In Deep

A Short Course In Western Water

Water in the West: A High Country News Reader, edited by Char Miller. High Country News, $29.95

EVERYTHING YOU NEED to know about water in the West can be found in just three books: Chuck Bowden's Killing the Hidden Waters, Donald Worster's Rivers of Empire and the late Marc Reisner's Cadillac Desert. These are your basic texts. An optional fourth book for this self-taught course will be the new Water in the West, edited by Char Miller. (There will be a quiz later.)

Miller, a professor of history at Trinity University, has gathered a wide-ranging collection of articles that appeared in High Country News during the past decade and a half. High Country News has long been a counterpoint to the rampant boosterism that is the mainstream media out here west of the 100th meridian. Miller's book works well as a group of case studies that illustrate the broader historical and sociocultural background of the other three volumes.

These are tales from the trenches in the Western Water Wars.

The writing bounces around in eight general categories ranging from History to Salmon to Native American Water Issues to Water Allocation and Management. And this is the book's weakness. It covers a number of diverse topics in a far-from-seamless manner, because, well, it's a bunch of newspaper clippings shoved together in a book.

But as a scrapbook about various issues and battles over water in the West, it excels. Its largely well-written articles show us how we have been led to this strange and absurd place in history where we face a number of difficult decisions about water.

Do we allow salmon to slide into permanent extinction so we can have cheap, subsidized aluminum cans that we then throw away in the trash? Is the destruction and loss of virtually every free-flowing river and stream and their associated riparian habitats worth trading for air conditioning and the power to run your computer so you can download porno sites? Do we continue to build monster cities with elaborately irrigated golf courses where there is absolutely no sustainable means to support them in the long term? Should we keep Glen Canyon Dam in place so a bunch of drunken elitist yahoos can roar around in boats on its reservoir, dumping their wastes and trash into the world's largest sewage lagoon? Shall we continue to raise alfalfa and cotton, hugely water-intensive crops, in a place where there is no longer any surface water to be found?

I thought about all of these things the other day while I was stuck with my wife in a tent during a torrential downpour along the Dolores River in southwestern Colorado. A corner of the tent started to flood, so we crawled out into the rain and dragged it to higher ground. Years ago, the thing to do would have been to excavate a trench around the tent to channel away the rain--a technological solution to a hydrological problem. But was it really that big a deal to set up the tent on higher ground in the first place and avoid having to scar up the riverbank just so we could camp out there for a night or two?

Maybe a little more common sense with regard to Western water issues could go a long way. Remember the old Sam Kinison rant where he's screaming about starving people living in a desert and how there's no food there? And that they should just go to where the food is?

What if we did the same, and moved to where the water is instead of trying to bring it to us?

Maybe reading Water in the West will kick a little sense into us all and lead us to question our world a little more instead of just polishing its edges. The book will make you angry. But it will also make you think.

Now, that quiz I mentioned earlier. Go and get a glass of water from the tap. Step outside on your porch, preferably under the afternoon sun when it's over a hundred degrees. Drink your water. Think about the fact that you live in a desert, a place where it rains maybe 10 inches a year. Take another sip. Do you know where your water comes from and at what cost? How many native fishes have died for your watery sins?

Now contemplate what my friend Kent the hydrological engineer said the other day when I asked him what people should really know about water in the West. He smiled and said, "The thing to know about water out here is that it always flows uphill to money." That's it. That's the real story of water in the West. (But read the book anyway.) Class dismissed.