by Jon Christensen
A critical appreciation of Norris Hundley, Jr.
In the 2009 preface to the new edition of his book Water and the West, Norris Hundley, Jr. wrote: “Water is today, as it was when the first edition of this book appeared thirty-five years ago, among mankind’s greatest concerns, a problem that remains a crisis of worldwide importance. Scientists, statesmen, environmental groups, and people everywhere recognize that water is a resource not to be taken for granted. Even those areas with considerable water are struggling with pollution and problems of management that worsen yearly as population grows and industry and agriculture expand.”
“No area of the world is more aware of the current water crisis than western America,” he asserted, “a vast arid and semiarid region embracing nearly half the continent of North America. Except for a strip along the north Pacific coast and isolated areas in the high mountains, the West is a region of sparse rainfall and few rivers. The implications of these facts of geography have been enormous. From the time of the first settlers to the present, few westerners have failed to comprehend that control of the West’s water means control of the West itself—its industry, agriculture, population distribution, and, withal, the direction of the future. Because the West has always had a water problem, its experiences provide valuable insights into the crises faced by other water-shy areas; and they also offer a preview of the even more serious problems that must involve the entire nation and the rest of the world as population grows.”
A Dutch photojournalist recently visited my office to talk about “disputed waters.” That’s actually the title of a project he is working on with colleagues—journalists, photographers, and videographers—around the world. They’re exploring stories about transboundary rivers—the Nile, the Mekong, the Jordan, the Danube and Rhine, and the Colorado—rivers that are a source of conflict because of climate change and increasing populations of people dependent on their waters. They’re working on a multimedia website, a book, and a traveling exhibition.
I’ve written about water in the American West for going on thirty years, and I did my best to help him, knowing all along that the person he really should have been talking to is no longer with us. But his books are.
If you’re like me, you probably have people you feel like you know through their work, although you’ve never gotten to know them in person. I wish I had had the opportunity to get to know Norris Hundley in person before he died in 2013. I’m deeply grateful that I’ve had not just the opportunity, but the necessity of getting to know him through his work. Because you cannot claim to care about understanding water in California and the broader American West—and, I daresay, understanding the state and region as a whole—without knowing the work of Norris Hundley, Jr. And there is, I believe, no way to read and know his work without getting to know a great deal about the man.
So I’d like to share with you what it is like to know a great historian through his great work.
Let’s start with the boundary waters the Dutch journalist was interested in, since that is where Norris started. (Because I feel as though I have come to know him through his work, I’d like to call him Norris here.)
Norris’s first book, Dividing the Waters: A Century of Controversy Between the United States and Mexico, came out of his dissertation at the University of California, Los Angeles, and it was published by UC Press in 1966. We historians treasure objects that give us a feeling for a particular time and place. I have an inscribed copy that looks and feels and, I like to think, even has the smell of a small, personal, scholarly library of someone, I imagine, who loved Southern California and the West, but also wanted to understand it critically, to be a part of it. It is a book I like to think I might have found in my grandfather’s home in Pasadena when we came to visit when I was just a kid in the sixties. He owned and ran Vroman’s bookstore with his cousins. I’d sit on the floor there and pull books off the shelf and read. But what I remember more is my grandfather’s personal library stuffed with books about California and the West.
Looking back, I realize I’m letting time slip. Norris’s book would have been brand new then, not the copy I now hold in my hands nearly fifty years later. Although this book is burnished by time, it still speaks to me now of our history, of this moment even, and of the man who wrote it.
“This has been a difficult book to write,” Norris states in the preface, “not only because the subject matter is often technical, but also because it deals with events that were—and still are—highly controversial.”
Note that “still are” remains true today.
He continued: “The great need for water in the arid southwestern United States and northern Mexico understandably prompted sharp conflicts between the countries as well as among the citizens within each country. For this reason, objectivity on the part of participants in the story has been almost impossible to find, and, obviously, it has not been easy—and sometimes has been impossible—to determine which side had the stronger case on a particular domestic or international issue. Nevertheless, judgments have been rendered where it was thought possible, and I candidly admit that some of them will not please everyone.”
