The Colorado River snakes southwest from fifteen thousand feet high in the Rocky Mountains, down through plains and desert to present-day Mexico and the Gulf of California, draining a vast watershed of 250,000 square miles. Indigenous peoples—the Navajo and the Hopi, the Zuni and the Ute, and dozens of other nations—have been living alongside the river and its tributaries for centuries. Beginning in the 1820s, Anglo settlers began seizing water and land in the Colorado River Basin, and by the 1870s, the Colorado River Basin region had become part of the expanding United States empire. The region was reimagined by the US state as what the American geologist John Wesley Powell called “arid earth”: “drought-stricken” lands that supposedly needed to be salvaged through settler control and technology.
In the decades that followed, the newly created US Geological Survey initiated a massive program of data collection to map, chart, graph, and apportion the basin’s water, land, and people. This stream of information—from acre-feet per year of river flow to racist atlases of Indigenous peoples—fed into decisions by US agencies like the Bureau of Reclamation about who should be allowed to live in the basin and use its land and water. This was, in effect, a data analytics program that entrenched white supremacist ideology into the legal and scientific functioning of the US state.
Guiding decisions about how to distribute the region’s land and water was the belief that scarce resources should be optimized to foster development and maximize profits for white settlers. This regime of resource optimization persisted into the mid-twentieth century, when it was combined with a newly dominant mode of economic analysis called Input-Output (I/O) economics and programmed into computer algorithms known as linear programming algorithms, which guided the work of deciding how to allocate the basin’s water and land.
Today, those optimization algorithms, and the settler-colonial logics they derive from, control the distribution of resources on which forty million people throughout the American southwest depend. According to officials in Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah, and other states, that water system is now collapsing in the face of what the media, in a contemporary echo of Powell’s drought-stricken arid lands thesis, has described as “megadrought” and “water starvation” exacerbated by the climate crisis. That has led to calls for further technological intervention of the same kind that has long enabled settler control. But it is clear the optimization framework—which over the past century has contributed to water shortages, toxic waste from profit-driven energy development, flooding of Native American agricultural land, and enduring campaigns of water appropriation—will not solve the water crisis.
There is now an urgent need to abandon that framework and imagine better water futures. Luckily, the resources for this work already exist. In the period when settler-colonial water policy was being entrenched in digital algorithms, a group of young people from the National Indian Youth Council (NIYC) were developing critiques of the optimization regime, and articulating a different vision for the Colorado River Basin. That vision can help us support sustainability and justice-centered water policy for generations to come.
The story of how the optimization regime took over the Colorado River Basin is a complicated one. But at its core are innovations in policy, law, and technology that enthroned profit as the guiding principle of resource distribution in the region.
In the nineteenth century, two doctrines guided the US empire’s allocation of Colorado River water. The first, known as the doctrine of prior appropriation, was basically a “first come, first served” rule that privileged the first interests to lay claim to the use of a given amount of water. The second, known as the doctrine of equitable apportionment, split water between US territories. In theory, these water doctrines might have favored Native American water rights, as they did after the 1908 Winters v. United States Supreme Court decision, which upheld the water rights of the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation over encroaching settlers. But since then, white settlers have managed to subordinate water rights under the principle of “beneficial use,” which holds that in the case of disputes, water should be allocated to the parties that intend to use it for vaguely defined beneficial purposes. In practice, this has usually meant profits for technological developers and extractive energy industries.
That evolution in the principles of water distribution policies was later operationalized in new computing technologies. Beginning earlier but expanding significantly in the 1960s, analysts in laboratories at major land-grant universities like the University of Arizona took the data collected by the US Geological Survey and other agencies and encoded it onto punch cards. Mathematicians, economists, and other technologists then used those cards as the fodder for computer programs that would optimize water distribution for profit maximization.
The design of these computer programs was derived from the economic technique known as Input-Output modeling. Created in the 1920s by the economist Wassily Leontief in order to optimize the transportation of grain in Soviet Russia, I/O modeling was later used to analyze entire national economies and even to guide US bombing campaigns in the Second World War, thereby advancing US imperialism and rationalizing mass destruction on the world stage.
I/O models are based on a table that looks like an Excel spreadsheet, in which columns for materials (such as oil, steel, or coal) intersect with rows for industries (such as agriculture or manufacturing). The basic idea is that an economic system can be measured as the overall ratio of resources used (input) to goods produced (output). In the Cold War period, scientists at Harvard, the Pentagon, and elsewhere developed mathematical techniques known as linear programming algorithms to determine the optimal input and output numbers for a desired objective, such as optimizing resources for military development at the lowest possible cost.
After being successfully implemented in imperial bombing campaigns and New England manufacturing, I/O economics and linear programming algorithms began expanding westward in the 1950s into water management on the Colorado River, becoming the dominant mode of modeling water within a decade. Researchers and students at the land-grant universities were charged with optimizing water distribution across the region. As the basis of their analysis, they carved the diverse land into relatively homogenous virtual quadrants known as “problem settings.”
