Distraction Free Reading

Water Scarcity, Hydropolitics, and the Importance of Materiality at the Foothills of the Rocky Mountains

How is growing water scarcity experienced by livestock producers? And to what extent does the materiality of water and the infrastructures on which users rely influence social relations and conflict management? Inspired by eighteen months of ethnographic fieldwork with livestock producers in Wyoming during which water both metaphorically and physically saturated my notebooks and conversations, I suggest that the form of water, either as a river or an aquifer in this case, helps to foster different experiences of waterways and also of social relations between water users. In comparing two different waterways, the Ogallala aquifer and the North Platte River, and the infrastructures on which water users depend, I argue that surface water and irrigation canals visibly highlight interdependent relations whereas groundwater pumping conceals connections.

About an hour-and-a-half drive from the state capital reside livestock producers who rely on the North Platte River to grow forage crops and raise herds. Originating as snowmelt from Colorado mountains, water flows down into the North Platte River and its tributary the Laramie River, is captured at points with the aid of artificially made reservoirs, and then is sent to irrigation districts, materially comprised of drainage ditches and canals. The rest continues to flow through eastern Wyoming and into Nebraska. Built decades ago as reclamation projects aimed at turning unproductive tracts of land into fertile fields, the infrastructure through which water moves need continual maintenance. Within the district, annual fees of about $35/acre are paid by water users to the governing structure of the irrigation district and put towards maintaining the infrastructure needed to divert water from the river.

As waterways that are highly visible, rivers, irrigation canals, reservoirs, and dams entail collective action in ways groundwater pumping does not. Jose, a lean man who breeds and sells bulls with his father and son, belongs to one irrigation district on the North Platte along with about 400 others and has served on the irrigation district board which is responsible for making sure people are able to access water for their crops and herds. As I sat next to him in the cab of his truck as we drove from fields to pastures, he described the politics involved in irrigation. For example, he mentioned that irrigation water is measured and regulated although one could get around this regulation if one wanted to, taking more than one’s fair share. Looking over to make sure I understood the seriousness of this, however, he said sternly, “but you’re hurting your neighbor when you do it.” And unlike resolving groundwater use complaints, there are clear, well-known pathways users utilize to grieve, from the local all the way to the state level. Litigation between upstream Colorado and Wyoming by downstream users such as Nebraska is not uncommon as states aim to protect their constituents from climate change related drops in water levels.

The North Platte River is at the heart of what Elise Trott calls a fluid public, “an emergent social and political space shaped by the materiality of waterways and the multispecies assemblages surrounding them” (6, 2017). Writing of acequias, communally governed irrigation ditches that predate the state in New Mexico, Trott describes fluid publics as spaces that are precarious and difficult to govern which exceed other forms of identity and support an array of political tactics and alliances. Recognizing the North Platte river and the irrigation districts which revolve around it as a fluid public brings attention to the idea that natural resources are also and always social. A significant amount of cooperative human effort is responsible for bringing water to a certain place at a certain time.

Image of a woman digging into a tub, the top of which is covered with ice. The woman uses a stick to dig. Her hair is covered and she wears a grey jacket and brown pants. She is standing on land covered in brown grass, and there are cattle in the background.

Tina, a livestock producer, on one of her chores (Image credit: Kimberly Sanchez)

The collapse in June 2019 of a water transporting tunnel in a two-tunnel system within the district reveals how the ranchers, the county irrigation district, and the North Platte River constitute a fluid public. The 1920-era concrete tunnel had failed due to age, ending the summer irrigation season eighty days prematurely for everyone. Plans were underway to renovate both tunnels. With construction expected to begin after the current irrigation season ended, a mixed group of individuals from the Bureau of Reclamation—whose members are appointed by the state—and elected, local landowners—who typically serve brief terms on irrigation district boards—were in charge of facilitating maintenance. Half of the board wanted to dig out the ditch to prevent further collapse. Others were opposed to this on account of the dirt which would be unearthed and blown about nearby indigenous burial grounds; the presence of Oregon trail ruts; and opposition from the landowner on whose land the tunnel resides. This would take more time, require more permissions, and would mean higher costs to cut the tunnel out. Jose said everyone could agree on what needed to be done, but not on how it should be carried out. As shown, fluid publics centered around irrigation are highly visible and as such highlight the ways in which disparate people rely on each other through their mutual reliance on a surface waterway. Even scarcity is communally felt through shorter irrigation seasons—in this case by failing infrastructure, but at other times by climate change-related water level drops in dry years. Such collective living is concealed when water flows underground.

