The Colorado: how a river rules the west

In his new book, 'Where the Water Goes,' journalist David Owen takes readers inside the topsy-turvy world of Western water.

A water problem is an immediate problem and not something to be solved by the next generation, says David Owen, author of 'Where the Water Goes.'

In Southern California, where I've always lived, every gallon of water comes with a few drops of guilt.

Over the decades, we've become used to droughts and cutbacks. Many of us fret over every car wash, every long shower, every thirsty philodendron on the mantle.

Some locals become civilian water cops, telling on neighbors and their wasteful ways. Others, including me, keep our opinions to ourselves, choosing to bristle privately at the pristine golf courses and glorious fountains we see out in Palm Springs. Hey! I'm doing my part. See my cactuses out back? Get with it, duffers!

But it turns out that water-friendly do-gooding isn't as simple as conserving and replacing grass with stones and saguaros. Journalist David Owen traveled across the West for his fascinating new book Where the Water Goes: Life and Death Along the Colorado River about the intricacies of water in our vast desert out here, and he reveals that upright behavior isn't enough.

In fact, it may even be too much.

Conserve over here, and someone may build over there with the water saved. Or residents get miffed by higher water bills – water districts still have to pay for all their pipes and plants even if people are using less – and start wasting water again.

And while it might seem smart to get rid of lawns, residents may cut off irrigation entirely, killing trees that provide dust control, shade and lower air-conditioning costs.

"You move one piece, and a dozen other pieces move too. You feel that you're solving an environmental problem, but you discover that you've created a different one," says Owen.

As his book shows, the river sits at the center of an extraordinary complex system devoted to bring water to tens of millions. Divert here, dam there. Recapture and recycle. Negotiate, threaten, sue, and sue some more.

In an interview with the Monitor, Owen talks about the roots of western water debates, the difference between "paper water" and "wet water," and his not-very-illuminating interview with a pre-presidential Donald Trump.

Owen also provides something we in the West needs almost as much as a reliable water supply: hope for the future.

Q: What drew you to write about the river?

I wanted to educate myself about water, and I thought I could do that if I could follow a river from beginning to end, where it comes from and where it goes.

The Colorado River is long enough but not too long, and it's amazingly important to the people who depend on it, even when there's not a lot of water in it compared to something like the Mississippi or Missouri rivers.

And we use it up, every drop, or actually more than every drop. There are more claims on the water than there is actual water.

Q: What makes the water situation in the West so complex?

It's a part of the country that doesn't have much water. And when the water was divided up by the states, the people who did the dividing had an incorrect idea about how much water there was to divide. There was less than there was believed to be in the 1920s.

In the West, water lawyers talk about paper water, the water they have a legal claim to, and wet water, what you and I think of as water.  The Colorado has always contained more paper water than wet water.

Still, it took a long time for people to exploit all the water, to come up against the ceiling. Now, the ceiling has been lowering because of changes in precipitation in the mountains that feed it. Predictions for the future are not encouraging.

Q: You've gotten to know Donald Trump because you write about golf, and you managed to ask him questions early in his presidential campaign about water. What did he say?

He said you could solve your problems out there with a big pipeline to bring the water in, or you could do that thing where you take the salt out of the ocean – desalination.

He definitely thinks there's an easy solution, and he'll discover that it's really complicated. Water is a lot bigger than he is, and it will defeat him. The relationships, the legal structures, the international agreements – it's all beyond anything that he could possibly comprehend.

Q. This all sounds grim. What gives you hope that the West will solve all this?

A water problem is a problem immediately. If you don't have water, you fix it. People have been more successful at solving water problems than, say, dealing with climate. It's not a problem for the next generation.

Also, these problems are within our capability. We're perfectly capable of solving them.

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