardcover, $39.95.


Douglas R. Littlefield's Conflict on the Rio Grande is a political and legal history that informs both environmental and cultural understanding of western water resources as well. Littlefield contends that Supreme Court and western water experts have failed to recognize precedents set by the Rio Grande River Project and the Elephant Butte Dam. He argues that various conflicts, negotiations, and settlements between Mexico and the United States; the states of Colorado, Texas, and New Mexico, and private land owners established the earliest arrangements for managing water in the American West.

When arguments between contestants first began over the Rio Grande's limited flows in the late 19th century, western water law was poorly defined and little, if any, legal precedent existed. New Mexico's territorial status until 1912 also complicated the negotiations. While Texans questioned whether a territory had the same rights as a state, the U.S. government considered how its claims weighed against those of Mexico. Before anyone could dam the Rio Grande, various parties had to resolve the legal issues between the water rights of individuals, states, territories, and a neighboring foreign nation.

Littlefield does not discuss the specific environmental consequences of damming the Rio Grande and diverting its waters. He does, however, challenge the historical analysis of Donald Worster, a leading environmental historian of the West. Worster argues that large businesses and federal bureaucracies supported and dominated Western water resource projects. Littlefield repeatedly maintains this did not happen on the Rio Grande.

Littlefield argues that until 1904, private interests in the El Paso and Mesilla valleys battled over where to build the first dam and how to divide the water, pitting entrepreneurs promoting a dam at Elephant Butte in New Mexico against those pushing for a federal dam closer to El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico. This conflict, the author asserts, represents the first efforts of the U.S. government and local interests in defining their roles in western water allocation. At the National Irrigation Congress in 1904, representatives from New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico worked out an agreement. The Federal Government, through the Bureau of Reclamation, supplied the basis for the agreement but did not impose it upon the parties. Still, the three parties needed the U.S. government to confirm the settlement, and they needed Congress to extend the Reclamation Act of 1902 to cover the El Paso Valley in Texas. Congress extended the Reclamation Act in early 1905, endorsing the agreement. Littlefield points out that this represents the first attempt by the U.S. government to divide the water supplies of a river flowing through multiple state jurisdictions. Under this Act, local landowners had to sign a contract with the Federal Government on how to repay construction costs. The government, however, did not dictate the agreement to the local interests in the Mesilla and El Paso valleys. On June 27, 1906, the organizations and Bureau of Reclamation signed a contract. Littlefield insists that this represented a cooperative alliance between local interests and the Federal Government.

The 1904 agreement needed another step to finalize it, however: a treaty between the U.S. and Mexico. Texas helped draft the treaty, worked with Mexico to accept it and then with the Senate to ratify it on June 26, 1906. The treaty set another precedent—the Rio Grande became the first river whose waters would be controlled by both the United States and a foreign nation. By 1907 the pieces were in place, and local proponents pushed Congress to authorize one million dollars to begin construction. They succeeded, but the Bureau of Reclamation did not complete the dam until 1916.

Littlefield could have ended his history here, but the management of the upper Rio Grande had another important innovation to offer. As the populations of Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas grew, competition for the Rio Grande's waters increased. Farmers in northern New Mexico and Colorado wanted dams and diversions to expand the lands irrigated by the river, but those initially served by the Rio Grande Project objected. Questioning a key assumption underlying the Rio Grande Project, Colorado and would-be irrigators in northern New Mexico pushed their states and Texas to consider a formal compact allocating the Rio Grande's water. Acrimony between the American states became too intense, however, and in February 1929 the commissioners signed a temporary compact that largely protected the status quo. Congress offered to help farmers in Colorado and northern New Mexico by sanctioning work to connect a closed basin to the Rio Grande and the building of a dam in Colorado to capture the increased flow.

The negotiators set June 1, 1935, as the deadline for completing this work or signing a final compact. The Great Depression delayed funding for the closed basin outlet and work on the dam. In December 1934, the states again began negotiating as the deadline approached. Disagreements forced them to extend the deadline to June 1937 and then several times after. Even after the negotiators signed the compact on March 18, 1938, protests by downstream users in Texas nearly derailed it. Finally, on May 31, 1939, after the three states had approved it, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the compact. Littlefield says the compact established "a milestone in western water law," and offered an example for the negotiation of future compacts for western rivers.

Littlefield's book is exceptionally well researched and adds to a growing body of water resources history that stresses local agendas and actions over those of federal agencies and large corporations. However, his argument with Donald Worster's contentions regarding the role of big government and big business roles in western water resources requires a look at the current situation. For example, the Reclamation Act of 1902 emphasized that 160-acre plots of land should go to family farmers. But who holds these lands today? Have large landowners and large agribusinesses come to dominate them? If so, then Worster's argument is not entirely wrong.

Not surprisingly, the Rio Grande Project and its many associated structures are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Conflict on the Rio Grande clearly shows why these cultural resources are so important to a complete understanding of the American West's environmental history.

John O. Anfinson
National Park Service