While surface waters make visible interdependencies, underground waterways and the infrastructure relied upon to use them obscure similar ties and constitute a murkier fluid public that fosters a false sense of individualism. Although Oscar and Cathy are practitioners of dryland farming and ranching—a practice which relies exclusively on natural precipitation, growing drought-resistant plant varieties, and carefully managing the soil to produce crops in more arid environments—the husband-wife duo rely on groundwater for their domestic needs and are keenly aware of numerous neighbors and kin who pump water for cattle and crops, including their three grown daughters. Groundwater pumping works by drilling down through the earth to hidden caverns of water and then putting in pipes and pumping it up to the surface. Here it’s put into water tanks for thirsty livestock, used for pumping oil and natural gas, or forced through large overhead pipes that travel in large circles around a central pivot, watering and carving the land into concentric patches of varying shades of green. The invention of center pivot irrigation by a Colorado farmer in 1940 and the improvement of well digging methods have expanded access to once reliable underground water from the edges of the Ogallala aquifer. However, alongside expanded access has come increased tension between established ranchers and new small landowners, as noted at a meeting of women ranchers.

In a conference room of a local hotel, I listened as a lively discussion unfolded where everyone agreed that water is becoming more difficult to access in Southeast Wyoming. Members of a women’s ranching and beef advocacy group focus on educating the public. This groups of ladies meet regularly to share meals, plan events, socialize, and perform work needed to hold together a dispersed, rural community. Most of them implicitly connected increased water scarcity to increased demand due to a growing number of housing developments, specifically small acre parcels called “ranchettes” on the outskirts of town. The women criticized the watering of five-acre lawns by owners still living as if they resided in the suburbs and the construction of houses before wells were drilled. These sentiments were mirrored by other ranchers who stated that new small landowners “have no idea what their stewardship responsibilities are.” Tina, the eldest of Oscar and Cathy’s daughters with a herd of a few hundred head, said it now took three times longer to fill up the tanks she uses to bring water to her herd, even as improvements were made on her new pasture water systems. Just a couple years ago it took twenty minutes to fill the 275-gallon tank on the back of her truck; now it takes over an hour. Weeks later while I accompanied Tina on her round of morning chores, she considered the personal impacts of water scarcity. Concern soaked her words as she described how her neighbors are taking showers at the gym and drilling ever deeper for water that is less and less reliably available. “[Ground]water is not gonna last forever,” she said softly, as much to herself as to me.

Drawn from unseen aquifers, groundwater pumping is to an extent decentralized and assumes a false air of individualism as water users draw from the same resource but do so at different times, locations, and for different purposes. Individuals know that others are using water too, but who exactly is using too much is trickier to sort out. It is an arena ripe for unethical practices, as described by Lucas Bessire in his account of the depletion of groundwater in Kansas (2021). However, unlike hydropolitics among Kansas farmers, from the perspective of the local women ranchers water scarcity is linked to the influx of new neighbors as opposed to the overuse of water by fellow producers. That being said, there are circumstances where tensions arise between neighbors up in Wyoming just as they do in Kansas. Oscar and Cathy, along with several other interlocutors, described a situation where a local ranch wanted to install around eight irrigation wells, a substantial amount, and submitted an application in 2019 to drill them. After two years there had been no approval given yet though many remained concerned. Little could be done but wait, it seemed. The official channels available for grievances were unclear. For instance, when I asked Oscar and Cathy who exactly one would go to for registering a complaint, they disagreed about whether one should go directly to the state engineer’s office or to the county conservation district. Unlike with surface water, where grievance channels are better known and other users identifiable, the murky fluid public that revolves around an aquifer is not unilinear but rather rhizomatic in form (Deleuze and Guattari 1980). Above the surface each water user may appear as distinct from others, much as a stand of cattails sways together though separate in a muddy pond. But beneath the opaque water, roots connect each with the others in irrevocable ways.

Not all fluid publics are alike. Underground waterways and the infrastructures water users rely on in accessing these foster a false sense of individualism and conceal to an extent not only the existence of other water users like Tina, but also how they are impacted by declining water levels. In contrast, as one of many in a very visible, linear collective, surface waters and irrigation infrastructures like canals, dams, and reservoirs foster knowledge of other water users, such as Jose, as well as the need to actively maintain a steady flow of water in order to enjoy a similar flow of health, wealth, and happiness for herds, families, and communities. Through comparing two cases of water-use among livestock producers in Wyoming, we are reminded of the need to take account of the material conditions that help give form to social relations, particularly those which constitute fluid publics.

This post was curated by Contributing Editor Kim Fernandes


Bessire, Lucas. 2021. Running out: In search of water on the High Plains. Princeton University Press.Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. 1987[1980]. A Thousand Plateaus. Capitalism and Schizophrenia.
Trans. By Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Trott, Elise, 2017. Bodies of Water: Politics, Ethics, and Relationships along New Mexico&’s Acequias.
Doctoral dissertation, The University of New Mexico.

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