There it is: the clear voice of the historian, aware that his sources come with strong points of view, to say the least, and aware that while he has done his best to practice objectivity—be faithful to his sources and present their arguments fairly, even as a debate of vital importance to his own region continued to rage around him—the historian has a point of view too, and will render judgment, openly inviting continuing debate.
Norris concluded Dividing the Waters with these words: “The United States and Mexico have made significant headway in the nearly century-long battle over their border streams, and, hopefully, their record of successes and failures will benefit other nations faced with similar problems. But any benefits that have been achieved should not be marred by neglecting to solve newer points of controversy.”
Here we have, in his first book, what I think of as the Norris Hundley point of view: broad-minded—he’s thinking about other places in the world facing similar challenges that might benefit from his history; fair about the progress, that “significant headway,” that had been made in the face of all kinds of problems; and aware of the challenges ahead—in the sentence before this conclusion he pointed to two of them: water quality and the vagueness of treaty provisions regarding the meaning of “extraordinary drought”—words that have an eerie resonance today.
Water and the West
Dividing the Waters examined the history of three rivers shared by Mexico and the United States: the Rio Bravo del Norte or Rio Grande, the Colorado, and the much smaller, but still very complicated Tijuana River. In his next book, Water and the West: The Colorado River and the Politics of Water in the American West, Norris took hold of the most vexing river’s history and wrestled it to the ground, mostly. I say “mostly,” because he would return to this history again and again.
“This book is about the greatest conflict over water in the American West,” he wrote. “To be more precise, it is primarily a book about an alleged peace treaty, the Colorado River Compact. But like most books about peace, it is really an account of war. No bullets were fired in this war, yet the life and death of cities and states in an enormous area were at stake. The Colorado River drains the entire left-hand corner of the continental United States. It is not a particularly heavy-flowing stream (ranking about sixth among the nation’s major rivers), but it is virtually the sole dependable water supply for an area of 244,000 square miles, including parts of seven western states—Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, California—and Mexico. Its influence is also felt far beyond its own watershed, for its waters have been diverted hundreds of miles and used to stimulate and sustain the urban, industrial, and agricultural growth of other areas such as eastern Colorado, western Utah, and the coastal plain of Southern California, a vast megalopolis stretching from north of Los Angeles to the Mexican border.”
I’ve come to wonder what Norris really thought about Los Angeles, which he called “the West’s most notorious water hustler.” I would have liked to talk with him about what seems, from his writing, to have become something of a love-hate relationship with this city and the role it has played in shaping California and the American West.
Norris was born in Texas, but California became his home from a young age. He met his wife Carol at San Gabriel Mission High; they fell in love and were married a year before Norris graduated from Whittier College in 1958. After receiving his Ph.D. in History in 1963 from UCLA, he taught at the University of Houston for a year before returning to UCLA, where he would spend his entire, enormously productive career, a career that helped shape not just the history of water in the West, but several other fields, as an advisor, mentor, colleague, and editor of the Pacific Historical Review for three decades.
In Water and the West, Norris worked several important veins in Western history. First, he put the Colorado River Compact in the context of federalism: “the attempt,” as he wrote, “of the Colorado River Basin states to work out their shared destiny in concert with the government in Washington. The attempt has been dogged almost from the start by conflicting notions of sovereignty, as each side has sought to assert its supremacy in areas jealously coveted by the other.”
In Western history, we sometimes say that the modern American West is a child of the federal government. You know the trope: the college student revels in the freedom, but still emails the parents to “send money.” As Norris wrote of his own work, “a prominent theme is the western desire to tap into federal largesse without incurring federal control.” But, as he noted, “the attempt to get the purse without the purse strings proved an impossible task” in the creation of the compact, as well as in a host of other projects that required the federal government to help build the American West.
