As the water level in Lake Mead continues its steady decline, images of the fountains at the Bellagio Resort are regularly mobilized to critique the hubristic and profligate water practices of Las Vegas, a city whose growth is often seen as untethered from the environmental realities of increasing water scarcity in the Colorado River Basin. Christian S. Harrison’s new book, All the Water the Law Allows: Las Vegas and Colorado River Politics, argues against this conventional narrative of exploitation in favor of a more nuanced understanding of the fabled desert metropolis and its relationship to water. Harrison contends that this “highly simplistic” critique overlooks the fact that Las Vegas’s use of water from Lake Mead accounts for “a mere 2 percent” of its annual inflow from the Colorado River, and that such a narrow conception of Las Vegas ignores the legal constraints imposed on the city by the long-standing “Law of the River,” an agreement hashed out in the 1920s that stipulates how many acre feet of water each of the seven states in the Colorado River Basin is legally entitled to (191).
Harrison’s chronological study focuses primarily on how this “legally imposed shortage” forced competing water agencies in the greater Las Vegas metropolitan area to band together under the multi-member Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) in the late 1980s, when it became apparent that the region was perilously close to running out of water (191). Following in the footsteps of important works like Steven P. Erie’s Beyond Chinatown and Patricia Limerick’s A Ditch in Time, Harrison’s concise and well-researched history of the creation of the SNWA, an agency rooted in cooperation and adaptation, provides an alternative political and legal model for the strategic and equitable distribution of water throughout the Colorado River Basin as “twenty-first-century environmental trends” increasingly render “the Law of the River obsolete” (191).
The first two chapters of the book provide the reader with a “30,000-foot view” of the Las Vegas Valley from precontact to the late 1970s (ix). Chapter 1 argues that water was relatively abundant in the valley in precontact periods and that the Native peoples who inhabited it learned to share that resource—rather than competing for it through warfare—as part of a region-wide survival strategy (20–21). In chapter 2, Harrison examines the urban growth of Las Vegas in the early to mid-twentieth century and contends that when the Colorado River was being apportioned among the seven states in the 1920s, officials in southern Nevada were more concerned about securing hydroelectric power for mining and the pumping of groundwater than they were about water for irrigation, because agriculture was not a key sector in the economy. Using testimony from the Boulder Canyon Act proceedings of 1929 and land development pamphlets from the same period, Harrison argues that oft-repeated myths—that leaders who did not advocate a more robust share of the river were “drunk” during the negotiations or that they did not care about Las Vegas—distort the historical reality that no one could have predicted the phenomenal rise of the city in the latter part of the century (35–36). This context, he notes, set in motion both the legally imposed scarcity of water and the acrimonious competition between southern Nevada’s five water agencies that followed. This artificial scarcity and competition nearly led to disaster when urban development and population density in Las Vegas skyrocketed in the 1980s.
Harrison’s prowess as a researcher comes to the fore in chapters 3 through 7, which focus on the period from the late 1980s through 2014. He capably demonstrates that the doctrine of “use it or lose it” in Western water appropriation spurred competition, wasteful water practices, and deep animus between the five water agencies of southern Nevada in the 1980s. This cycle of waste and mutual distrust very nearly led to the city not having enough water to sustain its growing population (including its tourist population) in the early 1990s. Crisis was narrowly averted when Patricia Mulroy, a former informational analyst and lobbyist for the Los Vegas Valley Water Department (LVVWD), the largest of the five agencies, took the helm of that institution in 1989 (54–55). Harrison makes superb use of his sources, especially the many interviews he conducted with former water officials, to demonstrate how Mulroy brought the formerly intransigent water agencies together as the SNWA in 1991. In a fraught process, she guided the SNWA through a series of “paradigm shifts” that saw the organization evolve from a confederation of member agencies to a cohesive entity that used a cooperative model to consolidate regional authority over water, and, eventually, into an institution wielding the kind of authority typically reserved for state governments that could advocate for a greater share of water from the Colorado River (94–96). It is Harrison’s careful rendering of Mulroy as a savvy negotiator and visionary, a figure he believes has been “as influential in her time as Robert Moses of New York or William Mulholland of Los Angeles,” that is likely to hold the most interest for scholars of water policy, regional politics, or urban development (55).
While All the Water the Law Allows is a valuable addition to the history of water policy, it includes very occasional factual missteps that are most likely the understandable result of compiling tremendous amounts of meticulous research. On page 31, for example, Harrison explains that the All-American Canal, which connects the Imperial Valley to the Colorado River, was constructed in 1901. It was the Alamo Canal, most of which ran through Mexico, that was constructed in 1901. Excavation of the All-American Canal began in the mid-1930s and would not be completed until the early 1940s. The history of this canal is crucial for understanding regional and international disputes over the Colorado River that continue to this day. On page 42, he notes that in 1957 senators from Nevada called on Bureau of Reclamation commissioner Floyd Dominy and President Lyndon B. Johnson for help obtaining funds for water resources in Las Vegas. Johnson would not ascend to the presidency until 1963. These small errors do not detract from Harrison’s compelling arguments that the prohibition of interstate water transfers and the ongoing adherence to the Law of the River, a relic of the 1920s and ’30s that favors political boundaries over physical geography, disproportionately impacts cities like Las Vegas that do not have access to agricultural water supplies to fall back on (178). As Harrison notes, the Law of the River will need to be revised if the urban centers that are the “economic powerhouses [of the Colorado River Basin states] are to survive” (194).
All the Water the Law Allows is an engaging and well-researched read that sets the dated, but incredibly resilient, thesis of urban centers as monolithic water-grabbing empires on its head. In the process, it offers the reader a detailed and nuanced study of cooperative water management and policy that underscores the dangers of adhering to legal agreements made when the economy of the American West was geared toward agriculture, especially in the face of increasing aridity. As a fellow scholar of water policy in the Southwest, I particularly appreciate Harrison’s use of oral history to humanize what could have been a rather “dry” subject. The book gives richly deserved attention to Mulroy and other officials who have reenvisioned what pragmatic and equitable water distribution should look like in the Colorado River Basin in the twenty-first century.