For more than a century, a system of government and legal agreements has largely resolved water disputes among those living in America’s most arid region of the country.
The methods of conflict resolution were at work in December when water bosses in California, Nevada and Arizona agreed to cut their use of Colorado River water to avoid penalties under a compact that divvies up the river among seven western states and Mexico.
But a new cause of conflict threatens that system already straining to respond to the region’s worst drought cycle in 1,200 years. Instead of adjusting water consumption to the reality of a changing climate, officials are having to respond to the fallout of false claims that cuts in water use are part of an elaborate government plan to starve and depopulate the earth. Some of the talk of a violent standoff last summer in Oregon’s Klamath River Basin was laced with the language of this anti-government conspiracy theory.
Such claims don’t have to be true to effectively exploit the fears of farmers and others who have relied on government guarantees to irrigate their fields and accommodate development, said Joe Vitriol, a researcher at Stony Brook University with an expertise in political psychology.
“They’re not necessarily truly expressing a belief in some conspiracy, but this is how they’re expressing their distrust, concern and skepticism of official accounts,” Vitriol said of those drawn to conspiracy theories. “Most people do not adopt those beliefs necessarily because they think that they’re true, they often adopt them because it feels correct. And it’s a way of expressing distrust and rejection of information.”
When it comes to water policy in the West, experts agree the distrust can be justified based on past policies and broken promises. But solutions need to be found based on real needs and science, and not on fears based in false conspiracies that could prolong conflict and possibly lead to violence.
‘Who cares if there is violence?’
Scarcity has long created conflict over water in the arid West, where historically seven of the driest states in the country are located. The latest U.S. Drought Monitor map showed large swaths of every state in the West experiencing severe, extreme or exceptional drought.
From the Indigenous people in the West to the current day, societies living in the region developed forums to resolve inevitable conflicts over the limited amount of water needed to survive.
During the 19th century, methods of conflict resolution were often imported by settlers migrating to the West, according to researchers at the University of Montana’s Center for Natural Resources & Environmental Policy.
“In settling the Salt Lake Valley, (Latter-day Saint leader) Brigham Young and his advisers realized that efficient, fair use of water, as well as significant cooperation, would be indispensable to their religious community’s success,” wrote the center’s Matthew McKinney and John Thorsen, citing one method of dealing with water scarcity. “In this culture, water was a community resource to be managed and distributed in order to meet the community’s needs.”
While the communal approach to water management influenced later federal policy, it eventually gave way in the early 20th century to the concept of water as a private property right. That would usher in the current regime of state engineers regulating ownership of water rights, Congress approving interstate agreements and courts issuing the final resolution of disputes.
The system has reduced but never eliminated violence, particularly during times of drought. It was during a drought cycle in the early 20th century that one of the most infamously violent water disputes in the country took place in California, where business interests in Los Angeles began buying up land and water rights in northern California’s Owens Valley. When construction of a 100-mile aqueduct moved the water south to quench exploding growth in L.A., valley residents retaliated.
While rural and urban leaders squared off in court, other valley residents tried to thwart the project by dynamiting sections of the aqueduct. L.A. leaders responded by dispatching armed detectives to guard the project and illegally place Owens Valley under martial law. The drama, in which Los Angeles prevailed and literally dried up Owens Valley, serves as the backstory to the 1974 Oscar-winning fictional film “Chinatown.”
Conflicting federal government promises to both white settlers and Native Americans have also created conflict and are an underlying reason for the tension in the Klamath River Basin, where both an agricultural industry and Native American fishery are in peril, said Jay Weiner, an attorney representing the Klamath Indian Tribe.
Issues between farmers, tribes, conservations and the government over water rights in the basin are longstanding. In June, talk of violence along the Klamath made headlines after federal officials shut the gates to a water development that has irrigated thousands of acres of farmland for more than a century.
Some landowners have protested near the head gates and there was talk of a standoff with law enforcement if the irrigation gates were forced open.
“The feds were certainly freaked out that Ammon Bundy was going to show up,” Weiner recalled, referring to the current Idaho gubernatorial candidate, who led an armed takeover of an Oregon wildlife refuge in 2016.
“Who cares if there is violence? At least something will be worked out,” Bundy told The New York Times, which said he ridiculed those not prepared to fight for the nation’s food supply. “‘Oh, we don’t want violence, we’ll just starve to death.’ Heaven forbid we talk about violence.”
Building trust, understanding
The violence never materialized. But the call to arms echoed the false claims spreading across messaging platforms and conspiracy websites that same month of a government plot to use drought, inflation and the COVID vaccines to depopulate the world.
“These water restriction tactics are being deliberately weaponized as part of an engineered plan to destroy the U.S. food supply and bankrupt food producers,” declared a story on the conspiracy website Natural News with the jumbled headline: “WATER WARS about to go kinetic in America as farmers targeted by ‘terrorist’ state governments that are deliberately collapsing civilization.”
The Daily Beast reported the Natural News story was being shared on messaging platforms in Arizona, expanding on the false conspiracy by using antisemitic and anti-immigration language to include others plotting to “starve Americans by cutting off the water supply.”
Weiner has firsthand experience of similar disinformation nearly derailing a painstakingly negotiated compact establishing tribal water rights in Montana in 2013.
“It became a poster child for some folks up on the Flathead Reservation who were basically shopping anti-government conspiracy theories” to whip up the opposition, he said. The false narratives that the compact was part of a larger global conspiracy that would somehow transport Montana water to China rang true to opponents of the water deal and the GOP-controlled Legislature responded to that constituency by killing the compact in committee.
“We’d never seen that before and didn’t really know how to deal with it,” recalled Weiner, who was working for the state of Montana’s Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission at the time.
State water officials were able to regroup and get the compact through the legislature two years later and Congress approved it in 2020. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland signed it in September.
Vitriol, at Stony Brook University, said political actors who peddle conspiracy theories know that repeating and disseminating disinformation can create “an illusion of truth” that galvanizes a constituency to a particular cause.
“Often, the endorsement of conspiracy beliefs are ways of expressing symbolically one’s identity, one’s values, one’s opposition to policy or change,” he said. “They’re scared. This is threatening, this is challenging their way of life. This is on a scale that’s really hard to grasp. And their livelihoods are threatened by this” change being considered by policy makers.
Understanding the underlying factors at play can help leaders identify the real reasons behind the opposition. But changing someone’s view requires building trust, Vitriol said.
“Leaders need to meet these folks on their own level. They need to understand their perspective and where they’re coming from,” he said. “They need to use the trust that those individuals invest in them to challenge their willingness to ignore facts and evidence.”
Weiner said that dynamic played out this year to calm escalating tensions in Klamath, Oregon.
“One of the useful things that happened last summer is that there were cooler headed folks in the irrigation community putting the word out repeatedly and publicly on Facebook, and what have you, saying, ‘We don’t need this, this is not good for our communities and will not help us resolve our issues.”
Since then, negotiators have been building direct lines of communication between the tribes and the irrigation community to understand “what their needs are and where they feel most threatened,” Weiner said.
The strategy will be put to the test next summer, which is expected to be the third year of drought conditions, based on the latest projections.
“If the year is bad (and) we are not able to come up with some sort of ameliorative plan, all of the good intentions and the relationship building we’ve tried to do can’t survive this many consecutive bad years,” he said. “That’s the fear. But we’re just trying to talk to each other and see if we can do it.”