The second vein that Norris continued to work in Water and the West was international. “Mexico is present in the Colorado River Basin,” he wrote, “though denied participation in the compact negotiations. Another international dimension,” though beyond the scope of his book, he continued, “emerges from a realization that other countries (most notably Egypt, Sudan, India, Pakistan, Israel, and Jordan) have looked to the compact for insights into the handling of their own water problems.”
Norris was well aware of what we now like to call the “transnational” dimensions of much of our history. The compact, he wrote, was “the first and most significant treaty of its kind, and one that has inspired a host of similar pacts.” The history of the American West, as he wrote it, is not a history of exceptionalism, a history told in isolation. It is a history tied to world.
There was one more significant prospect that Norris opened up in Water and the West, which would continue to shape his work. Historians had tended to see the conflict over water from the Colorado River, and other water conflicts in the West, “in simplistic terms,” he wrote, “in which advocates of cheap public power battled with the monopolistic forces of private industry—the ‘power trust.’ There was such a battle,” he continued, “but public agencies—federal, state, local, and municipal—also battled among themselves, as revealed in the conflicts among groups such as the city of Los Angeles, the state of Arizona, the Interior Department, and powerful chartered agencies such as the Imperial Irrigation District and the Salt River Valley Water Users’ Association.”
It’s not for nothing that we often talk of western water wars. What Norris showed is that at times this looked not so much like the imperial, all-knowing conquest of a hydraulic society in the American West, but instead like a chaotic war of all against all, in which, as he wrote, “no bullets were fired,” “yet the life and death of cities and states in an enormous area were at stake.” Or, what we might just call democracy, messy democracy, a theme to which Norris would return, again and again.
A reviewer in the Western Political Quarterly, called Water and the West “vivid…. A well-documented case study of how not to go about making public policy.”
We’re taught to resist the temptation of responding to reviewers, at least in print, but I like to imagine Norris, in private, saying something like “perhaps the worst way of going about making public policy on the Colorado River, except for all those other ways that were tried before the compact.”
Which is not to say that Norris was not critical of the compact. He was very critical of the compact, from its foundation on lousy data, which estimated average river flows based on a series of the wettest years on record, to the way apportionment was mandated, which guaranteed that upper-basin states would have to deliver flows to the lower-basin states even during dry years, to the lawsuits that resulted, and the ways in which the compact has limited innovation.
Norris Hundley, as far as I can tell from reading his work, resisted simplification, which is not the same as clarity, I hasten to add. His prose was clear and direct, even as he waded into some of the most complex situations imaginable—and water in the West is nothing if not complex.
In his next book, The Great Thirst, a magnum opus for those of who know and love and hope to understand California, Norris fully integrated two more complexities in this history: Native American water rights and the environment. The first, he had already begun to explore in Water and the West, as tribal rights to water figured in Arizona v. California, the key Supreme Court case that settled compact claims in the lower basin, although, as Norris showed, the decision was based on a misreading of the historical record. Moreover, while the Supreme Court could decree peace, it could not end water wars in the West.
“‘Basin of Contention’ would be an apt name for what generations have called the Colorado River Basin,” he wrote in a new epilogue to Water and the West in 2009. “A limited supply of water in a vast arid and semiarid region is hardly a recipe for tranquility among those who covet that water. The drafters of the compact were clearly aware of that truism, but they nonetheless failed to determine with reasonable accuracy the long-term annual flow of the Colorado River…. They had a glaring need for sound information, but no concerted effort was made to call on the scientific community for help. The drafters were mesmerized by their desire for haste and their political and personal goals. Without authoritative information, they had an opportunity to pick and choose information that best suited their interests and uncertainties—and that is what they did. The situation would not change significantly until others recognized and studied the importance of tree-ring data—data that revealed a distinct pattern, going back centuries, of severe and lengthy droughts, and the probability that this pattern will continue in the future. The consequences of the compact remain with us.”
In that epilogue, Norris pointed to other issues that would continue to complicate water in the West: the threat of global warming, endangered species, a resurgence of Native American water rights claims, and here in California, the fate of the delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers and the proposal formerly known as the peripheral canal. “As I write this, no one knows when the current imbroglio—which involves much more than a peripheral canal—will end,” Norris concluded in 2009. “But if the past is any clue to the future, there are years of arguing and grumbling ahead.”
