The Colorado River is an essential resource for a surprisingly large part of the United States, and every gallon that flows down it is owned or claimed by someone. David Owen traces all that water from the Colorado’s headwaters to its parched terminus, once a verdant wetland but now a million-acre desert. He takes readers on an adventure downriver, along a labyrinth of waterways, reservoirs, power plants, farms, fracking sites, ghost towns, and RV parks, to the spot near the U.S.–Mexico border where the river runs dry.
Water problems in the western United States can seem tantalizingly easy to solve: just turn off the fountains at the Bellagio, stop selling hay to China, ban golf, cut down the almond trees, and kill all the lawyers. But a closer look reveals a vast man-made ecosystem that is far more complex and more interesting than the headlines let on.
The story Owen tells in Where the Water Goes is crucial to our future: how a patchwork of engineering marvels, byzantine legal agreements, aging infrastructure, and neighborly cooperation enables life to flourish in the desert —and the disastrous consequences we face when any part of this tenuous system fails.
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Our pilot, David Kunkel, asked me to retrieve his oxygen bottle from under my seat, and when I handed it to him he gripped the plastic breathing tube with his teeth and opened the valve. We had taken off from Boulder not long before and were flying over Rocky Mountain National Park, thirty miles to the northwest. Kunkel was navigating with the help of an iPad Mini, which was resting on his legs. “People don’t usually think altitude is affecting them,” he said. “But if you ask them to count backward from a hundred by sevens they have trouble.” What struck me at that moment was not how high we were but how low: a little earlier, we had flown within what seemed like hailing distance of the sheer east face of Longs Peak, and now, as Kunkel banked steeply to the right to give us a better view of a stream at the bottom of a narrow valley, his wing tip appeared to pass just feet from the jagged declivity beneath us. Snow had fallen in the mountains during the night, and I half expected it to swirl up in our wake.
The other passenger, sitting in the copilot’s seat and leaning out the window with a big camera, was Jennifer Pitt, who at the time was a senior researcher for the Environmental Defense Fund. Pitt is in her forties. She has long brown hair, which she had pulled back into a ponytail,and she was wearing a purple fleece. She worked at the EDF, mostly on issues related to the Colorado River, from 1999 till 2015, when she moved to a similar job at the National Audubon Society. In recent years, her focus has been on the river’s other end, in Mexico, but she had agreed to show me its source. Our principal destination that day was the Colorado’s headwaters, just over the Continental Divide, roughly fifty miles south of the Wyoming state line. “The best way to see a river system is from the air,” she’d told me earlier. She arranged our flight through LightHawk, an international nonprofit organization that supplies volunteer pilots and their airplanes, at no charge, for a varietyof environmental purposes. The previous day, a LightHawk pilot had flown twenty black-footed ferrets from Fort Collins to a spot nearthe Grand Canyon, for relocation.
Before our flight, I looked up Kunkel on Google and was disconcerted to find a news story about him landing his Cessna 340 on a highway high in the Rockies after losing both engines in succession. But then I realized that nothing like that could happen to us, because the plane he’d be using for our trip, a Maule M-7, had just one engine. I looked up Pitt, too. She was born in Boston and grew up in Westchester County, New York, in a suburb of New York City. “I think you can trace my interest in rivers back to my childhood in Westchester,” she told me later, “because I grew up in a river town, on the Hudson, and when I was a kid Pete Seeger came to my school and sang to me about rivers.” As an undergraduate, at Harvard, she majored in American history and literature, but developed an interest in urban planning and landscape architecture. “After graduation,” she continued, “I worked in Manhattan for a year, for the Department of Parks and Recreation, and realized that that was not what I wanted to do.” She got a job as an interpretive ranger in Mesa Verde National Park, in southwestern Colorado,and that experience, she said, “gave another twist to my view of the world, and how an ancient culture used the resources around them.” She earned a master’s degree in environmental sciences, with a focus on water, at the Yale School of Forestry, then worked in Washington, D.C., for five years, mostly at the National Park Service. In 1999, the Environmental Defense Fund hired her to create programs related to the Colorado River and the ecosystems that depend on it. In 2003, she married Michael Cohen, a senior associate at the Pacific Institute, another environmental organization. (They met at a water conference in Tucson.) They live in Boulder and have a daughter.
