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‘Where the Water Goes’: New Book Tackles Colorado River Challenges

A new book from veteran writer David Owen explores the complexities of water issues in the Colorado River basin, including obligations to Mexico, energy production, agriculture and other economic and social drivers.

Written by Tara Lohan Published on Read time Approx. 7 minutes
The Colorado River in Arizona. David Owen’s book examines the many issues, including agriculture and energy, associated with the river.Richey Miller/CSM (Cal Sport Media via AP Images)

Coverage of the Colorado River’s problems is often boiled down to water levels in Lake Mead, but a new book from veteran author David Owen traces the complexities of the river’s many competing demands from its headwaters to its terminus in Mexico.

In “Where the Water Goes: Life and Death Along the Colorado River,” Owen takes readers on a backroads journey through the many issues that emanate from the river and its tributaries – including energy production, agriculture and growing cities.

Owen is a staff writer at the New Yorker and the author of more than 12 books. Water Deeply recently spoke to Owen about “Where the Water Goes.” Unlike many people writing about the Colorado River, Owen said he didn’t actually travel in the river, but wanted to see the far-reaching effect of the river as its influence extends well beyond its banks.

“You have to think not just in terms of this amazing ribbon of water that carved the Grand Canyon,” he said. “You also have to think of the people who are spread out for hundreds of miles beyond its banks who depend on it, often when they have no idea that they depend on it.”

Water Deeply: Much as been written about the Colorado River; how did the idea for this book arise and what were you hoping to get out there that you hadn’t seen before?

David Owen: I wanted to learn about water and it occurred to me that I could look at one river and follow it from start to finish. The Colorado is kind of perfect for that because it’s pretty long and yet it’s manageable – 1,400 miles [2,250km]. I think in some ways the most appealing feature about the river in terms of writing about it is we use it all up. It doesn’t get all the way to the end anymore, so I was interested in knowing where the water comes from and where it goes.

It also serves an enormous section of the country and a dry part of the country. It’s a valuable resource for almost 40 million people who depend on it for fresh water, 6 million acres [2.4 million hectares] of agriculture, $26 billion worth of recreation and often the water is moved so far away from the river to the people who use it that the people who use it have no idea that that’s where their water comes from.

Water Deeply: Did you know when you started out which issues or which places you wanted to touch on or did it change as you did your research and your reporting?

Owen: Well I did some advanced research just to be sure that all the uses we put water to could be addressed through the Colorado. And most of them can. You can reflect on the major uses that we put water to and also the complexities – the way in which people’s needs compete. And not always in obvious ways.

Water Deeply: One of the points you made a lot throughout the book was that there are no easy decisions when it comes to water. Even something as simple as saying “Farmers should use more efficient irrigation” has surprising complexities.

Owen: Yes – and it’s always easy to say we should just get rid of this other guy’s job but of course save mine. I think the Colorado is a good example because the water has moved so far away that huge networks of people depend on that river and depend on each other.

Water Deeply: You meet with a number of different kinds of farmers in the book; did your opinion about agriculture in the Southwest change while working on this book?

Owen: Oh, absolutely. Agriculture is the main use [of water] throughout the Colorado basin. About 80 percent of the water goes to agriculture. When I went into it, I was thinking “Why do we grow anything in a desert?” But in a lot of ways it makes sense. When I arrived at the farm of Larry Cox, the farmer I went to see in the Imperial Valley, it had rained a little bit that morning and I told him that maybe I should take credit for helping to end the drought in California. He told me they don’t really like rain because it screws up their planning.

One of the advantages of depending entirely on irrigation is that he knows exactly to the day when he’s going to plant his onions, when he’s going to thin the plants, when he’s going to harvest them, when the next crop is going to go in. He can plan this all out on spreadsheets far in advance and nothing like that happens in agricultural areas where the weather is less predictable than it is in the deserts of Southern California.

Also I think that people often say, “If only we wouldn’t grow forage crops. If only we would stop growing alfalfa and Sudan grass and plants that we feed to animals.” Why do we do this? Why do we do it with irrigated water? And then especially, why do we export those agricultural products to China, for example?

But alfalfa plays an important role in desert agriculture because the growing season is so long you can grow more than one crop. So you can grow lettuce or you can grow onions. And then when it gets too hot during the summer to grow those things you can plant your fields with forage crops, which you get multiple cuttings from. Those forage crops play an important role in the economy of that area. They turn farming jobs into year-round jobs. Agriculture everywhere operates on pretty tight margins with high risks and they help to reduce that risk and to make it economically viable.

I think my goal in the book was not to simplify people’s views about all these issues but to complicate them. And to show why it isn’t easy to address the enormous list of environmental challenges that we’re dealing with.

Water Deeply: Were there any places where you felt that you saw really good examples of some solutions that seemed to be working?

Owen: There are lots of them everywhere. One thing that the California drought showed us is that people in cities are capable of using much less water than they’ve become accustomed to. In Southern Nevada, people have worked together very effectively to join resources to address water problems.

I think one of the most encouraging signs is the recent relationship between the United States and Mexico regarding water. It may be possible for Mexico to store water in Lake Mead that it wasn’t currently able to use, which also had benefits for the United States. The United States agreed to make some investment in water infrastructure in Mexico and even agreed to allocate some water to purely environmental ends.

One of the interesting things about water, and one of the reasons I think water can be a template for other environmental issues, is that the need for water is so immediate. If you don’t have water you need to solve that problem today. Even though there’s lots of history of conflict over water there’s also a history of compromise and negotiation among people with competing interests.

Water Deeply: I noticed you had a quote in there from Pat Mulroy [former general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority], who was saying that actually in times of shortage you have more compromise. Right now in California we’re feeling pretty good about ourselves and it looks like the rest of the West is in a bit of better shape for this water year thanks to a very wet winter. Do you think that sets things back at all in terms of these long-term negotiations and projects that are going on? We will become complacent again?

Owen: It probably does. It’s human nature. People have a very short memory about things like the price of fuel and the scarcity of water. Pat Mulroy said that to me and she was quoting someone else saying that “You should never let a good crisis go to waste.” And she’s right because there are these moments when you have people’s attention. Water is not a short-term problem. It’s something we have to deal with on a long-term basis.

Water Deeply: How did you walk away from the end of this project feeling about the Colorado River and the folks that live in the region and depend on the water? Were you hopeful?

Owen: I think I describe myself as optimistic, but not optimistic in the way that people are who think that if we stop growing almonds everything would be cool with water in the United States. It’s complicated but because it is so important, people do tend to work it out. I’ve been incredibly impressed all up and down the river by the thoughtfulness of people who have devoted their lives to this, to thinking about it, to making it all work.

For me personally, I loved the traveling along the river. Most people think “I’m going to travel the Colorado River.” They’re doing it in the river and there’s a lot you miss if you’re not outside the river. I didn’t get wet at all except, you know, I dipped my hand in a couple of times. But the main influence of that river on American life is far beyond its banks and I think you miss a lot if you don’t think of it in those terms.

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