Review: Where the Water Goes

When all the rivers are used, when all the creeks in the ravines, when all the brooks, when all the springs are used, when all the reservoirs along the streams are used, when all the canyon waters are taken up, when all the artesian waters are taken up, when all the wells are sunk or dug that can be dug, there is still not sufficient water to irrigate all this arid region.  –John Wesley Powell, 1893. Speech to International Irrigation Congress in Los Angeles

I am sitting in my humble abode typing away on my couch. When there is not a massive amount of smoke obscuring Longs Peak due to fires, what is considered a source of the Colorado River is in view.

Water is boiling for dinner currently. And I am sipping a Colorado-brewed beer.  Tomorrow I will shower for my last day of employment for a few months.

All water that, more than likely, came from the Colorado River basin.

If the Colorado River is not the most important river in America, it is the most overworked, most politically volatile, and most endangered river in America.


To fully understand the American West, this river must be understood.

West of the 100th meridian has been shaped more by this river than perhaps any other factor. Political empires have risen and fell around this river. Treaties made and broken. And all our current population centers around the American west revolve around this river basin.

To know the Colorado River, and the basin around it is to know the American West.

The classic layperson’s overview of water, water rights, politics, and the history behind all of it is Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner.  Cadillac Desert is where to start, the book to reference, and to heed its warnings.

As The Water Knife put it,

There are other books. Lots came later. You can read Fleck or Fishman or Jenkins or others online.” He nodded at the book in her hands. “But I always think people should start with this. It’s the bible when it comes to water.”
“The bible, huh?”
“Old Testament. The beginning of everything. When we thought we could make deserts bloom, and the water would always be there for us. When we thought we could move rivers and control water instead of it controlling us.”

Cadillac Dessert is indeed the Old Testament.

A thick book that is the source from which other writing comes forth. A book full of rich history that brokers no light hearted moments. And warns about the future ahead.

It is not the lightest read. But is perhaps one of the more important ones.

However, there has been no revision to this book is twenty years. And the book is not one to read to necessarily grasp the culture of the area in a more intimate manner.

Much has happened in the American West since this seminal work has been revised.

Both the Denver and Las Vegas metro areas have seen phenomenal growth.  There is no doubt the American West is hotter and drier than even when I first moved here.  And traditional industries in the West such as mining have declined (or become more automated and needing fewer jobs to maintain) and have given way to a mixture of tourist, service, outdoor-based, and high tech industries.

Where The Water Goes: Life and Death Along the Colorado River by David Owen is a book published this past year that updates many of the themes of Cadillac Desert and focuses more on the state of Colorado than the classic book.

The major difference? Where the Water Goes is not the Old Testament.   The book is not pronouncements from up high. Nor is the New Testament where the lessons are reinterpreted and reapplied.  If not quite Apocrypha, Where the Water Goes is supplement material that updates and adds more to what we know covered by previous works.

Owen covers the history and previous irrigation efforts (the Hohokam, LDS), directly addresses the rapid growth of areas in the American West such as Salt Lake City, Denver, Las Vegas, and Phoenix areas, and such wrong-headed environmental efforts as tamarisk.

But Owens is also a bit more philosophical as well. Throughout the book, he makes us ponder the law of unintended consequences. By becoming more efficient with water, are we actually encouraging more use?   If we remove or limit some of the reservoirs, are we impacting some of the wetlands we created, too? What else are we impacting? Are these growing populating areas, in an odd way, protecting wilderness areas by concentrating population centers? 

And though Owens is not quite the Old Testament prophet that Reisner was in some ways, Owens does caution about assuming that technical innovations will solve and mitigate the issues we face without thinking about the American culture itself.

The major difference of Where the Water Goes compared to  Cadillac Desert?  Where the Water Goes has more in common with the Great Plains by Ian Frazier.   Meaning, a travelogue that manages to sneak in some lessons along the way.

Owens explores the Salton Sea, mountains towns outside of Denver,  the dams built up along the lower Colorado Basin, the river’s end in Mexico, and even a suburban home construction that I passed many times over the past few years and is still being built out as of 2017.

Owens has less of a shaggy dog style than Fraizer. And Where the Water Goes becomes slightly too polemic in the last chapter in my opinion. But the format of the book makes for an overall engaging book that will entertain you as it makes you think. And you just may learn something, too.

Where The Water Goes is a recommended read for anyone who wishes to know more about the issues faced by the American West in the 21st century.

Disclosure: Another book temporarily procured with my library card.

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