Texas Book Festival — San Antonio Edition
Interview with Char Miller
Published: April 10, 2013
That’s the interesting thing. Those battles, which are as you say quite historic, nonetheless can be tweaked in this respect, if they’re really stewards of their landscapes and if they want to bequeath that to their progeny or just sell it to someone else, what’s gonna be more valuable to them but a watershed that is actually healthy? That has the capacity to help the human economies along its banks but also the wildlife and others that partake of those waters as well? It will require a person to be savvier about what it means to be a private land-owner. The folks up in the Upper Delaware are every bit as contentious, insular, and capital-driven as anyone in South Texas, but what they’re sensing is that they’re stewardship requires collaboration because otherwise, the don’t survive either. They’ll have to get rid of the property because there’s little way to do anything on it. The clever rice farmer’s gotta figure out that the maintenance of that agricultural activity depends upon relationships upstream, and good relationships upstream that benefits both groups. If the good lord decides that the rain isn’t coming, or however these systems function, then you either go bankrupt or you reach out to people who can help one another. I’m betting on the latter.
If you can expand on that, one of the themes in On the Edge was that political borders don’t really matter in the face of natural disasters and environmental pollution. Can you talk about how we’ve helped or hindered ourselves with borders, and going forward if there are different models that we might pursue?
I think the model was available in the late 19th century, it wasn’t going happen, but it was a really interesting attempt to call to question. It came from John Wesley Powell who was the second director if the U.S. Geological Survey, and the great famous explorer who went down the Colorado River. What he understood when he was in Colorado and running that river, which had enormous volume of water, is that the ability of anyone to live along that river and to irrigate whatever it is they were going to do on the basis of that, it would be necessary to have a very different conception of how people organize themselves on a landscape… Everything in the humid East, you don’t really have to care about a watershed as a defining feature on a landscape and as an organizing feature for social life, but in the West you do. He argued that county lines and state lines made no sense if they didn’t take into account the riversheds. If you look at the battles, let’s just take Texas, the battle between Texas and Oklahoma over the Red River, the battle between Texas and New Mexico over the Pecos, and the battle between Texas, New Mexico, and Mexico over the Rio Grande, all of them are around watersheds that are bi-national or bi-state. Powell’s argument was, you’re setting up the political organizations wrong. If you put on one side of the boundary one state and on the other side of the boundary another one, their interests are going to be framed on where their side of the line is in that river, instead of it being framed around the river. His argument was, if we’re going to populate the West, what he called for was hydraulic districts, effectively states. So you would have a Colorado watershed state such that everybody had an interest in that river, upstream, downstream, and midstream. Instead, with the Colorado, seven, maybe eight states have access to that water and claim parts of its tributaries as their own, and they fight like hell. It doesn’t really solve problems, it creates problems. We’re well beyond that part, but what’s interesting to me, not only is that crazy, but it turns out if you look at the collaborative models that are emerging along the Rio Grand, along the borders, people are acting in a way that counteracts the boundaries that we’ve set up. You see it in rivers across the West, where all of these small organizations are beginning to organize around rivers and tributaries that cross state boundaries and they reach across, because they know full well that the water coming off the Colorado Rockies is slowing down, but they’re in, say, Nevada, or California, you’ve gotta share these things. I’m not saying that’s happening quickly, but there is a dawning consciousness about the collaborative nature framed around water in this very arid area. That would not shock John Wesley Powell at all, he prophesied it.
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