River of Change: An Environmental History of Climate and Water Management in the Upper Little Colorado Watershed

By Finger, Thomas; Morehouse, Barbara | Journal of the Southwest, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

River of Change: An Environmental History of Climate and Water Management in the Upper Little Colorado Watershed


Finger, Thomas, Morehouse, Barbara, Journal of the Southwest


Perhaps nowhere in the United States has climate and water resource interaction been more closely observed than in the U.S. Southwest (see, e.g., Austin 1988; Worster 1985; Reisner 1993; Sheridan 2001), and with good reason. Overall, semiarid to arid conditions predominate. These conditions, together with wide variability in temperature and precipitation over time and space, challenge even the most earnest human efforts to sustain livelihoods and communities. Scientific studies and popular literature alike reflect recurrent episodes of overexploitation of natural resources due to inadequate recognition or acceptance of environmental limits such as water availability.

Accretion of local knowledge and experience provides a mechanism for anticipating and adapting to the vicissitudes of variability and change. However, factors such as reliance on faulty heuristics (Nicholls 1999), occurrence of events falling outside the range of local memory, policies that restrict decision options, and narrow focus on immediate economic returns can render such knowledge ineffective at best and destructive at worst. Science-based knowledge and predictive capabilities provide avenues for improving decision processes in the face of interacting environmental and societal stresses. To be accepted and used appropriately, such knowledge needs to be franked in ways that mesh well with local values and practices. Environmental histories that create a contextual account of embedded experience, values, and practices provide insights useful to this task.

Recent extended dry conditions in the U.S. Southwest have prompted efforts by researchers and forecasters to develop climate information products useful at local and regional scales for addressing drought impacts. This paper provides an environmental history of climate and water resource management for the Upper Little Colorado watershed in northeastern Arizona, with a focus on the hundred years between the mid-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries. The study, funded through the NOAA-funded Climate Assessment for the Southwest (CLIMAS) project, provides insight into the experiences, values, knowledge, and practices that have produced conditions existing today. This type of contextual information, if integrated into development of plans, decision processes, and decision tools, holds promise for improving citizens' acceptance of and support for policies aimed at ensuring the sustainability of the watershed's closely coupled human and natural systems.

Based on established historiographic methods, this study aims specifically to uncover how communities and individuals in the watershed have developed and managed water resources in the context of climate variability, especially drought. We present a brief discussion of the precolonial land- and resource-use patterns, and then examine patterns, practices, and events of the past two hundred years. Though we briefly discuss contemporary conditions and trends, we focus on the period between roughly 1850 and 1950. This time period represents early settlement and resource exploitation practices, the more extensive Mormon colonization period of the late nineteenth century, and significant changes that occurred in the ensuing decades. Our analysis considers local experience as well as how local entities have negotiated water shortages in the evolving context of state and national laws and institutions.

As discussed in more detail later, Mormon settlement and agrarian practices are especially important to consider in examining conditions in the watershed today. These first Anglo-American settlements profoundly affected subsequent patterns of population distribution and resource use. The period of population expansion following initial Mormon settlement taxed the water resources available within the basin, and prompted development of local knowledge as well as adoption of successive technologies to address water scarcity problems. …

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