For example, in proposals for the Central Utah Project, initially formalized in the 1960s, the state of Utah was represented as a square divided into a grid of eight to ten smaller squares that obliterated all distinctions about whose land, histories, and water rights the grid overlaid. Researchers then used computer programs to figure out how to distribute X acre-feet of water for Y farm plots across each problem setting, so as to maximize profits and minimize costs for the region’s large agribusinesses and other industries.
Youth Against the Empire
The optimization regime is so entrenched in water policy and technology that, even in the midst of catastrophic climate change, it is difficult to imagine other futures for the Colorado River Basin and proximate regions. But in the late 1970s, a group of Native American students did just that, fighting back against a water diversion program in New Mexico, and providing a model for activism and water management that could guide us today.
The NIYC was founded in 1961 as a nationwide coalition focused on environmental justice work and an intergenerational fight against US colonialism and economic extraction. In the subsequent decades, the NIYC argued countless environmental court cases, wrote numerous policy reports, and utilized every political and scientific tool to fight against the settler policy and technologies of the US empire.
One of the tools they used was the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). These statements were created in 1969 by the National Environmental Protection Act to help guide government decisions on new development projects. In the Colorado River Basin region, developers manipulated the EIS format to justify the impacts of their projects in light of those projects’ beneficial use—in other words, to show that the profits outweighed the environmental costs.
In 1976, student youth members of the NIYC of Albuquerque, New Mexico, wrote their own anti-colonial EIS for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. They recognized that the EIS was a powerful policy medium that could be repurposed for environmental justice work. They were attempting to intervene against a recent data-driven decision about the allocation of water from the San Juan River—a major tributary of the Colorado River—as part of the Navajo Indian Irrigation Project. The project was supposed to take water from the Navajo Dam and Reservoir, created in early ’60s, and use it to irrigate land in San Juan County in northwestern New Mexico.
The students supported the irrigation project in principle—as a founding member of the NIYC, John Redhouse, said in another context, “we’re not anti-development, we’re just anti-exploitation”—but they were concerned that Native oversight was lacking, and that the project would thereby undermine Navajo self-governance. They focused their EIS on the New Mexico state government’s opaque decision to divert 330,000 acre-feet of water from the Navajo Dam, which they pointed out was just one among countless decisions made without robust structures of Native oversight.
In their statement, the students recounted how Native American water rights had been diminished since at least the early twentieth century by the doctrine of beneficial use. They pointed to the ways that dominant data-driven decision-making processes had been used to disavow Native American claims to water, and questioned the specific hydrological data employed to make the decision in this case. They decried the influence of corporate agriculture in the decision, as well as recent changes in the Navajo Council that weakened possibilities for total self-sufficiency from US resource governance. They also provided a clear vision for Navajo self-sufficiency, which included breaking away from the domination of US agribusiness to create a system of food production and distribution organized into small family farming and local Navajo food-producing cooperatives.
Perhaps most importantly, they demanded transparency and power in the decision-making process, so that they could assert their voice within the Native council, and break from US water management and the technological regime of optimization. This has become a central tenet of contemporary Indigenous Environmental Justice and Indigenous Data Sovereignty resistance movements: the right to collection, ownership, and application of all data about Indigenous peoples, their lifeways, and territories.
Water justice requires acknowledging historical pasts as much as imagining new futures, but optimization frameworks flatten past, present, and future into calculations of profit-driven time.
Optimization algorithms are misleading in stories about water in other ways, too. In upholding extractive economic systems, they formulate water crisis as a future problem and ignore the fact that this crisis has been caused by centuries of settler and capitalist control. Scholar Kyle Whyte has named this false description of climate change as new and urgent as “crisis epistemology.” This anxiety is evident in “megadrought” media descriptions of the Colorado River that warn of impending collapse. In response, technological developers and policy makers are granted unchecked decision-making power that reaffirms optimization-led economic systems.
Environmental Impact Statements continue to dominate in water development policies. Standard EIS reports utilize optimization algorithms, Monte Carlo methods, and other predictive statistical frameworks. This means that dominant water policy assessment tools are designed with the same optimization logics that they are supposed to check. Against this, the NIYC’s anti-colonial EIS is a model of environmental assessment that breaks optimization’s stranglehold on water policy, and privileges intergenerational sustainability and water rights. Their approach centers the needs of the people over the profit of technological developers.
The NIYC’s environmental justice work over the past seventy years—including their 1976 intervention into the Navajo irrigation project water diversion decision—and their unparalleled expertise in water policy, water-related technological development, and agriculture, underscore the critical importance of local organizing and wider coalition building, as well as centering youth perspectives, in formulating water futures written by the people. There is already enough information in these past interventions to write justice-centered policy and support livable water futures for the Colorado River.