Where the Water Goes: Life and Death Along the Colorado River
By David Owen
Review by David Wineberg
Where The Water Goes is ostensibly a driving tour of the Colorado River, from its tributary headwaters to Baja in Mexico where it is supposed to end. Owen drives and describes the scenery and the various characters he meets (sometimes with his family), and fills in the history and significance of the location. But where it gets really interesting is in the legislatures and the courts, where the water has a completely different status.
There is real water and there is paper water. There are negotiated agreements and there is The Law Of The River, which seems to be whatever the legislator or lawyer talking wants it to be. And you don’t want to bring The Law Of The River to court. The book is most informative when paper water properties rear their heads. It’s not logical, intuitive, direct, simple, or efficient. And no one dares tamper with it lest the whole house of cards come tumbling down.
In Arizona, new developments can be built and sold without service or access to water. Owners have to go pick it up and bring it back as needed. In Colorado, the water that runs off your roof is not yours and you have no right to retain it. At the state level, there is a race to consume the allocation, lest it be reduced and grabbed by another state. And by the time the river gets to Mexico, there is literally nothing left. In the mean time, agriculture still flood-irrigates, and cities keep expanding. Deserts don’t mean no one can live or farm; they just have to divert more water. Incredibly, the locals argue about exporting agricultural products as if they were exporting the water in them. It’s all very Alice in Wonderland.
The whole arrangement was originally built on faulty data; the river system cannot produce what it says on paper. The big reservoirs are so low they constantly need to retain all the water they can, leaving little or nothing trickling down the system. Canals and other diversions pervert nature. Dams cause more problems than they solve. Worst of all is the first come first served arrangement, whereby those who have the oldest permits get all the water they’re allowed before newer participants can take any. In perpetuity. This is how the West was built.
None of this is news and Owen cites numerous predecessors in trying to explain it (but not rationalize it. No one can do that). Owen ends by making recommendations he knows full well no one will ever consider. It’s a remarkable trip.
Editor's note: This review was has been reposted with permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.