Ansel Adams, Boulder Dam. Wikimedia Commons.

Tapped Out

Thirsting for Fresh Water

The western United States is in the grip of a punishing drought. Reservoir levels are dropping, and farmers are struggling to ensure their access to water for crops and livestock. Consider California. According to a water scientist at NASA, the state has only a year’s worth of water left in its reservoirs. Some scientists even fear the West has reached “peak water” — the point at which water resources simply can’t keep up with water usage.

In this episode, Brian, Ed and Peter look at how Americans have managed access to water across the generations. From early legal struggles over natural waterways to the shared irrigation systems of New Mexico, they’ll consider how Americans have divvied up water rights for private profit and public good. And they’ll dive into the debate over who could and couldn’t use swimming pools in the 1920s.

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*** The following transcript reflects an earlier broadcast of this episode. Some language may differ from the rebroadcast version. ***

PETER ONUF: This is BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf.

SPEAKER 1: California is currently in the middle of the worst drought it has been since the 1970s, which a new analysis estimates–

PETER ONUF: In January, California’s governor appealed a state residence for a major reduction in water use to head off another year of drought. The result?

SPEAKER 1: They did not listen. In fact, overall water consumption in California’s actually increased, compared to a year ago. So yesterday–

PETER ONUF: Water. We rely on it for life, of course, but also for our American way of life. Today on the show, a history of our thirst for fresh water. We’ve got the story of the early Jamestown settlement, where the only water source was far from fresh.

JULIE RICHTER: “It’s full of slime and filth.”

PETER ONUF: And the story of why swimming pools boiled over with racial violence in the 1930s.

JEFF WILTSE: Entering into a pool, in the minds of most people, historically, at least, was tantamount to physical contact.

PETER ONUF: Water in America, today on BackStory. Don’t go away.

Major funding for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the University of Virginia, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation.

ED AYERS: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory, with the American Backstory hosts.

BRIAN BALOGH: Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh, here with Ed Ayers.

ED AYERS: That’s me.

BRIAN BALOGH: And Peter Onuf’s with us.

PETER ONUF: Hey, Brian.

BRIAN BALOGH: Now, if you’re one of our listeners in California, you are well aware of the problem that’s been plaguing that state for the past few years. It’s drought. But to Bill Kahrl, a historian who writes about water in California, the state’s main problem isn’t a product of nature, but rather of history.

BILL KAHRL: Everybody lives in the wrong place. People came here and turned left, going south to where the water is not.

BRIAN BALOGH: Most notably to Los Angeles, which by 1920, had over half a million residents. And these residents were thirsty. The city had finished a mammoth aqueduct in 1914 that brought water from the Owens Valley, a lush agricultural region 250 miles to the north.

But the aqueduct only got the water that was left after Owens Valley got its fill. And by the early 1920s, it was already obvious that this wasn’t going to be nearly enough for LA. So it was back to the Owens Valley, and this time, the city started a process of buying up land that allowed them to grab water before the farmers in the Owens Valley got it.

Those farmers were not amused, and they fought back.

BILL KAHRL: It was that process that metastasized into an armed rebellion. Residents of the Owens Valley who were seeing their livelihood and their life savings being placed at risk began blowing up the aqueduct to Los Angeles, and they blew it up repeatedly.

BRIAN BALOGH: Los Angeles sent trainloads of armed Pinkerton Guards to the valley, with shoot-to-kill orders. Owens Valley was not cowed. The resistance hit its peak in 1924.

BILL KAHRL: It happened at the Alabama Gates, a place you can see in lots of cowboy movies. It’s beautiful, rugged, Western country.

The Alabama Gates was where the main gates for the aqueduct were located, and a large group of the farmers seized control of the gates. And they were shutting off the water supply, and allowing the water, instead, to spill directly onto the valley floor.

BRIAN BALOGH: Newspapers around the world carried the story. I asked Bill Kahrl whether this worldwide attention made LA officials consider backing down.

BILL KAHRL: Absolutely and emphatically not. Los Angeles had absolutely no interest in responding to those concerns. This was a battle to the end.

BRIAN BALOGH: LA couldn’t get the authorities in the Owens Valley to do anything. They all sided with the resistance. But the city had an ace up its sleeve. Rumors had been swirling about improprieties at Owens Valley banks, and Los Angeles asked state investigators to look into them.

BILL KAHRL: The banks were owned by a family that was very active in supporting the resistance to Los Angeles. And it was discovered that the owners of the banks were, in fact, appropriating funds from the bank, in order to fund the ongoing resistance to the city.

Appropriating funds for terrorist activities is not smiled upon in the banking community. The banks were shut down. The family was ruined. But more importantly, everyone all of the residents of the valley who had their life savings in the banks lost everything.

BRIAN BALOGH: The resistance died. LA got the land, and in short order, the Owens Valley was dry.

