Saturday, August 8, 2015

Water law, community, and religion in Utah

Irrigation ditch in front of Brigham Young's houses, Salt Lake City
(Utah Div. of State History)

The tension between capitalism and private property on the one hand, and religion and communal property on the other, is the subject of John Bennion's "Water Law on the Eve of Statehood: Israel Bennion and a Conflict in Vernon, 1893-1896", published in last fall's Utah Historical Quarterly. Without knowing enough about the Utah case in particular, I personally believe the conflict was never as stark as is thought today; prior appropriation was aimed at breaking water monopoly, and communal forms of control--whether through mutual ditch, user-owned corporation, or irrigation district--were and have remained the dominant forms of irrigation organization. Bennion's article confirms that even after the adoption of the appropriation doctrine, communal control persisted. His article begins:
The life of Israel Bennion, a second-generation Utah Mormon, was shaped by his desire to establish a Zion community in an arid land. His journals from 1893 to 1896 describe his efforts to resolve a local conflict over water--a type of conflict common where water is precious and streamflows vary during the year--in Vernon, a Mormon village at the south end of Rush Valley in Utah Territory. Bennion believed water ought to be administered according to the pattern established by the first settlers--through church and community channels, with water theoretically distributed according to the needs of all users. Others in Vernon chafed at communal administration and subscribed to a government-based system of prior appropriation, where water could be bought and sold as if it were private property. This practice became codified into law when Utah became a state. The squabble in Vernon illustrates two ideological positions as Utah shifted from communal to capitalistic management of water.
Several trends combined to create conflicts in Mormon villages in Utah in the 1890s: economic development required stable and permanent sources of water that could be transported to where industries needed it; new settlers, which by now included non-Mormons, hoped to gain water rights not mediated by LDS church authorities; and many residents of Utah Territory sought to become a part of the economic fabric of the United States. Even as the former attitudes toward water eroded, replaced gradually by new beliefs that were manifested in water code, Bennion and many other Mormon water users subverted the new laws because they continued to believe in a community approach to water distribution. 

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