Going Down to the Water

My students have all heard me tell this story, many more than once (sorry!), but it was fun to work it through in writing:

Some years ago, through the serendipity of a missed airport connection, I found myself stranded for 24 hours in Prague. I was tired, my mind set in the way of air travel on my destination—home. Prague may be one of Europe’s great cities, but it had not been my plan to visit it. It took me some time to warm to the opportunity my travel mishap had presented.

After stashing my belongings in a room at the airport hotel, I got a map from the concierge and directions for the transit connections to find my way into the old Eastern European city. With no advance knowledge of the city and no particular plan in mind, I emerged from the Malostranská subway station and did what I often do when I start from scratch—I began wandering toward the water….

“Say you are in the country; in some high land of lakes. Take almost any path you please, and ten to one it carries you down in a dale, and leaves you there by a pool in the stream,” Herman Melville wrote in the opening chapter of Moby Dick. “There is magic in it.” It is always down—simple gravity and fluid mechanics mean water occupies a landscape’s lowest spot. It is also instructive. To learn about a new place, I’ve found, you can always start with its water. To know London, start with the Thames and the earliest mariners traveling up its estuary for the first time, searching for a good place to land. But think also through London’s nineteenth century sewage management crisis, when the growing city finally had too much and was forced to organize around the problem of ridding itself of “the great stink.” To know Seattle, explore the wharves of Elliott Bay and learn the history of the Duwamish River—sacred salmon river turned industrial wasteland. To understand Los Angeles, and the Southern California metropolis that surrounds it, is to see the land as a community with little water of its own but the audacity to build three great artificial rivers to make up for its natural shortcomings. Lacking the natural harbors of its urban competitors, Los Angeles built a port.

For Prague, a community that grew up in a place where the river could be crossed, the city’s first water was the Vltava. Knowing nothing else about the city, I could trace the little canal back from a low diversion dam across the river and begin to see how the early community’s members organized themselves around the task of managing their water. “How societies respond to the challenges presented by the changing hydraulic conditions of its environment using the technological and organizational tools of its times,” Steven Solomon wrote, “is quite, simply, one of the central motive forces of history.”

That is the introduction to “Going Down to the Water“, an essay in the latest issue of the Natural Resources Journal, published by the University of New Mexico School of Law. Huge thanks to Colin McKenzie for inviting me to do this piece, and Matthew Ramirez for some crackerjack editing.

Really, thanks y’all, this was the most fun I’ve had writing something in ages. A reminder – I need to write more, it’s fun!

There’s a bunch of really interesting stuff in the new issue, which focuses on water governance. I was especially smitten with this piece by Burke Griggs on the political cultures of irrigation communities, and their relationships to the water law that emerges therefrom.