In the Western United States, few issues carry the political charge of water. Access to it can make or break both cities and rural communities.
There is a myth that says there is not enough of it, but those who deal closely with it will tell you this is false. There is plenty, it is just in the wrong places.
It can decide every part of the economy, from almond orchards to ski resorts to semiconductor factories. And with the worst drought in 1,500 years parching the region, water anxiety is at an all-time high.
Cibola, Ariz., is one of the wrong places. Home to about 300 people, depending on what time of year you’re counting, the town sits on the California border, in a stretch of the Sonoran Desert encircled by fang-like mountains and seemingly dead rocky terrain. Thanks to the Colorado River, which meanders through town, Cibola is a verdant oasis that chatters at dusk with swooping birds.
Along both banks, few hundred acres produce lush alfalfa and cotton, amid one of the more arid and menacing environments in North America.
A few years ago a firm called Greenstone, a subsidiary of the financial services conglomerate MassMutual, quietly bought the right to most of Cibola’s water. Greenstone then moved to sell the water to one of the right places: Queen Creek, a fast-growing suburb of Phoenix 175 miles away, full of tract houses and backyard pools.
Transferring water from agricultural communities to cities, though often contentious, is not a new practice. Much of the West, including Los Angeles and Las Vegas, was made by moving water, in this case an investment fund in Phoenix — with owners on the East Coast — to exert that power.
Of all the accomplishments of moving and storing water in the West — from Hoover dam to the mammoth Colorado-Big Thompson reservoir — none may be more impressive than a yellowing, sparsely worded 13-page document called the Colorado River compact. Drafted in 1922, it allocates the river’s annual flow, dividing the water among seven states desperate for their share.
Today, the river provides water to 40 million people and 5.5 million acres of farmland — not just in Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Arizona and California, but also to 29 Native American tribes and the Mexican states of Sonora and Baja Calif.
Russell George, a former state representative from western Colorado who founded the Interbasin Compact Committee, a statewide governmental body devoted to seeking consensus on water issues.
“Back in the 1920s, they knew that if they didn’t reach agreement, there were going to be winners and losers, so with a lot of wrangling and quarreling, they eventually agreed to agree. Everybody got a little,” he added. “And it had to be a pretty good process, because it lasted 100 years.”