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Follow the Water

Water Scholars Book Club 2021 May Book. Follow along as we post book reviews, resource lists, and content each month to support learning about a particular water topic. 

In David Owen’s book, “Where the Water Goes: Life and Death Along the Colorado River,” every drop of water is spoken for whether it exists or not from the top of the Colorado River to the bottom.

By Hanna Bates, Assistant Director, Iowa Water Center

Quick summary of the book: David Owen, a writer for The New Yorker, takes the reader on a journey along the Colorado River, including the politics and law dictating how the water supplies cities and industries to the point where it runs dry in the Southwest. Access to water supply is often under contention between states, cities, and neighbors for who has the right to the water.

Why we selected it: Water availability is a significant topic as we move towards hotter climates and other environmental impacts that shrink available water supply, particularly in the Western United States. As of April, the federal government could issue a landmark water shortage declaration for upcoming water availability projections that could even threaten hydropower at the Hoover Dam. The State of Iowa is not immune to water shortages with the 2021 growing season expected to have ongoing drought issues in parts of the state that impacts productivity in one of the most fertile landscapes.

It was not too long ago I took my first plane ride out West to Denver, Colorado. As I traveled across states, grids in Iowa changed to perfect irrigation circles in Nebraska and Colorado like a quilted patchwork of verdant circles within a background of a brown, dry landscape. Although a bird’s eye view from the sky of agriculture is an obvious view of how water is allocated out West, there is much more to how water is used that reaches cities, suburbs, and many other industries.

Owen’s storied journey along the Colorado River gives both a bird’s eye view from a plane tour and an on the ground perspective of how water is claimed and given utilitarian purpose to support infrastructure throughout the Southwest. Water availability for household use, electricity, farming, recreation, industrial uses, and entertainment (think water fountains in Las Vegas) are all categories the Colorado River is diverted to support. In this book, Owen explores the state and federal laws that led to how water is diverted for these purposes and how the solution is not always simple as shutting off the tap to certain water uses.

Each chapter in the book explores a region or an important focal point to the story of water in the West. Early laws and management often set the context for how water is managed in modern day. The approach to water, and to the environment in general, by policymakers in the early US was not to protect natural resources, but to tame natural resources for the purpose of putting it to functional use to support settlers and expanding industry in the West. Starting in the Rockies and Denver area, Owen describes the 143 years of complex water law that factors in use by public agencies and private persons wherein an individual can have water rights by seniority over others along the river. This includes stories of over appropriation within the book where the “paper” right to water is more than the “wet” water that is available for use.

Owen’s exploration of water efficiency in the book touches on the history of water as being seen as something that only has utility to humans and not the greater role that water has within an ecosystem. The book encourages the reader to think of themselves as citizens of a watershed to have a better approach to water management. Water conservation and being more efficient with resources is not always a simple answer to protecting water resources. Owen states, the more people tend to conserve in one area, they tend to spend it in another area. Additionally, the more efficient a process is, the more affordable it is, which results in greater use of that particular thing. For example, Owen states in the book:

“A few years ago, I made a serious effort to get better about turning off the lights in my house, and my wife’s and my electricity consumption went down by a noticeable amount. But our overall energy consumption didn’t fall, because the money we saved on our electric bills helped to pay for a big anniversary trip that we took to Europe, and that means that the real impact of our reduction in household electricity use was merely to transform natural gas into jet fuel. As we get better at doing things, we do more things.”

― David Owen, Where the Water Goes: Life and Death Along the Colorado River

The decline in water availability is often outpaced by efforts to conserve water. Lake Mead, a reservoir established with the creation of the Hoover Dam is the largest within the US. Almost 100% of the inflow comes from the Colorado River, but according to Owen, the lake levels have been declining at a staggering level. This not only impacts the recreation economy on the reservoir, but accessibility of the water for users downstream. The declines in water availability have led to contention among many Southwest states over the right to water, which often turn to litigation to protect their right to water to support growing populations and sprawling cities. Most importantly, by the time the river reaches Mexico, the river is a dry delta which highlights disparities related to water accessibility that expand beyond economics.

The book concludes with many potential solutions for how to address water availability, although the solutions are much larger than a single chapter at the end. Owen provides a thoughtful reflection on history reaching out the present to shape our mindset around water as something that should provide function for society, otherwise it should be considered a waste. The reader is challenged to consider the value of water outside of economic purpose. Water provides external value to the vitality of ecosystems within a watershed as well as connects people to a sense of place within their environment through play, recreation, identity, and improved mental health.

Up Next in June: Holding Back the River: The struggle against nature on America’s Waterways – Tyler J. Kelley

Follow the Water
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