The West that you and I know and love has more than its share of crackpots and nincompoops. Jowls tremble as their latest cockamamie idea about the world curls itself around their brainstems like flesh-eating centipedes. Then, every two years or so, we round up these folks in old yellow school buses, assign each one a campaign manager and elect the weirdest of the bunch to our state legislatures.
In keeping with this sacred tradition, the Montana Senate distinguished itself last year by passing a bill permitting people to use spears to hunt for moose. Ten minutes after the bill sailed through the chamber on a cold February night, laughter could be heard rolling across the High Plains from the direction of Minneapolis and Chicago. (The bill later died in a House committee.)
This is part of the interest we pay for a solemn compact westerners struck with our eastern cousins a century ago. We agree to tolerate their patronizing, and in return they let us keep drawing two federal dollars out of the national treasury for every dollar we put in. Moreover, it's a valuable civics lesson, one that reminds us of our place in this messy democracy. We chip in, offering them our steaks, some beer, the Mustang Ranch and the entertainment value of our politicians, and they respond by building our highways, schools, hospitals, dams and bridges. On balance, it seems like a pretty sweet deal.
But now and then along comes a notion so outlandish that it sucks all of that clean mountain air right out of our lungs and leaves us limp with hypoxia. Such a moment is upon us, and, surprise: It's about water. Faced with an alarming and growing gap between projected supply and demand on the Colorado River, the Bureau of Reclamation has announced that it is seriously studying an idea first floated by an earlier gang of politicians in the 1960s. The plan is to divert 600,000 acre-feet of Missouri River water, via pipeline, from the far eastern side of Kansas to reservoirs in Denver.
When this notion first breached the surface of civil discourse 50 years ago, it was one of the rare times that the laughter actually reversed course and flowed from West to East. Wyoming Gov. Leslie Miller, in summarizing the final report of the Hoover Commission study on federal water policy in the Westa study requested and funded by the U.S. Congress—described the Bureau of Reclamation as the largest group of thieves and scoundrels ever assembled under one roof.
After building some 100,000 dams and nearly bankrupting the national treasury, the nation's two water agencies, the Bureau of Reclamation and Army Corps of Engineers, retreated into the shadows for half a century. It took that long to pay off the damage. In the Central Utah Project alone, American taxpayers spent $3,953 per acre to irrigate alfalfa fed to cows that were sold to Japan.
When it comes to water, wrote Marc Reisner in his seminal work on Western water, Cadillac Desert, it will always flow uphill toward money, and "logic and reason never figure prominently in the scheme of things."
Some things never change. As Rose Davis, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Reclamation, explained to the New York Times recently, the idea of piping Missouri River water 600 miles uphill to Denver is one that resurfaced when the agency started looking at its options for hydrating the 25 million or so people who depend on the Colorado River. When it became clear to the agency that the usual sources of water were going to fall far short of demand, the agency experienced a serious wake-up call.
According to Davis, "We threw open the doors (to new ideas) and said, 'Bring it on, nothing is too silly.'"
Half-awake passengers in those old yellow school buses have to know that the West is headed for a colossal train wreck over water. Climate change has already pushed existing models of resource allocation into uncharted territory. Nobody dares to estimate how much this pipeline would cost, but Reisner calculated that it would take the electricity generated by six nuclear power plants just to run the pumps for this Missouri River scheme. It's a crazy idea, and in the West, that's just enough to make it plausible to the kind of guys who would hunt moose with spears.
Let the laughter—and the check-writing—begin.
Paul VanDevelder is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in Portland, Ore., and is the author of Savages and Scoundrels: The Untold Story of America's Road to Empire through Indian Territory.