Abstract: Who Owns the Water? Inequality and Conflict along the Lower Rio Grande River, 1904-1930

Alicia M. Dewey


     In the struggle for control over water resources, one of the central conflicts has been between the large landowners and the small farmers.  Holding the upper hand in terms of landholdings and political power, the large landowners have often won.  Yet when small farmers have cooperated, their power and influence has, in some cases, surpassed that of the large landowners, and they have been able to acquire control over the water resources they needed.  In the lower Rio Grande Valley, major land developers initially bought up most of the fertile land along the river just after the turn of the twentieth century and held most of the rights to river water from the Rio Grande.  They installed pumps and canals to provide water for irrigating crops, divided the land into smaller tracts of 20 to 40 acres, and then marketed and sold the tracts primarily to individuals from the Great Plains region and upper Midwest.  This paper explores the inequalities between the major landowners and the small farmers in the lower Rio Grande Valley between 1904 and 1930 and tells a complex story of how these inequalities shifted over time.  It analyses the conflicts that emerged out of the marketing techniques of the developers, the unsatisfied expectations of the farmers, and disagreements over water rates.  It examines how the conflict evolved, the reasons for the establishment of municipal water districts, and how that influenced the conflicts over water rights and usage.  It argues that the farmers essentially turned to the government to resolve the inequalities and saw that as the best way to combat the power of private enterprise.