Michael A. Cox

Michael A. Cox

I was a bit surprised last week when I found a familiar face staring back at me from the opinion page of the Montrose Daily Press. It was Bruce Babbitt, former Arizona governor and secretary of the interior under the Clinton administration. An even greater surprise was the byline: Bruce Babbitt, Writers on the Range. That jolt comes from the fact that connecting Babbitt and rangeland in any fashion is sort of like cursing in public.

I first got to know Bruce back in the ‘70s when he was a young Arizona attorney, making a name for himself by aligning with environmental causes. I met him when I was a voice for the cattle folks, serving on the board of the Arizona Wildlife Federation. We stayed in touch through his tenure as governor. The last time that I saw him was on a Southwest Airlines flight when we exchanged pleasantries. I always liked Bruce, though our politics were separated by a wide chasm. When he was governor in Arizona, we were on each other’s rolodexes — you remember, it was sort of an analog speed dial thing. He was always available for a chat.

To me, his going to the dark side as Clinton’s interior chief was bad enough. But when he started pushing his silly Range Reform program in the late ‘90s, I figured that he had lost it altogether. He had gotten under the covers with the Sierra Club and other enviro organizations, but then he had been sitting on the edge of the bed for a long time. Fortunately, the range reform thing died a quiet death at the hands of the livestock industry and hunting and fishing groups.

Bruce’s op-ed in the MDP last week was, after all these years, another broadside at agriculture. He is one of the voices in the choir that sings from the “ag water use is bad” songbook. His composition this time was “how to save the Colorado River.” How assuming.

I was stunned at his first verse, the hyperbolic suggestion that we are in the midst of a 500-year drought in the southwest U.S. He cited no attribution and totally ignored the fact that we don’t even have records dating back that far. His second verse was the same old, same old, “We must cut agricultural water use.” The rest of the verses were de capo — music talk to repeat the previous. The chorus was no surprise, “Buy the water rights from the farmers and ranchers and take them out of production.” Oh, and promise to let them back into business in, say, 20 or 30 years.

The one thing in Bruce’s screed that I agree with is that the Colorado River Basins are oversubscribed. Cities like Los Angeles, Phoenix, Tucson, Denver, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, all depend on the river and they all want more. Bruce calls the allotment cuts for the cities, both past and future, “Draconian.” He said there is a more equitable way, cut the water to three million acres of irrigated crops which, he claims, use 80% of the water in the basin. He said the crops are just alfalfa and other forage.

Stop. I have been in this parade before.

When Bruce was the governor of Arizona, the state set about to recodify the groundwater laws. There were meetings and conferences and opinion lettings. Then a hundred or so pretty smart and well-meaning folks were sequestered (sort of like being quarantined) at a place called Castle Hot Springs. I was invited as a member of the agriculture press. The job was to hammer out the way groundwater would be managed for the next century or so.

Remember the Bundy standoff, down near Mesquite? That’s pretty much what we had at the Hot Springs. The cities were on one side and the farmers and ranchers were on the other. Both were at DEFCON 1 — maximum readiness, immediate response. It got heated at several points. The similarity to the Colorado River Basin problem is obvious. The Arizona groundwater supply was oversubscribed because the cities were growing and desperately needed water. The Tucson folks wanted the water from the Avra Valley, a huge farming area over one of the biggest aquifers in the state. The valley is located west of the city, on the other side of the Tucson Mountain divide.

I was rooming with my old friend, Bob Buckelew, a long-time Avra Valley farmer. Bob was a calm, soft spoken gentleman. He was aghast at the idea that people in the cities would shut down farms and take the water, paid for or not.

“Where do they think the food and fiber comes from?,” Bob asked me. My calm friend was seething inside.

Arizona eventually hammered out a water law and management system, dependent, to a large degree, on the premise that Tucson and Phoenix would be getting water from the Central Arizona Project. Of course, you know where the CAP water comes from. I’m with you, if you think we just went through a roundabout.

When I see someone like Bruce Babbitt write that water used for forage and pasture irrigation is wasted and better used piping it to desert cities full of swimming pools, flush toilets, fake lakes, and green spaces, I tend to seethe, which is not my nature. Does he really believe that flapdoodle? I stole that word. Were Bruce to read my comments here, he would recognize it as one used by the 70s and 80s editorial scribes at the Arizona Republic, when they discussed the dysfunctional talk of politicians. Et tu Bruce.

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