An eye-opening account of where our water comes from and where it all goes.
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.
Where the Water Goes: Life and Death Along the Colorado River 5 out of 5based on
More than 1 year ago
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.
More than 1 year ago
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!
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