BILL KAHRL: What had been one of the prime agricultural regions of California at the beginning of the 20th century was converted to high desert, scrub land, an area of dust and wind.

BRIAN BALOGH: Owens Valley and Los Angeles remain tethered, in a relationship that Kahrl says is unprecedented.

BILL KAHRL: The city of Los Angeles winds up owning another community 250 miles away. We don’t have, in American government, any kind of procedures for the management of colonies, but that was essentially what the Owens Valley had become, a colony of Los Angeles.

BRIAN BALOGH: There is a silver lining to the story. Bill Kahrl says that in the nine decades since, it’s become kind of a cautionary tale in California. The two major water systems created in subsequent years have built in protections for the communities where the water comes from, and the state has gotten better about attending to the needs of Californians on both ends of the aqueduct.

BILL KAHRL: Which is not to say that we don’t still luxuriate in fighting over water. It is surprising, the degree to which the people in San Jose, for example, or Oakland, if you read their newspapers, really, really want to make sure that people in Southern California don’t have a water supply.

The fact of the matter, though, is that if Glendale, a Southern California community, withers and turns into a raisin, and everyone has to move away, Oakland is not going to prosper from that.

So the question is, have we grown up enough as a society? Do we understand the interrelationships well enough to enable us to work together in the construction of the water system that we need for the next 50 years?

BRIAN BALOGH: Bill Kahrl is the author of Water and Power: The Conflict over Los Angeles Water Supply in the Owens Valley.

PETER ONUF: For the past seven months, California has been in a declared state of emergency, triggered by a third year of drought. But in that time, the crisis has only gotten worse. This week, federal authorities reported that more than half the state is under what they call “exceptional drought conditions,” up from about 1/3 the week before.

How are Californians responding to the crisis? Well, despite a plea from Governor Jerry Brown for a 20% cut in water use, statewide consumption reportedly went up in the first half of this year.

ED AYERS: Now, it’s tempting to point fingers, and there have been recriminations a plenty as the crisis has deepened, but scaling back on the individual level for the good of the whole, well, that’s a challenge that has bedeviled many prior generations of Americans, as well.

And so today on the show, we’re giving the drought the BackStory treatment, and asking what past struggles around water usage can tell us about the situation today.

PETER ONUF: The story we just heard about the battle over water in LA may sound like a tale from the lawless Wild West. But in fact, the city’s attempts to grab as much water as it can has a firm basis in American law. And to understand that law, we need to go back east.

Throughout the colonial period, people there had been relying on streams and rivers to power their mills. But when smaller mill operation started scaling up and building dams of their own, well, mill owners downstream cried foul. In the 1790s, they started taking their disputes to court, appealing to an old English law principle known as “riparian rights.”

ED AYERS: “Riparian” comes from the Latin term “ripa” or bank. And that principal essentially says that anyone who owns land bordering a body of water has rights to use that water. And that sounds straightforward enough, I guess, but legal scholar Dan Tarlock told me that in practice, things quickly got complicated.

DAN TARLOCK: Riparian rights is actually a very incoherent theory. Everybody who’s a riparian has an equal right to use the water in the stream. But the law doesn’t go too far beyond that, so the mills that faced decreased current begin to sue, basically, the mill that had messed with the stream.

But there was so much water in the East that you really didn’t get too many serious conflicts over the use of water.

ED AYERS: So the East is, in fact, a very wet place. But the West, as you know, is not. What happened to this law as Americans migrated to the West?

DAN TARLOCK: Yeah. Well, the Gold Rush started in 1847, with the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill. When the miners began to really do serious gold mining, which meant pumping water out of a stream, and blasting away hillsides to find the gold.


DAN TARLOCK: So forget the romantic image of the miner standing in a stream with a pan. And what the miners were doing, they were first taking it out of the stream, and they were transporting it to some distance through flumes. And so they were taking it off the land next to the stream. And in theory, you can’t do that in riparian rights.

So when it reached the California courts as early as 1857, they basically said, look, the miners have developed this custom of allowing the first person to use water to obtain rights superior to everyone else. We’ll just follow that custom. And that became the origin of the doctrine called the prior appropriation, which is said to be the antithesis of riparian rights.

ED AYERS: It can’t have been that old a custom, since they discovered gold in ’49. By ’57, it’s a custom.

DAN TARLOCK: Right, right. Well, almost all the land in California, and certainly all the land in the other Western states, was initially owned by the federal government. Got it from various sovereigns of France and Mexico.

And so what should have happened, is when the federal government then sold off the land to settlers under the Homestead Act and other laws, the federal land rights should have carried with them riparian rights. That was the common law. And each should state or territory, one of the first things they did was to adopt the common law of England.