Kunkel dipped a wing, and Pitt pointed toward the Never Summer Mountains, on our right. “There’s the Grand Ditch,” she said. I saw what looked like a road or a hiking trail cut across the face of a steeply sloping forest of snow-dusted conifers; she explained that it was an aqueduct, dating to 1890. Its original full name was the North Grand River Ditch. (Until 1921, the section of the Colorado that’s upstream from its confluence with the Green, in eastern Utah, was called the Grand. Hence: Grand Lake, Grand Junction, Grand Valley—but not Grand Canyon, which was named for its grandness.) It was built with pickaxes and black powder, mostly by Japanese laborers, and it operates by gravity—an impressive feat of pre-laser engineering. The Grand Ditch is fourteen miles long, and much of it is above ten thousand feet. It carries water across the Continental Divide at La Poudre Pass and empties it into a stream that flows toward the state’s eastern plains, where even by the late 1800s farmers were feeling parched. It doesn’t tap the Colorado directly, but captures as much as forty percent of the flow from slopes that would otherwise feed it, like a sap-gathering gash in the trunk of a rubber tree. We had already flown over several larger, more recent additions to the same network: Long Draw Reservoir, completed in 1930; Estes Lake, which serves as a trans-basin junction box; and five connected natural and man-made lakes that lie on the western side of the divide and gather and store water from the Colorado or its watershed. The northernmost of the lakes spills as much as a third of a billion gallons a day into the Alva B. Adams Tunnel, which was built in the 1940s. Adams was a lawyer and a U.S. senator, and in the early 1930s he served as the chairman of the Committee on Irrigationand Reclamation. The tunnel moves the water under the center of the park, drops it through five hydroelectric generating plants, and delivers it to a distribution system that serves a populous area east of the mountains, including Boulder. The main elements of the system are known collectively as the Colorado-Big Thompson Project. (In the West, “project” almost always means “dam,” “reservoir,” “aqueduct,” “canal,” or all four).
Kunkel made a slow turn to the left. “We just flew over the headwaters,” he said. Our position was easier to see on his iPad than on the ground. The sky had been blue when we took off, but since we’d entered the mountains he’d had to pick his way under and around what sometimes looked like an upside-down ocean of clouds. The ceiling made flying difficult but helped to explain the existence of the water-storing-and-shifting network we’d been looking at. As moisture-laden weather systems move eastward across the western United States, they pile up over the Rockies, dumping snow and rain. Eighty percent of Colorado’s precipitation falls on the western half of the state, yet eighty-five percent of the population lives to the east, in the mountains’ “rainshadow.” If transporting water from one side to the other were impossible, most of the people who live and farm on the eastern side of the mountains would have to move. Pitt said, “Even people who describe themselves as worried environmentalists usually have no idea where their water comes from. We did a focus group once where somebody asserted vehemently that Denver did not get any water from the other side of the mountains, and we actually had to intervene and make sure that the guy leading the focus group knew that that was wrong, so that the whole two-hour discussion didn’t go off in some other direction.”
Table of Contents
1 The Headwaters 1
2 The Law of the River 14
3 Tributaries 25
4 Go West 36
5 Grand Valley 52
6 Salt, Dry Lots, and Houseboats 65
7 Lees Ferry 79
8 Boulder Canyon Project 93
9 Las Vegas 106
10 Colorado River Aqueduct 123
11 Central Arizona Project 134
12 The Rule Of Capture 146
13 Boondocking 159
14 Imperial Valley 173
15 The Salton Sea 185
16 Reclamation 202
17 The Delta 214
18 What is to be Done? 226
Acknowledgments and Selected References 261
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I was a little hesitant to pick up this title. I've always enjoyed natural and social histories, but I generally think of water as a background or setting for the subjects I read about rather than the story itself. David Owen's Where the Water Goes has changed that. He takes what could easily be a very dull topic - water rights, irrigation policy, and desert settlement patterns - and turns it into a surprisingly addictive read. Unlike many writers in this genre who must find ways to weave quirky tales into their technical histories to maintain engagement, Owen's explorations of the river's history and development stand on their own. Key to the success of Owen's presentation is his organization. Rather than tracking the history of the river from discovery to today, or addressing it topically, he takes a geosocial approach. Starting at the headwaters, he follows the river to its eventual extinction in Mexico. At each stop, he explores the nature of the river and how neighboring communities have exploited and interacted with it. This personalization is useful both for retaining the reader and contextualizing the knowledge he shares - understanding the relative importance of salination management from crop runoff is a lot easier when you meet the farmers who use the water. As these stories intersect, Owen begins to reveal the larger impacts of water management on the entire river basin, and on the overall development patterns of the Western US. The book discusses a lot of technical issues - everything from the "Law of the River" to dam design to reservoir management. But it does so in a very approachable way that doesn't assume a large body of existing knowledge in the reader. These topics are also presented with an eye for justice and practicality. Owen doesn't simply summarize how water rights are owned and executed; he discusses the moral reasoning that governs this system, the real-world limits of executing water claims on downstream waters (it only flows one way, after all), and the political challenges in finding solutions to ongoing shortages. But throughout this, it never leaves the human and ecological impacts of these technical processes. It's hard to convey this through examples, but Owen's writing is also very fun to read. I have a friend who likes to quip that they could listen to Morgan Freeman read the phone book, and I think Owen has a similar quality to his writing - I'd gladly read his work on otherwise very mundane topics. If you want to understand what is rapidly becoming one of the defining social, political, environmental, and economic issues facing the Western US, I highly recommend this book. Even if you're not, this is a valuable parable on learning to share and preserve both finite resources and those resources once considered limitless.
A great account of the southwestern United States water laws. From the very start of the Colorado river, David Owen travels all the way to the Colorado River Delta in Mexico, explaining just where our water comes from, where it goes, and how it is used. A very educational read on where our water comes from and what it means to conserve our water. A must read for environmentalists!