Where the Water Goes | David Owen

Summary of: Where the Water Goes: Life and Death Along the Colorado River
By: David Owen


Immerse yourself in the fascinating world of the Colorado River, a captivating and indispensable water source that supports life, agriculture, and economies across the West. In David Owen’s ‘Where the Water Goes: Life and Death Along the Colorado River,’ delve into the history, politics, and laws that have shaped the river’s use and distribution. Understand the intricate relationship between man-made infrastructures, like dams, and the natural ecosystems they impact. Through various case studies, explore the challenges of water conservation and allocation caused by decades-old agreements, and comprehend the consequences that our water usage decisions have on the environment.

Taming the West’s Lifeline

The Colorado River irrigates six million acres, provides power to two hydroelectric plants, and quenches the thirst of 36 million people across eleven states in the West. But before man-made dams tamed the river’s course in the 1930s, it shifted around Southern California and Southwestern Arizona, depositing silt and flattening the land for farming. Ranchers and farmers pushed westward with the belief that “rain follows the plow,” only to find the arid West couldn’t support their farms. However, deserts are ideal for agriculture if they have water. Consistent weather allows for stable farm employment and precise planting and harvest dates. The West could sustain a greater population if the waters that now run to waste were saved and used for irrigation.

The Colorado River Water Wars

President Theodore Roosevelt’s State of the Union address in 1901 paved the way for water reclamation projects, including the Laguna Diversion Dam, extensive reservoirs, canals, and aqueducts. Hoover Dam, completed in 1936, and the Colorado River Storage Project in 1956 led to the creation of Lake Powell and Lake Mead. These projects, while bringing water to the desert, also created tension over water rights and environmental concerns. In 1922, the Colorado River Compact divided water between the upper and lower basins. However, hydrologists overestimated the Colorado’s flow due to the wettest years in decades since the 1400s, resulting in the chronic over-allocation of water. Today, the Bureau of Reclamation predicts a deficit of around three million acre-feet of water by 2060, leading to ongoing water wars.

Water Laws in the US

In the US, water laws differ depending on the region. Riparian law governs water usage on the East Coast and England, allowing property owners an equal claim to water. Meanwhile, the Western US follows the concept of “prior appropriation,” where property owners have a claim to the amount of water they first used, regardless of future circumstances. This means that senior rights holders have no obligation to share their water. These differences in water laws have a significant impact on water management in different regions of the US.

Water Law in the West

Water law in the western US is complex, with multiple parties filing competing claims and with prior appropriation giving priority to commercial concerns like ranchers, farmers, and miners. The law of the river is central to this system, and those who have been immersed in this culture, like the Water Buffalos, hold the key to understanding it. However, this system doesn’t account for the needs of ecosystems or recreational activities like kayaking. The Colorado Water Conservation Board is working to acquire high-priority water rights in order to address these issues, while organizations called Recreational In-Channel Diversions (RICDs) claim “beneficial use” for recreational activities. Nonetheless, the rights of commercial interests often take precedence over these more recent concerns. Water rights are rooted in a bygone era, and they need to be reimagined for modern times in order to ensure that the river and its ecosystems, as well as those who enjoy recreational activities, are protected.

City Dwellers vs Nature Lovers

The myth of the environmentally friendly off-grid lifestyle is debunked in this book. City dwellers hurt the environment less than country residents who encroach on wild spaces. Green behaviors can have unforeseen side effects like devastation caused by mining lithium for batteries and utilizing more water and land. Traditional economists tend to undervalue goods that are hard to pin a price on like air and water quality, and future civilization. Western cities follow water conservation plans, but their gains are lost with urban sprawl. Agriculture utilizes about 80% of the water from the Colorado’s drainage basin.

The Environmental Disaster of Salton Sea

In 1905, a bypass attempt by the California Development Company resulted in the creation of Salton Sea near California-Mexico border. It became a tourist attraction, but with time, irrigation waste, salt, and other harmful agricultural substances have been deposited, leading to its degraded ecological and environmental status. Moreover, the sea has no outlet other than evaporation, making the hazardous chemicals and metal levels more concentrated and volatile in the air. The destruction caused may cost up to $70 billion over three decades, including damage to marine life, birds, and the loss of recreational resources and property.

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