But as the Western states started to develop irrigation– originally, it was utopian colonies, Greeley, Colorado, the Mormons in Utah. They were taking water out of the streams. They were taking it out in big quantities. They were transporting it longer and longer distances away from the streams.

So the Western states picked up the idea of prior appropriations as a customary right. And later, court said, we’re adopting it, because that’s the only system that works in an arid area. And if we don’t adopt it, we won’t grow.

ED AYERS: So basically, there’s a different law in the East and the West of the United States.

DAN TARLOCK: Right. Right. Riparian rights pretty much stop at the Missouri River.

ED AYERS: And what’s been the long-term consequence of this?

DAN TARLOCK: Well, the long-term consequence is that the prior appropriation enabled the Western states to move water where it was needed. It enabled them to develop an irrigation economy, which is still in existence. And it enabled them to develop urban centers, like Los Angeles, which has almost no natural water supply. Or San Francisco, as well.

ED AYERS: Sounds like pretty profound consequences. Did people become uncomfortable with that at some point, or does it still seem the only thing that really works in an area like the West?

DAN TARLOCK: Well, that’s a subject of enormous controversy. Over the last 40 years or so, people have focused more on what was left out in prior appropriation. That is the environment. Fish have suffered. Native Americans were left out, later put back into the picture.

And now, people are worried that climate change will shrink the overall water budget, and debating whether prior appropriation is the best way to adapt to climate change.

ED AYERS: Dan Tarlock is a law professor at the Kent College of Law in Chicago. Thanks very much for joining us, Dan.

DAN TARLOCK: My pleasure.

PETER ONUF: It’s time for us to take a short break, but don’t go away. When we get back, something’s in the water at Jamestown Settlement, and the result is not pretty.

ED AYERS: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.

PETER ONUF: We’re back with BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf.

ED AYERS: I’m Ed Ayers.

BRIAN BALOGH: And I’m Brian Balogh. We’re talking today about the history of struggles over fresh water in the United States. In the first part of our show, we heard about the legal framework that emerged out of those struggles, and enabled massive development in the drier parts of our country.

PETER ONUF: But in these very same regions, some people have been finding solutions to their water problems outside of the courtroom. They’re members of what are known as “acequias,” essentially systems of irrigation ditches built around a natural source of water, and governed collectively by those using the water.

Spanish colonists first brought the idea to the current day Southwest in the 1600s. And until the US took over that territory, it was the dominant method of irrigation there.

ED AYERS: Today, about 1,000 acequias still exist in New Mexico and Colorado. Ralph Vigil, a farmer and chairman of the New Mexico Acequia Commission, runs one of them. Mr. Vigil, welcome to BackStory.

RALPH VIGIL: Thank you.

ED AYERS: So could you describe what this looks like in practice? I have a hard time picturing it.

RALPH VIGIL: Well, you’re looking at, basically, we call acequias an extension of the river. If you want to imagine a creek, so to speak, running alongside parallel to the river through the community, and away from the river in most cases.

And through the establishment and construction of the acequias when the Spaniards first arrived, they did create a riparian area with habitat. And you’ll see the unique landscape that it creates, and you can’t miss the Greenbelt. And once you see that Greenbelt, you get an idea, well, there must be an effective system within that community.

BRIAN BALOGH: How does one of these acequias work? Who runs it?

RALPH VIGIL: The acequias and the governance is elected amongst the members of the acequia, who are landowners that have a water right. All acequias are independently governed by the parciontes, and parciontes are basically people who own land off the acequia, who have water rights to irrigate.

So it is the first and oldest democracy in the United States of America, and we still continue to operate as such.

PETER ONUF: Are there advantages in terms of water conservation? Have these traditional ways of channeling water been the most effective, and do they compare well with other forms of water management in the West?

RALPH VIGIL: Yes. Through the acequia systems, we have what we call the “repartimientos,” or “leas de las acequias,” which are basically the rules that come from really, really old Spanish law, and which have been put in place to share in times of shortages. that’s the whole point of them.

We have sharing agreements amongst everybody. Depending on the acequias, you’re either allocated on time, how much time you have to use the water. Some acequias do it days. Like my acequia, if we have a time of drought, north of the bank here at Pecos gets water half the week. South will get the water the other half of the week.

And we also have water banking, which has been a great thing for us to preserve our water. I can keep them within our acequia, to where somebody will sign over their rights for the year, two years, bank it within the acequia.

And therefore, somebody who may need more water that year for whatever crop they have, alfalfa, grass, vegetable garden, can go ahead and be able to use that water right, within the acequia. There’s a lot of cooperating between community members, and that’s how we work together.

And I think that’s what’s been lost here in the United States a lot is community. There’s too many individuals with personal interest, and there’s not much of that communal-based system that we depended on in the past, getting people at the table and having discussions, and being able to work it out without any type of litigation or involving lawyers at all.

