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Maybe we do get what we want

Essay by Martha Quillen

Politics – February 2008 – Colorado Central Magazine

CHANGE IS THE BUZZWORD for the 2008 Presidential campaigns — at least for the moment. But initiating desirable change is harder than the campaigners contend. It’s even harder than Hillary Clinton professes when she insists that is takes hard work and experience (while simultaneously implying that her opponents would contribute neither).

Clearly, if that were all it took to usher in beneficial change, then the Palestinians and Israelis would be as companionable as Lady and the Tramp by now — since countless renowned statesman have tried to fix things over there.

Likewise, if the man-hours spent trying to produce desirable changes could make a difference, Americans would be thin, frugal, and using so little gasoline we’d have surpluses.

As for me, I generally see fixing things as easy. All you really have to do is get started. Surely Americans could reduce their dependence on foreign oil — and enjoy the consequent environmental benefits — if more of us would only lower our personal usage; use more efficient cars, gadgets, and heating systems; insulate our homes better; travel less; buy less; use less; have less; and save more.

But that, of course, would introduce a host of new problems.

What would citizens in Central Colorado do if people from elsewhere quit driving? Vacationing? Shopping? And building new homes here?

Clearly, change is trickier than I want to believe.

An item in this issue brought that home for me. In his water column, John Orr mentions that farming towns could fall into a death spiral if cities are allowed to obtain and move agricultural water supplies.

Since Colorado water law gives desperate municipalities priority in emergencies, the idea that cities would be allowed to tap into and move ag water supplies under certain circumstances sounds fairly innocuous. But ag interests are against it.


Well, it could definitely muck up Colorado water law. In Colorado, farmers don’t own their water; the people of Colorado own the water. Agricultural users merely purchase the right to appropriate water (in a timely fashion) for beneficial use. And if senior users don’t use the water, it passes on to junior users. So if cities start buying, selling, and moving a lot of ag water around (especially out-of-basin), it will certainly complicate things. If that happens, you’ve got to wonder what will happen to junior users. And to the value of junior rights. And to the farm towns.

Beleaguered farmers and ranchers (at least the ones who have senior water rights) could earn some money. But what will happen to the seed suppliers, implement dealers, cowhands, silo owners, produce truckers, and farm supply stores when the fields remain fallow?

Orr suggests that if too many farm-related businesses fail, entire communities could end up bankrupt, shuttered and abandoned.

Of course, I’d heard all of this before. But I hadn’t really thought about it. And that is probably a big part of the problem.

America is changing. And many Americans are suffering. The damage from Katrina is still with us; California keeps burning down; good jobs are scarce in the rust belt; young Americans are dying in Iraq, and some Colorado farming towns may not make it.

Yet so much is going on world-wide that sometimes I don’t notice what’s happening in my own neighborhood.

IN COLORADO, agriculture uses 85% of the water, industry uses 6%, and municipalities and domestic users (which includes all of the towns, cities and homes in our state) consume 9%. So despite all of our talk about saving family farms and ranches, when there’s a water shortage people look toward agricultural supplies.

Colorado has grown, thereby producing new jobs, new businesses, and new communities. Our state is attracting more tourists, more retirees, and more full-time residents. But given Colorado’s aridity and water situation, we probably can’t have it all. And that’s just the way it is.

No matter how much the politicians, activists, and conservationists excoriate us, people don’t use very much water. Oh sure, they pour it on their lawns, drink it, bathe in it, and flush it down their toilets, but it just runs back into the river (albeit after going through a treatment plant). In fact, the likeliest way to use water up, is to put it in a cow, a tomato, or a six-pack and ship it out.

Colorado’s water laws were developed to spur growth and development in order to create a viable economy — and discourage armed disputes. And they worked (more or less). But without gunplay, Colorado has grown, and now everybody’s wrangling over water once again.

Except this time around we’re fighting in the courts. Clearly, court battles are preferable to shoot-outs. But they don’t endear people to one another. Or rouse our compassion.

And in the long-run, court cases won’t make much difference. Sure, they’ll help determine who has what rights, and who can buy and sell what, and whether new housing developments will be inside of municipalities or out in the boonies. But rural land will keep getting converted into suburbs, as long as people keep moving in.

Now, our Presidential candidates are clamoring to change things — and they probably will — but some things can’t be changed. Colorado towns died when the mines went bust, when the highways bypassed them, and when the trains quit stopping. Times change, and jobs come and go.

But once upon a time, people who’d lost industrial or farm jobs could move on.

Today, however, our manufacturing jobs are in China, our communication jobs are in India, and our farms are huge and mechanized and need fewer and fewer laborers (except for seasonal harvesters who are often underpaid migrants who get exposed to all sorts of pesticides and indignities). Some Americans are chronically ill and uninsurable and don’t know what to do. Some are homeless, and others are wallowing in debt. A lot of Americans can’t afford health care, or illness, or old age. And our cities are full of people who live and sleep on the streets

And the promises keep coming, election after election.

Americans blame the politicians for the way things are today. Our leaders are bought and paid for by corporate contributors. They exaggerate and lie and cheat.

And Americans turn on one another, insisting that gays, Muslims, immigrants, immoral Americans, profligate Americans, wasteful Americans, and ignorant Americans are responsible.

But maybe we are all more culpable than we admit.

IN OUR ERA, people don’t seem to have much faith that things can be improved. Instead, we contend that Americans can’t reduce their consumption, or establish a better health care system, or save Social Security. We’re at the mercy of big money, corporate lobbyists, and opportunistic candidates.

The other night after the news, I was channel surfing when I happened upon Charlie Rose. He and a guest — whose identity I never learned, although he was clearly a Mid-East expert — were talking about President Bush’s attempts to broker a peace agreement in Israel, and Charlie asked the guest whether he thought the Palestinians or the Israelis were more disinclined to negotiate. Charlie’s guest said neither. According to him, everyone at the table is eager for peace. They know the time has come. They need it; they’re desperate for it. But it probably won’t happen, Rose’s guest contended, because the people just don’t believe that peace is possible anymore.

At that point, Charlie and his guest let the silence linger for a moment, but their message was clear: When the citizens won’t embrace something, or accept it, the leaders can’t make it happen.

Which brings us back to change and how difficult it is to make things better.

OUR POLITICIANS may not serve us well. But suspicion and skepticism are probably our biggest impediments. They make us antagonistic, resentful, disillusioned, and weary. At some point, when the rhetoric gets derogatory and starts focusing on things that have nothing whatsoever to do with our own problems (like gay marriage in Hawaii or someone you’ve never met who’s in a coma) citizens stop thinking about fixing their problems — and start wanting to fix other Americans and put them in their place.

In reality, change is always with us. And we’ve certainly had no dearth of it in recent years. Under the last two Presidential administrations, Americans have ushered in new trade agreements, gotten tough on crime, superheated the economy, declared a war against terrorism, gone to war in Afghanistan, gone to war in Iraq, started buying household goods from China, mortgaged more than was wise, gone into debt, and reduced government services by slashing welfare, assistance programs, and legal aid — while charging more for colleges, college loans, and public parks and services.

If Charlie’s guest is right and the demands of the citizenry actually matter more than we tend to think, you’ve got to wonder if perhaps, despite all of our moaning and groaning, Americans have actually gotten exactly what the majority of us have asked for — only to find out that it’s not quite what we expected.

In that case, it might be best to forget those promises of change, hope, and experience, in order to embrace the maxim, “Be careful what you demand — because you may actually get it.”