There is much to like in Where the Water Goes, David Owen’s new book about “life and death along the Colorado River”, but the thing I liked most was the bemused charm with which Owen himself confronts western water’s absurdities, which must be embraced, but which are easily taken for granted.
Here he is in Denver conference room a Continental Divide removed from the Colorado River Basin itself, introduced to (and introducing us to) the strange distinction between “paper water” and “wet water” that underpins much of western water discourse. Water lawyer Kent Holsinger is our guide, describing the cattle ranch near Walden, Colorado, on which he grew up:
A stream crosses the ranch, and the Holsingers draw water from it, but their right to do so isn’t based on the fact that their property is adjacent to its banks, as it would be in the East. “Water law in Colorado and most states in the West is based on the doctrine of ‘prior appropriation,'” he said. That doctrine holds that the first person to make “beneficial use” of water gains the right to use that quantity for that purpose forever.
I was amused to note that Amazon has categorized Owen’s book in “General Western US Travel Guides” (where it happily is the #1 New Release). But on reflection, the choice made sense. Structure in a narrative like this is always a great challenge, and some of our best books about rivers (think Fradkin’s River No More as one shining example) have used the “headwaters to sea” device. Here Owen deploys it effectively, taking us along on his travels as he follows the Colorado’s twisting path from the Rocky Mountains to the Sea of Cortez. I never would have called this a “travel guide”, but on reflection could see it serving solid road trip duty.
By itself, the travelogue is delightful – his side trip into the RV culture of Quartzite on the desert Colorado’s Arizona bank left me full of writerly admiration. Who has travelled the Lower Colorado in winter and not pondered the strange immensity of the human experience spread across the great snowbird RV parks? This is the charm of Owen’s writing, the slightly self-deprecating way he invites us along as he visits interesting people and places, learning new things along the way.
But within the geographical structure, Owen is doing something more subtle, leading us through the ways in which society and river interact as we go through the complex motions of moving water out of the river channel and doing with it what we do. By the book’s end, he’s easily and gently laid a foundation that allows a discussion of the hard stuff, as he leads us through the effect the global food market has on Larry Cox’s Imperial Valley farm, and therefore on the Colorado River’s water:
“Even on the citrus we grow – lemons for export have to be different sizes from lemons for domestic. Then we’ve got fancy grade, choice grade, standard grade. We put up thirty-two different packs, between lettuce and broccoli and mixed lettuce and sleeved romaine – and it’s okay, but you kind of feel like a poodle jumping through hoops.”
Ultimately the hard stuff includes the recognition that the Colorado River’s problems really are hard, not amenable to easy “rewrite the Law of the River” or “abandon prior appropriation/Imperial/Las Vegas” narratives, and it is to Owens’ credit that he ably sums up this no-easy-fixes reality.
Even water nerds who think they know everything about the Colorado River <cough>me</cough> will likely learn stuff they didn’t know, but you’re not the book’s primary audience. Y’all should pick it up. But really, Where the Water Goes is a water book for everyone else.