PETER ONUF: So there are two conclusions I draw from what you’ve been saying, Mr. Vigil. One is, we shouldn’t rely on lawyers so much. That sounds really subversive. We shouldn’t be suing each other all the time. And maybe the old folks centuries ago, going back to the 18th century, 17th century and beyond, understood better problems of scarcity, and how to manage these problems.

So you’re saying we should turn back the clock and get rid of the lawyers.

RALPH VIGIL: I think so. I have lots of friends that are lawyers out there. You know, they have families to feed, too. But they tend to not see things from the ground as our elders do, because they deal with water daily.

They see it from our watersheds. They see how our watersheds are unhealthy now. They see a lot what needs to be seen on the ground, helping the community members.

Lawyers just see what they see in case law, and law books, and whatever they find in the research. And I think we need more people on the ground, and instead of decisions coming from the top down, decisions need to start coming from the bottom up. And that’s what I think is wrong with our system, and definitely what’s wrong with water policy right now.

BRIAN BALOGH: Thank you very much.

RALPH VIGIL: Thank you.

ED AYERS: Ralph Vigil is chairman of the New Mexico Acequia Commission, and a farmer in Pecos, New Mexico. He’s also president of the Acequia del Molino. Get this, it’s 300 years old.

So Peter, I have a question for you, being our specialist in all things really old. Mr. Vigil made the excellent point that this was very early in what became the history of the United States. But I know we had the commons in New England, had a different system of dealing with the same kind of issue. How did they deal with water?

PETER ONUF: Well, water was in New England, for instance, never really a problem. There are plentiful water sources throughout New England. The commons–

ED AYERS: When it wasn’t frozen.

PETER ONUF: When it wasn’t frozen, right. And the idea of the commons is a very powerful one in early New England, and that probably has a lot to do with early New England democracy, just as Mr. Vigil was talking about democracy in the Southwest.

I’d say there’s a real tension, though, and it’s apparent from the beginning. There’s powerful imperatives toward privatization of public resources that is dividing the commons. That is, the town center, the idea of a nucleated village and then with common fields beyond, that doesn’t survive very long in very many places.

The availability of land and water leads towards farm-making and the distribution and diffusion of authority. But what we have is a legal system and a culture that adapts to environmental conditions, where there is plentiful land. And the big problem of resource management is equitable distribution, creating new towns.

It’s expansive in a way that later development in the Southwest can’t be expansive. And these plans for new states really project the experience of old states across the continent. They’re supposed to grow into replicas of the original states.

BRIAN BALOGH: And even in the amount of land they handed out, Peter, right? It was totally inappropriate for the West.

PETER ONUF: Yes, exactly right. Exactly right.

ED AYERS: So when you have this system, like acequia, firmly in place for centuries, people from the East are showing up and saying, that’s not the way we do things in the modern world. That water belongs to somebody, and we’re going to define by law who it belongs to. And you start seeing that this whole communal system’s being dismantled, really with the arrival of the white settlers.

BRIAN BALOGH: But this fellow named John Wesley Powell, who was a Civil War veteran. He was a surveyor. He explored large parts of the West. He named many of the bodies of water.

PETER ONUF: Lake Powell.

BRIAN BALOGH: Lake Powell, that we know.

PETER ONUF: Well, that was named after him, right?

BRIAN BALOGH: Yes, exactly. But he did name many of them out there in the West. He went on to be head of the US Geological Survey that mapped a large part of the West and the resources of the West. That included water, of course.

He had a vision that was quite different, and his vision was, in essence, to redraw political boundaries around the watersheds and around the flow of water, so that states could be formed and populations could grow where the water is, rather than, in many instances today, where it’s not.

PETER ONUF: It makes sense, doesn’t it? So why doesn’t that fly, Brian?

ED AYERS: Or float.

BRIAN BALOGH: Well, it sinks like a stone, because people called this socialist. They called this collectivism, and because, as we just witnessed in the Civil War, Americans had pretty strong attachments to their states in those days.

Where Powell’s idea of drawing political jurisdiction that conformed to the land, or the water in this case, resurfaces, if you will, is with the Tennessee Valley Authority. Right in Ed’s home stomping ground there.

And the whole idea, and it was an idealistic one, was to override the authority of states and towns by this authority that would be formed, not based on political jurisdiction, but based on the natural shape of the Tennessee River Valley.

Now, the problem there wasn’t scarcity of rain, like in the West. It was still a humid area. The problem there was the multiple uses of water, and it led to the same set of issues of who gets the first rights. Navigation, drinking water, water for hydropower, water to drive manufacturing.

ED AYERS: And don’t forget water for water skiing, which was the most useful purpose near our house.

