For more than a century, a system of government and legal agreements has largely resolved water disputes among residents of the country’s most arid region.
Conflict resolution methods were at work in December when the water bosses of California, Nevada and Arizona agreed to reduce their use of Colorado River water to avoid penalties under d ‘a pact that divides the river between seven western states and Mexico.
But a new cause of conflict threatens this system, which is already struggling to respond to the region’s worst drought cycle in 1,200 years. Instead of adjusting water use to the reality of a changing climate, authorities must respond to fallout from false claims that reductions in water use are part of a government plan crafted to starve and starve. depopulate the earth. Part of the talk of a violent standoff last summer in Oregon’s Klamath River Basin has to do with the language of this anti-government conspiracy theory.
Claims like this need not be true to effectively harness the fears of farmers and others who have relied on government guarantees to irrigate their fields and foster development, said Joe Vitriol, a researcher at Stony University. Brook with expertise in political psychology.
“They don’t necessarily really express a belief in a conspiracy, but this is how they express their distrust, concern and skepticism of official accounts,” Vitriol said of those drawn to conspiracy theories. “Most people don’t necessarily adopt these beliefs because they think they are true, they often adopt them because they feel they are correct. And it is a way of expressing mistrust and rejection of information.
When it comes to water policy in the West, experts agree that mistrust can be justified on the basis of past policies and broken promises. But solutions must be found on the basis of real needs and science, and not on fears based on false conspiracies that could prolong the conflict and eventually lead to violence.
“What does it matter if there is violence? “
Scarcity has long created conflicts over water in the Arid West, where seven of the country’s driest states historically are located. The latest United States Drought Monitor map showed large swathes of every western state experiencing severe, extreme, or exceptional drought.
From the indigenous peoples of the West to the present day, societies living in the region have developed forums to resolve inevitable conflicts over the limited amount of water needed to survive.
During the 19th century, methods of conflict resolution were often imported by settlers migrating west, according to researchers at the Center for Natural Resources & Environmental Policy at the University of Montana.
“By settling in the Salt Lake Valley, (Latter-day Saint leader) Brigham Young and his advisers realized that efficient and equitable use of water, as well as meaningful cooperation, would be essential to the success of their religious community, ”wrote the center’s Matthew McKinney. and John Thorsen, citing a method of dealing with water scarcity. “In this culture, water was a community resource to be managed and distributed in order to meet the needs of the community.
While the community-based approach to water management influenced subsequent federal policy, it finally gave way at the turn of the 20th century to the concept of water as a private property right. This would usher in the current regime of state engineers regulating the ownership of water rights, Congress approving interstate agreements, and courts issuing final dispute resolution.
The system has reduced but never eliminated violence, especially during times of drought. It was during a cycle of drought in the early 20th century that one of the nation’s most notoriously violent water disputes occurred in California, where commercial interests in Los Angeles began buying up rights. land and on water in the Owens Valley in northern California. When the construction of a 100-mile aqueduct moved water south to quell the explosive growth of Los Angeles, the people of the valley fought back.
As rural and urban rulers clashed in court, other valley residents attempted to thwart the project by dynamiting sections of the aqueduct. LA executives responded by sending armed detectives to guard the project and illegally place Owens Valley under martial law. The drama, in which Los Angeles prevailed and literally drained Owens Valley, serves as the backstory for the 1974 Oscar-winning fictional film “Chinatown”.
The federal government’s conflicting promises to white settlers and Native Americans have also created conflict and are an underlying reason for the tension in the Klamath River Basin, where both a Native American farming industry and fishing industry are in jeopardy. said Jay Weiner, an attorney representing the Klamath Indian Tribe.
Problems between farmers, tribes, conservations and government over water rights in the basin are long standing. In June, talk of violence along the Klamath made headlines after federal officials shut down a water development project that has irrigated thousands of acres of farmland for over of a century.
Some landowners protested near the main gates and there was talk of a standoff with law enforcement if the irrigation gates were forcibly opened.
“The authorities were certainly in a panic that Ammon Bundy was going to run,” Weiner recalled, referring to the current candidate for governor of Idaho, who led an armed takeover by a Oregon Wildlife Refuge in 2016.
“What does it matter if there is violence? At least something will be sorted out, ”Bundy told The New York Times, who said he was ridiculing those who are not ready to fight for the country’s food supply. “Oh, we don’t want violence, we’re just going to starve. May God keep us from talking about violence.
Build trust, understand
The violence never materialized. But the call to arms echoed false claims spread on messaging platforms and conspiracy websites this same month of a government plot to use drought, inflation and COVID vaccines to depopulate the world. .
“These water restriction tactics are being deliberately used as a weapon as part of a plan designed to destroy the U.S. food supply and bankrupt food producers,” a story on the Natural News conspiracy website said with the Draft title: “WATER WARS is on the verge of becoming kinetic in America as farmers targeted by governments of ‘terrorist’ states that are deliberately crumbling civilization.”
The Daily Beast reported that the Natural News story was being shared on messaging platforms in Arizona, expanding the bogus plot using anti-Semitic and anti-immigration language to include others plotting to “starve Americans by shutting down” water supply “.
Weiner has first-hand experience of similar disinformation that nearly derailed a painstakingly negotiated pact establishing tribal water rights in Montana in 2013.
“It became a poster for some people on the Flathead Reservation who were basically buying anti-government conspiracy theories” to stir up opposition, he said. False accounts that the pact was part of a larger global conspiracy that would somehow transport water from Montana to China ring true for opponents of the water deal and the GOP-controlled legislature responded to this constituency by killing the pact in committee.
“We had never seen this before and didn’t really know how to deal with it,” Weiner recalls.
State water officials were able to regroup and pass the pact through the legislature two years later and Congress approved it in 2020. Home Secretary Deb Haaland signed it in September .
Vitriol, of Stony Brook University, said political actors who peddle conspiracy theories know that the repetition and dissemination of disinformation can create “an illusion of truth” that galvanizes a constituency to a particular cause.
“Often, endorsing conspiracy beliefs is a way to symbolically express one’s identity, values, opposition to politics or change,” he said. ” They are afraid. It’s threatening, it calls into question their way of life. It is on a scale that is really difficult to grasp. And their livelihoods are threatened by this “change envisioned by policy makers.”
Understanding the underlying factors at play can help leaders identify the real reasons for opposition. But changing someone’s perspective requires building trust, Vitriol said.
“Leaders need to meet these people on their own level. They have to understand their point of view and where they are coming from, ”he said. “They must use the trust these individuals place in them to challenge their willingness to ignore the facts and the evidence.”
Weiner said that momentum took place this year to calm escalating tensions in Klamath, Oregon.
“One of the helpful things that happened last summer was that there were cooler people in the irrigation community who spread the word repeatedly and publicly on Facebook, and that did you, saying, “We don’t need this, it’s not good for our communities and won’t help us solve our problems.
Since then, negotiators have established direct lines of communication between the tribes and the irrigation community to understand “what their needs are and where they feel most threatened,” Weiner said.
The strategy will be put to the test next summer, which is expected to be the third year of drought, according to the latest projections.
“If the year is bad (and) we are not in a position to come up with some kind of plan for improvement, all the good intentions and relationship building that we have tried to do cannot survive these many bad ones. consecutive years, “he said. noted. “It’s fear. But we’re just trying to talk to each other and see if we can do it.