Where the Water Goes: A Conversation about the Colorado River with Author David Owen

Apr 13, 2017

Where the Water Goes: Life and Death Along the Colorado River is a new book from David Owen, a staff writer with the New Yorker magazine and author of more than a dozen books.  His latest takes him on a journey across the west following the Colorado River: the dams, reservoirs and pipelines that help quench the thirst of seven states and parts of Mexico. 

David Owen joined 91.5 KRCC's Andrea Chalfin for a conversation about his book. 

Excerpts from the conversation:

On the over-appropriation of the Colorado River, which is due in large part to stream flow measurements taken during wetter years of the early 1900s:

The agreement that the states made in the 1920s still exists, but it's been added onto in lots of ways… If you're starting now, nobody would do it the way they did it then. One thing a number of Western water experts told me is that the agreements, the [Colorado River] Compact, and the Law of the River, which is sort of the larger body of thinking about where that water goes, they've evolved over the decades.

One reason the states have adapted their thinking is that they're always afraid that the federal government is going to step in.  They've accommodated, to some extent anyway, competing needs;  they included Mexico in their idea of who deserved to get water from the river, which was not necessarily the case in the beginning...

Where the Water Goes is a new book from David Owen that takes a deep dive into the Colorado River and the rules around it and the people who depend on it.

In some ways, the agreements that the states made about what to do with that water, seem just like a crazy anachronism.  And in another way, it seems almost like a kind of model for how to think about environmental issues of all kinds, because they've kept hammering away at it, and it's proved to be more durable than I think probably you would guess if you didn't know the history of it.

On the paradox of conservation:

It's sort of the paradox of efficiency; it applies to energy efficiency too. The simplest way to say it is that the real impact of the improvements in efficiency depends on what we do with what we save. 

There are places where clearly irrigators waste water… And yet if you make that irrigation system more efficient so that there's less waste, you have impacts that you don't necessarily anticipate, one of which is that there's less water soaking into the ground, which means there's less support for local aquifers, which support not only the wells that people drill into them, but also [very often] surface streams.  It's always with conservation, with efficiency, it's never as simple as it seems.

On the "use it or lose it" paradigm of prior appropriation:

The West evolved a different way of thinking about water rights [than the East due to relatively little water in the West], which was that 'first in time, first in right,' [meaning] the first person who puts water to a beneficial use gains the right in perpetuity to use that amount for that purpose… Yes, there's a 'use it or lose it' element to prior appropriation.

"Conservation in those days meant extracting every dollar you possibly can from the river before it wastefully flows into the sea."

In fact, that was the whole evolution of the Colorado River Compact, was concern in places like Colorado that California was going to develop so fast that Californians would develop prior appropriation claims to essentially all the water in the river before people in Colorado were in a position to use more than a trivial amount of it.

On the idea that the river has the right to keep some of its water:

When the river was divided up in the 1920s, nobody thought about environmental issues the way people do today. Conservation in those days meant extracting every dollar you possibly can from the river before it wastefully flows into the sea.

We have a more complicated idea about the value of water today.  The state of Colorado has been a leader in grafting that onto the prior appropriation idea, where you begin to think about things like the needs of fish and animals that drink in streams.  You think about that [and recreation as well] as potentially having the same kind of value people used to think about for just mining and agriculture, and you give that a place in the priority system too.

There have been ongoing legal attempts to incorporate modern thinking into this now, almost a century old, legal framework that didn't anticipate them at all when people drew it up originally.

On the lessons of the Colorado River:

One of the reasons to be optimistic about water is that we need water right now.  You don't live another day if you don't have water.  So people with water problems solve them; one way or another, they address them. 

Lake Mead, which is created by the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River, has an exposed "bathtub ring" showing prior water levels.
Credit David Owen / www.DavidOwen.net

The difficulty is making it all fit in to the whole picture, and making the water piece fit with everything else, and not allowing improvements in the way we, reductions in our water use allow, not letting that simply allow us to fuel sprawl or to create other environmental problems, just because we've figured out how to be better at using this one resource. 

Everything all fits together, but it's hard to keep all those pieces moving at the same time and then to make them come together into something that's really sensible and makes sense for the future.

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David Owen will be at various locations in Colorado through Saturday to talk about his book, including the Council Tree Library in Fort Collins on Friday, April 14, 2017, at 6:30PM, and the Tattered Covered Book Store in Denver on Saturday, April 15, 2017 at 7PM.