The Great Thirst
The Great Thirst: Californians and Water: A History would have been the achievement of a lifetime for any historian. But Norris wrote it not just once but twice. The first version was published in 1992 and instantly became the definitive history of water in California. In 2001, Norris significantly revised the book.
“Even this edition cannot pretend to have the last word on such a complex topic characterized by both fast-breaking and ponderously slow developments,” he wrote. “Such is the fate of any attempt foolish enough to try to keep abreast of history as it is being made. An impossible task, of course, and it is further complicated because water issues are so closely intertwined with the core elements of California’s (and the American West’s) political, economic, legal, and cultural evolution.”
The Great Thirst is a great book, the kind of book that can be written only by a someone in the full confidence of his powers as a historian and a writer, knowing his subject backward and forward, and guided by a vision informed by a lifetime of research, enriched by arguments with his sources, other scholars, and even himself, and based on a foundation of caring, dare I say, love.
Because it’s clear to this reader that Norris Hundley loved California, even as he kept a sharp, critical eye on “the nation’s preeminent water seeker,” or as he modified that in The Great Thirst, “collection of water seekers.” Norris was nothing if not precise in his prose and in his arguments and ideas.
The Great Thirst is guided, much more than his earlier books, by a concern with what he called “the dynamic interplay between human values and what human beings do to the waterscape.” This is no longer a kind of political and diplomatic history brought to the realm of water wars along the United States-Mexico border and on the Colorado River. To be sure, it still has that solid, detailed grounding in politics, economics, and the law, but The Great Thirst is also about a cultural collective. It is, as the subtitle says, a history of “Californians and water.”
This story runs from California before Europeans arrived right up to the twenty-first century. It chronicles the appearance of what Norris called “a new kind of social imperialist whose goal was to acquire the water of others and prosper at their expense, a goal that catapulted California into a modern colossus while also producing monumental conflicts and social costs. At the same time,” he wrote, “this is a story of extraordinary feats of fulfilling basic social needs, in which communities mobilized and focused their political energies on providing abundant clear water to multitudes of people who expressly wanted it done.”
Here Norris took precise aim in an internecine skirmish among historians in these larger western water wars. You know the saying: “You come at the king, you best not miss.” Well, there is another great book, by a friend of mine, a great historian too, Donald Worster, called Rivers of Empire, which argues that our western American hydraulic societies created, as Norris wrote, “a powerful, highly centralized, and despotic ruling elite like that found in the irrigation society of Karl Wittfogel’s classic Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power.”
“The evidence presented here does not reveal” that, Norris argued. And here, I think, as much as I love Don Worster, Norris Hundley does not miss:
“Rather, the California record discloses a wide and often confused and crosscutting range of interest groups and bureaucrats, both public and private, who accomplish what they do as a result of shifting alliances and despite frequent disputes among themselves. Because of their multiplicity of interests, different combinations of them at different times and for different reasons worked vigorously on behalf of particular projects, but each success brought more growth, which intensified hostility and the competition for supplies always perceived as inadequate. Thus, conflict, rivalry, and localism have permeated the development process, exacerbating the human and environmental costs, with the public, until recently, cheerleading with ballots and in other ways the aqueducts, dams, and reservoirs. There is, of course, some system and order to what has been accomplished, but it is found in attitudes toward the environment, in local and regional considerations (especially California’s traditional north-south rivalry), in interest-group pressures, in the give-and-take of political battle, and it is understood within the larger context of American political culture and policy-making and in the ways in which the national culture resonates in California.”
In the view that Norris gives us, we can no longer blame our predicament on despotic elites. To quote Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
Or as Norris writes: “When viewed from both local and national perspectives, California’s water achievements have resulted ultimately from the support and encouragement of the people, who have considered themselves participants in a booming economy made possible by great hydraulic projects. These projects have included the ambitious flood control, reclamation, and irrigation programs of the late nineteenth century; the twentieth-century urban aqueducts to the Owens Valley, Mono Basin, and Hetch Hetchy; the massive federal multipurpose ventures pioneered nationally in the Boulder Canyon Project and replicated in the Central Valley Project; and California’s own State Water Project, the largest public enterprise ever undertaken by a state.”