PETER ONUF: So Brian, I got a question for you. Would you say that Powell was just way before his time in thinking so big, because the state didn’t have the capacity to do the kind of surveys that would be necessary to really do intelligent development, according to the water availability and to link water rights with land rights, and so forth.

They simply couldn’t do it at that point. But now, it seems the moment has come that it has to be done in the drought-ridden West, isn’t it?

BRIAN BALOGH: I think it might have to be done in the drought-ridden West today, Peter, but Powell still would have had been before his time, even during the New Deal. Because in spite of the lofty language and the mission of the Tennessee Valley Authority, it foundered on the rights of local communities and states.

And it turned out that those state boundaries and those political allegiances that formed around them were, well, frankly as powerful as fast-flowing rivers. They were real, too, as it turned out. It was very hard to defy them by the 1930s.

PETER ONUF: Let me follow up with this question then. Mr. Vigil suggests that democracy could be the answer to water management problems. You’re suggesting that democracy’s the problem in large-scale regional management of scarce resources.

BRIAN BALOGH: I am suggesting that the history that that democracy has taken, as though it were a river that has been channeled into little eddies, and divided and broken up in neighborhoods, and towns, and counties, and states, and Whigs, and Democrats, and Republicans. That history of democracy is rock-solid and awfully hard to throw off its course.

PETER ONUF: When English colonists arrived in Virginia in May 1607, one of their priorities was to find the best location for a new settlement. They ultimately chose a spot they would call Jamestown Island, 60 miles inland from the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.

There was a deep channel in the James River there that allowed English ships access to the fort, plus the site seemed easy to defend from both the enemy Spanish and any hostile Native Americans. And on top of that, the colonists had access to the James for drinking water.

When they arrived in the spring, the water was “sweet,” the term then used for fresh water.

JULIE RICHTER: So on paper, it was perfect.

PETER ONUF: This is Julie Richter from the College of William and Mary. She’s a historical consultant for a geological survey exploring the water quality in early Jamestown. And she says that within a few months of arrival, that sweet water, well, it wasn’t so sweet anymore.

JULIE RICHTER: It was probably early July when people started to feel sick, certainly not as healthy as they had felt. And during the rest of July, August, and into September, a majority of the colonists died from disease. They called it the “bloody flux,” which doesn’t sound very appealing.

PETER ONUF: Julie, hold on. “Bloody flux?”


PETER ONUF: And so they had a pretty good idea that it was what they were drinking, then, because the bloody flux was not something new for them.

JULIE RICHTER: That’s true.

PETER ONUF: So Julie, tell us, where did they get their water?

JULIE RICHTER: Well, I think that largest source of water the first year would have been out of the James River. From what we can tell, there isn’t a well until the following year, 1608. And George Percy does comment on how bad the water is. “It’s full of slime and filth.”

PETER ONUF: Ew. Now, rivers are famous for flowing. Why doesn’t this river flow through and, in effect, flush out the slime and filth?

JULIE RICHTER: It’s the structure of the James River, and the way the currents run during July and certainly through August. And even, as the geologists have found, part way into September, the way the current runs, it traps the saltier water near Jamestown, and it prevents any water dumped into the river from being flushed down towards the Chesapeake Bay.

So any waste-water that gets dumped, whether it’s inside the fort or outside the fort directly into the river, is trapped there by the current.

PETER ONUF: Yeah. So wrong time, wrong place.

JULIE RICHTER: Yeah. They settled in one of the worst places they could have chosen, in terms of being healthy. Great for defense, but that’s unfortunately what proved to be true for them.

PETER ONUF: And almost end of story, but Jamestown did survive.

JULIE RICHTER: Very close to it. Yes, very close to the end of it.

PETER ONUF: So these enterprising guys realize that they need another source of water. They dig a well. That’s what we do to get water. Does that work out for them?

JULIE RICHTER: It turns out that it doesn’t work out for them. And this is where the geologists and their expertise have really added to what we know about life inside the fort, is that the way water works on the island, it comes from an aquifer. And any dirty water, any waste-water dumped inside the fort will carry its germs down into the aquifer, and that goes right into the well.

PETER ONUF: So tell us a little bit about the adjustment over the long term to dirty water. This is an interesting angle on the history of early Jamestown.

JULIE RICHTER: They have two ways of dealing with where they’re living. And the first is to be amazingly, continually dependent on imported beer, wine, and alcohol. That when those supply ships show up, everybody’s very happy.

PETER ONUF: So they get drunk and they live.

JULIE RICHTER: They get drunk, and they drink something without germs on it. So the people at the top of the social order, the governor and the council, are going to have more alcohol and better alcohol. And they probably aren’t as sick as everybody else, as they can drink their imported alcohol longer into the year.

And my colleague at William and Mary, Jim Whittenberg and I are piecing together the influence of women on the settlement. There aren’t large numbers of women in the colony until the early 1620s.

