A story of history, culture and politics: Part 3 of a 5 part series.

Water and Culture

Depending upon perspective, water can take many meanings, whether interpreted by a hydrologist, a lawyer, or a farmer, to name just three interests. Not often thought of as a commentator on water, an anthropologist also might have something to say on the subject. This is because water can be thought of as a cultural artifact, with various cultures and societies interpreting its significance differently. For example, three early cultures which inhabited Arizona and the Southwest - Indian, Spaniard, and American - valued water in different ways. A brief discussion of how these cultures valued water will show some compatibility with modern water conservation sensibilities.


In many traditional Indian societies water had a spiritual significance and was prominent in myth and ritual. Rain might be considered a blessing and drought a punishment, with humans benefitting or suffering depending upon what they did or failed to do. For example, the Tohono O'odham perform a saguaro ceremony to bring rain.

For some tribes, nature had an intrinsic value unto itself, beyond whatever physical benefits it provided humans. Some tribes even attributed thoughts and feelings to animals, plants, stones, and springs. More than a physical reality of various categories - water, minerals, plants, and animals - nature formed an interconnecting web, with the boundary between the human and nonhuman not always clearly drawn. Some tribes believed that humans, through their efforts or machinations of others, can take on the form of rocks or become trees, coyotes, fish, ducks, or other creatures.

The idea that water can be owned, to be bartered or sold, was foreign to many Indians. Water, like land, transcended the needs or desires of any individual, or even a group of individuals; instead water was an essential element of nature to be shared by humans, animals, and plants.


To the Spanish, nature was not sacrosanct. What it bestowed - rivers and streams, woodlands, minerals, soils and animal and plant life - might be considered a divine gift, but one to be subdued and exploited for the glory of God and civilization. Las Siete Partidas, a 1265 codification of Spanish law used as the basis for the legal system in the New World, stated, "Man has the power to do as he sees fit with those things that belong to him according to the laws of God and man." Above all else, however, water was to be used to ensure survival of families and local communities.

To the Spanish, ownership of water was not a troubling issue. Spanish law clearly determined the crown to be the pre-eminent owner of lands and waters in the New World. The crown, or more likely its designees, could grant ownership or merely temporary use. Until such allocations were made, New World settlers shared the royal patrimony.

Adopted about 1783, the Plan of Pitic defined community water rights along what is now northern Mexico and the US Southwest. Basic to the plan was the right of all citizens to share the town's water, along with other natural resources. Since water was for the benefit of all, no one possessed a superior right, to be applied to the disadvantage of fellow residents. Neither a person nor a family could claim rights to specific volumes of water. The quantity varied according to individual and community needs and the available supply.


With the Americans came another understanding of water, one more suitable for a nation of individuals, with each citizen believing in a right to pursue a personal destiny, even if the quest is not in the best community interest.

To the Americans the western lands were a treasure trove, their gifts for the taking. Like the Spaniards, the Americans valued the environment, not because of intrinsic values of its own, but as a means of political, social, and economic gain. An essential difference between the two cultures, however, must not be overlooked. Hispanic culture was more communal, with a greater reliance on authority, both God and king. This view contrasted sharply with the American tradition that believed in individual rights and minimal governmental interference.

Conditions in California seemed to favor this latter approach. Government institutions and authority were remote, and miners confronted immediate problems. For example, miners needed water for various mining operations. The land might be blessed with minerals, gold being the most desirable, but water was needed to extract the precious metal. Water supplies. however, were limited, with relatively few rivers, and precipitation was infrequent. Further complicating the problem, the ore-bearing soil often was located at a distance from a stream or river, frequently many miles. The obvious solution was to divert water from its source, and miners, ever hopeful of striking it rich, did divert. They expended great labor to build "wooden sluices, iron pipes, ditches, and whatever else that worked."

What became obvious to all, even the most hell-bent, self-serving prospector, was that uncontrolled or unregulated diversions meant ruin. With no advice forthcoming from government - nor of course, was any desired - miners set out on their own to allocate water. According to frontier tradition, an authority miners respected, those who arrived first possessed superior rights. First applied to land and mineral claims, this principle also served for water and became the foundation of the prior appropriation doctrine.

Usually summarized by the aphorism, "First in time, first in right," the prior appropriation doctrine ensured those who first used water could not be deprived of their rights by latecomers. Maintaining this privileged water right involved certain minimal requirements; i.e., a water user must continually use the water for a beneficial use. Beneficial use at first meant mining, but was later applied to agriculture, manufacturing and other purposes deemed to be beneficial. Arizona surface water law is based on prior appropriations.

The prior appropriations doctrine represents one of the earliest official strategies of allocating scarce water resources among competing water users in the American West. The doctrine is based on an assumption that remains active today; i.e., water is a commodity to be used, its value determined by whatever material benefits are gained through its use, whether corporate profits or a residential swimming pool. This assumption is a thread that runs through much of western US history and is a challenge to water conservation efforts today.

Tapping The Hidden Waters

Water conservation is linked to water use. Water being a finite resource, its excess use and the resulting shortage often prompts efforts to conserve it. More than surface water, which is regulated by the prior appropriations doctrine and its water-consuming rationale, groundwater, its development and exploration, provides a study of an awakening awareness of the value of water conservation.

In early Arizona history, reliance on surface water sources limited human ambitions, especially of those settlers anxious to take up ways of life that flourished in other parts of the country. Surface water sources available from few Arizona rivers and streams would not be sufficient to enable urban areas to grow and flourish and agricultural operations to expand. What was needed was another source of water to enable settlers to develop what they believed to be the full potential of the region. Groundwater was this other source of water.

Groundwater use would eventually raise serious concerns about depletion and need to conserve water. Preserving groundwater sources would be the cause to involve state government in water conservation, with laws passed at various times in efforts to regulate groundwater withdrawal. Also of significance, pumping groundwater required major technological innovations, thus raising an important issue - use of technology in developing water resources. All this would come later; at first, however, groundwater was limited and a generally inaccessible resource.

Early settlers in the area were aware of the existence of groundwater. Spaniards had dug wells in areas with a high water table. In fact, water tables were sufficiently high in early Tucson history that wells were fairly common.

Around 1870, windmills began to be used, gangling structures with rotating blades to bring groundwater to the surface. An early account of Tucson describes most homes and businesses as having windmills to provide sources of water. Historian Walter Prescott Webb wrote, "The windmill was like a flag marking the spot where a small victory had been won in the fight for water in an arid land." It would seem that Tucson was celebrating a string of victories within its desert setting.

Hand-dug wells and windmills provided settlers rather limited groundwater supplies since their subterranean range was rather shallow. Steam-powered pumps, in use by the end of the 19th century, allowed greater access to groundwater. In 1899, the Tucson Water Company's first steam-driven pumping plant could pump 1,250 gallons per minute (gpm) from a 40-foot well. Pumping technology continued to improve, and in 1914, improved pumps were installed in six wells, each capable of pumping one million gallons of water per day from greater depths than were tapped before.

Previously mostly out of reach, groundwater, seemingly a buried treasure, now appeared to be a plentiful resource, at first benefitting mainly Arizona agriculture, but with urban areas soon getting their generous share too.

The 1920s were boom times for Arizona farmers. Not only were pumps becoming more efficient, but the power to work them was inexpensive. Meanwhile cotton prices increased. Good judges of the prevailing weather, economic and climatological, farmers took advantage of these favorable conditions to plant more and, as a result, to pump more. Then a drought in the 1930s raised water consciousness in the state. Concerns about excessive groundwater use were raised, and efforts to control pumping began to be taken seriously. Water conservation emerged as an issue.