But, but, and here is the key, turning in the lock:
“Just as the electorate has sanctioned these ventures,” Norris writes, “so too have the people of California begun to register second thoughts, especially over the last several decades. Spiraling costs, runaway urbanization, gridlocked streets and highways, environmental damage, a decline in the quality of life, heavy public expense in the exorbitant subsidies to agriculture, inefficient and wasteful water practices, the persistence of poor working conditions for those laboring in California’s fields—all have contributed to mounting demands for reform.”
Norris knew these reforms were “piecemeal, fitful, and frequently more symbolic than real,” but he believed in reform. He also believed, after years of studying the successes and failures on the border, on the Colorado, and in California, that “the lack of informed and consistent leadership in Sacramento and Washington” did not augur well for the state he loved. In a move that mystified Don Worster, who thought that centralization of power was the root of all evil in water, Norris even argued that we need to centralize more control of water at the state level in order to get better management of water statewide. It was a conclusion drawn from deep knowledge about this “collection of water seekers” called California. It makes sense. We are beginning to see that happen in Sacramento, though still in fits and starts, of course. I know I shouldn’t say this as a historian, but some things never change.
“No one has ever argued that democracy is a perfect form of government,” Norris dryly observed as he brought The Great Thirst to a close. In fact, far from perfect, as his life’s work had shown, when it came to water in California and the American West.
I didn’t know Norris Hundley. I wish I had. I would have liked to talk with him about all of this, but also about something that many of us don’t talk about much outside of our profession: his theory of history. Every historian has one, even if they don’t think they do. The best, like Norris, don’t wear it on their sleeves.
I like to try to teach my students to understand and even develop their own theory of history, particularly if they are not going to go on to become historians (if they do, they’ll have plenty of time for that; but for some of my students, my class may be their only chance). I reveal to them my own theory of history as we work through a class I’ve called “Climate Change in the West: A History of the Future,” though it can also be set in California, or even Los Angeles. We work through books like Norris’s, filled with the messy particulars of nations, states, institutions, policies, laws, economy, cultures, rocks and soils, plants and animals, and groups and individuals. We think about the structures of these things, how they endure and are reproduced by all of us as we go about our daily lives, but also how they change because of contingency—things happen, the St. Francis Dam fails, Arizona wins a key decision in the Supreme Court, the Peripheral Canal is voted down, the Mono Lake Committee prevails on the public trust doctrine—and because of agency, people have power to make things happen, especially in a democracy.
That’s what I want the future engineers and lawyers, politicians and environmental advocates, scientists and teachers to take away from my class. I want them to understand the constraints that have been created by our history of transforming California’s landscape, the limitations of politics and institutions, the ways in which power reproduces itself and makes it difficult to change. I also want them to understand the ways things change, as Norris wrote, in ways that are often at the same time “ponderously slow” and “fast-breaking.”
I have a feeling, from reading his work and listening to colleagues talk about his teaching, that Norris and I might have had some good, long conversations about all of this. And I miss them.
To my ear, Norris always had a small-d democratic voice, a small-p progressive voice. A pragmatic, reformist voice. A moral voice. From the beginning to the end. As I read through his life’s work, I hear that voice growing steadily stronger through the years, gaining clarity, confidence, authority, and passion.
It is a voice that represents the very best of our profession. It is a voice that has a strong point of view but nevertheless follows the careful practices of objectivity. It is a popular voice that is accessible to all, judicious in its use of evidence, fair in its presentation of all arguments, and generous in its humanity.
This is a voice our state and our world needs. It is a voice that is missing from our public square today, but a voice that is still here in these books, for others to take up and bring into the world, to do work in the world. I am glad Norris Hundley, Jr. is still with us in his work.
Image at top by Robert Couse-Baker, via Flickr.