And we think this is very important for life in early Jamestown, and I’d say any other settlement in the colony, is that in England, women were the ones who brewed beer and made cider. So they’re the ones who produce the alcohol that is safer to drink.

And we think it’s unlikely that many of the men would have done this woman’s work in the first years of the colony.

PETER ONUF: That would have been degrading in some sense.


PETER ONUF: Yeah, so these man probably deserved to die, since they weren’t willing.

JULIE RICHTER: Well, I won’t go quite that far.

PETER ONUF: So you’ve established that the population did stabilize in the 1620s? So there’s a strong correlation, as you see it, between the presence of brewing women and a stable population.

JULIE RICHTER: Yeah, and it takes a good part of the 17th century for that to happen.

PETER ONUF: Julie Richter is a historian at the College of William and Mary. She’s a consultant on a geology project investigating water quality in the Jamestown Colony. Thanks so much. I really enjoyed talking with you.

JULIE RICHTER: You’re very welcome.

ED AYERS: It’s time for another short break. When we get back, we’ll wade into the troubled waters of early American swimming pools.

BRIAN BALOGH: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.

ED AYERS: We’re back with BackStory, the show that looks to history to understand the America of today. I’m Ed Ayers.

BRIAN BALOGH: I’m Brian Balogh.

PETER ONUF: And I’m Peter Onuf. We’re talking today about how past generations have sought out and struggled over the fresh water they’ve needed to live. While we were putting the show together, we got a comment on our website from a listener named Anastasia in Newark, Delaware, and we’ve invited her to join us on the phone. Welcome to the show.

ANASTASIA: Hi. Thanks so much for having me on, guys. I’m really curious to hear about religion and water. I’ve done some reading about how the Mormons in Utah were able to distribute water equitably within their society, using their highly theocratic social structure.

I’m wondering how religion and maybe larger spirituality has interacted with these more practical questions of water, as well as more spiritual questions of water’s role in the landscape.

ED AYERS: Anything else, Anastasia? [LAUGHS]

PETER ONUF: All right. So water management, Anastasia wants to know about water management and religion. And I’d say, water use, well, lots of religions use water, but it’s not been a scarce resource in most parts of the country.

ED AYERS: You know, it’s interesting. People would perhaps wonder why the Mormons would go to what was literally the middle of nowhere in the North American context at that time. Part of it was to flee the persecution that they’d endured ever since their creation.

But part of it, too, was if you could go to, it’s Salt Lake City. If you can control all that water that’s flowing into there, it’s a source of cohesion for the community itself. It draws boundaries. The very aridity of the area around it acts as a buffer to protect the Mormon community from outsiders.

PETER ONUF: And it seems to me, too, it’s also a landscape that would evoke biblical lands, and of the struggles of the Hebrews. It would give them a very unique history that seemed almost timeless, going back to the scriptures of the Christian faith.

ED AYERS: Now, of course, none of this protected them. As soon as non-Mormons, the Gentiles, arrived, a contest over water began, Anastasia. So I do think that water, just as you suggest, played a critical role in Mormon history and in the West.

But I think that it gave them advantage for a while. But then, I think it was another source of conflict with those who would surround them.

PETER ONUF: But your emphasis, Anastasia, on theocracy is important, because we’re talking about self-governance among a community of believers, and the kind of power that gives to the community to impose regulations on members of that community.

ED AYERS: It gave them leverage, Peter.

PETER ONUF: It gave them leverage.

ANASTASIA: I’m wondering if any Native American tribes might have used religious right as a defense to traditional fishing zones. I don’t think that’s been a factor in the debates over the salmon, as far as I know, but do you know if that’s occurred anywhere else?

PETER ONUF: Yeah, well, there was a great debate in the Southwest over the Black Mesa. The native people there, the Hopi and the Navajo, were concerned that a mining operation was using water from the aquifer deep below the mesa, in order to send coal fragments and dust to Los Angeles.

So here is a striking case of a Native American approach to the cosmos, to the whole big thing, the ecology that any water taken away would be at the expense of their obligations to each other, and to their understanding of the divine order.

ANASTASIA: And so I guess the limitations of both the Mormon and the Native American approaches, as well, that water distribution might have worked fine within their community, in neither instance was it able to combine with the mainstream America, or spread the benefits outside the community.

PETER ONUF: I like the mainstream idea, Anastasia. That was terrific. We’re going to go with the flow on that one. But you’re exactly right, it’s water management within communities. And water is sacred for some Native Americans, and it’s the source of life in many native cosmologies.

I think for The Mormons, it’s more a question of technology of control, of management of a scarce resource.

ED AYERS: I wonder if there’s any religion in the world that doesn’t have a strong affinity with water. If you think about Hinduism, obviously the sacred rivers, and so forth. It just strikes me that there must be something psychological about water coming on springs, and religion speaking of the unknown.

PETER ONUF: I think that’s right, Ed, although in Christianity, it tends to be channeled into a specific rite of baptism, associated with purity. In folk religions, in Native American cosmologies, it’s much more a central part of the universe. It’s integral to everything else.

I think in modern Christian religion, it tends to be compartmentalized, channeled narrowly into that one ritual.

ED AYERS: Well, it’s actually a great example, because baptism needs to be conducted within an enclosed space. I actually have a picture of my father being baptized in a river in North Carolina, in the mountains, in the 1930s. At Riverside Baptist Church, I kid you not.

But by the time that I went there with my grandmother in the 1950s and ’60s, instead, you had a painting of a river in front of, basically, a pool of water. So I believe that there’s some belief that the water, if it’s not contained, really can’t have the sanctification that it needs to have baptism, Peter.

So it’s interesting to think that, just to bear out what you’re saying, is that the role of water even in Christianity, even in Protestant Christianity, where water is not supposedly holy in the way that is in the Catholic church, where its bounds are and how it’s channeled have been a subject of debate.

BRIAN BALOGH: Have we quenched your thirst for knowledge, Anastasia?

ANASTASIA: Oh, I am drowning in this excess of answers. Thank you.

PETER ONUF: Well, thank you, Anastasia, for your great call. We’ve enjoyed talking with you.

ED AYERS: It’s like a cold splash of water right on your face. Thanks, Anastasia.


ED AYERS: Now for a lot of Americans, the most spiritual experience they have with water is at the local swimming pool. In typical BackStory fashion, we found that swimming pools have a surprising history. In a book called Contested Waters, Jeff Wiltse takes on that history.

His account begins in the mid-1800s, not with the recreational pools we’re familiar with today, but with their ancestors, basically, places to scrub down.

JEFF WILTSE: And the best way to think of them are as literally as public bathtubs, in which the working class, immigrants, children living in the slums, would go to the pool, strip naked. And then, plunge their dirty bodies into the pool of water, scrub themselves clean, and then leave the dirt and whatever else came off them in the body of water.

ED AYERS: Now, you’re probably thinking, this is pretty gross. And in fact, it was. But it wasn’t until the 1890s that science made it clear that these public bathtubs were a great way to spread germs. Soon, showers, water filtration, and chlorine were introduced to swimming pools.

JEFF WILTSE: And then finally, in the 1920s, public officials once again initiated a redefinition of the function of pools, when they began to build large resort-like pools in centralized parks, and other locations that were easily accessible.

These pools were enormous. Many of them were larger than football fields, they were surrounded by grassy lawns, and these pools drew thousands and thousands of people to them, and really became the center of the summertime social life in many American communities.

ED AYERS: So we have this pretty remarkable story of just in 20 or 30 years, widespread appearance of these enormous swimming pools catering to a broad swath of American people, men and women, of lots of different ethnicities. But that changes. What happens to make that very appealing sort of picture change into something less so?

JEFF WILTSE: So at the same time that municipal pools become this democratized space that attracts males and females, young and old, working class and middle class, that’s offset by the onset of racial segregation and racial exclusion. Racial segregation arose literally at the moment that cities began to allow males and females to swim together.

And a particularly good example of this is the Highland Park swimming pool in Pittsburgh, and this was the first municipal pool in Pittsburgh that was open to both males and females.

And so when Highland Park Pool opened in 1931, on the first day that it was open, thousands and thousands of people from throughout Pittsburgh come to use it, including both whites and blacks.

Now on that day, each and every identifiably black person was pulled out of the line, and asked to produce his or her health certificate. Well, none of the prospective black swimmers had the health certificate, and so all of them were denied admission to the pool.

The next day, 50 prospective black swimmers show up. Once they entered the water, groups of white swimmers gathered around them, shouted threats at them, and then started punching them and dunking them underneath the water.

The next day, four young black men, ages 14 to 16, come to try to swim at the pool. But this time, they’re met by a gang of white toughs, who beat them with sticks and clubs.

Now, the police that are located at the pool largely ignored the beating. But then, once the beating had concluded, they actually arrested the black swimmers, and charged them with the speciously apt charge of inciting to riot.

ED AYERS: I think it this is a pattern across the North, that blacks and whites are not swimming together whenever men and women are swimming together?

JEFF WILTSE: Yeah. The pattern happens in pool after pool after pool. In Elizabeth, New Jersey, in Pittsburgh, in Saint Louis. In many, many cities, once a swimming pool becomes gender-integrated, it then becomes racially segregated.

Now, in some cities, in Washington, DC, in Baltimore, in Saint Louis, cities on the southern tier of Northern states, the racial segregation was official policy.

In cities further north, in places like Pittsburgh, the racial segregation that gets imposed is a de facto form of segregation, in which white swimmers and white community members use violence and the threat of violence to intimidate blacks from attempting to use pools that have been earmarked for whites.

ED AYERS: So is there something about pools, about water, that makes them especially charged about gender and race?

JEFF WILTSE: Yeah. Pools are unusually or uniquely intimate spaces. If you go to a pool today, one of the things that stands out is that people are grabbing one another. They’re trying to toss one another in the air. They’re wrestling in the water.

For whatever reason, water dissolves the sort of boundary between people that exists normally, and it just causes people to touch and contact one another.

Now, the other facet of the intimacy of pools is obviously the water itself. Entering into a pool, in the minds of most people, historically, at least, was tantamount to physical contact.

And so once males and females were together, using the same space, it really, really peaked the racial prejudices that existed at the time. That one, many whites believed, or most whites believed that black Americans were unusually dirty.

And there was also the prevalent racial prejudice at the time, that black men were at the very least sexually undisciplined, and would try to act on their sexual aggression at pools, and would do so towards white women.

ED AYERS: So when did this end, Jeff?

JEFF WILTSE: Racial desegregation at pools in the North occurs in the wake of World War II. And really by the mid-1950s, all the pools in the Northern United States had been officially desegregated. That doesn’t, however, mean that they, in fact, became integrated.

So one of the things that typically happened when a particular pool became desegregated, is that once black swimmers started to use the pool, whites vacated it, abandoned it, really en masse. And there were typically two places that white swimmers went.

One is they retreated to public pools that were located in thoroughly white neighborhoods, that were much less accessible to black swimmers. The other storyline is obviously the flourishing of private club pools, out in the suburbs.

And pool use today has not only become sort of narrowed and segmented on a variety of social lines, much of the use that people make today is very individual. Putting your head into water and swimming laps back and forth and back and forth, rather than playing, and socializing, and interacting with their neighbors and other people in the community.

ED AYERS: And it seems to me, there’s been a return to the enclosed indoor pool, the natatorium idea. Have we kind of tamed water, so that water used to seem like a threat to us, and now by chlorinating it, and filtering it, and enclosing it indoors, that water has a different relationship to people than it did for millennia before our own time?

JEFF WILTSE: Yeah. One of the things that was surprising to me was how few Americans knew how to swim during the 19th century and the early 20th century. And it wasn’t until the 1920s and 1930s that swimming became a common activity, and swimming knowledge really broadened and became democratized.

And much of that occurred at pools, swim lessons at YMCA pools, and also lessons at municipal pools during the 1920s and 1930s. But to say that our relationship with water, and our fear of water, and the proficiency of swimming has changed, it’s true, but it really divides along social lines.

Within the last four or five years, there’s been enormous publicity that has highlighted the disparities along racial and along class lines, between both swimming proficiency and also, tragically, drowning.

And what studies have shown is that black Americans are half as likely to know how to swim as white Americans. And black children, in particular, are three times as likely to drown as our white children. And to my mind, that is in large part a legacy of the discrimination that occurred in the past at pools.

Whites didn’t just have easy access to pools. It was also the case that whites had more access to swim lessons, and blacks had more limited access to swim lessons. And a legacy of that is the current swimming and drowning disparity.

ED AYERS: Jeff Wiltse is a historian at the University of Montana. His book is Contested Waters: a Social History of Swimming Pools in America.

VETIVER: [SINGING] This summer, I swam in the ocean, and I swam in a swimming pool. Salt in my wounds, chlorine in my eyes, I’m a self-destructive fool. A self-destructive pool.

That’s going to do it for us today, but we’d like to hear from you. Has access to water been at the heart of any big drama in your own family history? Let us know at And while you’re there, please consider sharing your stories and questions for two shows we have in the works, one on political corruption, and another on World War I.

And whatever you do, don’t be a stranger.

VETIVER: [SINGING] This summer, I did the backstroke, and you know that that’s not all. I did the breaststroke, and the butterfly, and the old Australian crawl. The old Australian crawl.

PETER ONUF: Today’s episode of BackStory was produced by Tony Field, Nina Earnest, Andrew Parsons, Kelly Jones, Emily Gadek, Bruce Wallace, and Sam Ulmschneider. Jamal Millner is our engineer. Special thanks this week to Brad Udall, Carl Smith, and John Grabowsky. BackStory’s executive producer is Andrew Wyndham.

BRIAN BALOGH: Major support for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the University of Virginia, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation.

Additional funding is provided by Weinstein Properties, by the Tomato Fund, cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, the humanities, and the environment, and by History Channel, history made every day.

SPEAKER 2: Brian Balogh is professor of history at the University of Virginia. Peter Onuf is professor of history emeritus at UVA, and senior research fellow at Monticello. Ed Ayers is president and professor of history at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham, for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.