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Where the Water Goes is a fascinating account of the Colorado River as it flows from its headwaters in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado to a trickle in Mexico. David Owen combines important information about this water source for much of the West with his account of traveling the river, and it is an incredible story. John Wesley Powell, who led the first American expedition to navigate the Colorado River, stated later in his life, “There is not sufficient water to supply these lands.” People that came after Powell have tried to prove him wrong by portioning the Colorado River with water rights, but they made some important and far-reaching miscalculations and gave users more water than actually exists in the river.
Owen explains the Law of the River, prior appropriation, and how and why these water rights were even necessary.
"Water law in Colorado and most states in the West is based on the doctrine of ‘prior appropriation. That doctrine holds that the first person to make “beneficial use” of water gains the right to use that quantity for that purpose forever, and that the claim takes precedence over every claim made later and is unrelated to the user’s distance from the stream.
In the East and in England, most surface water was (and is) governed by “riparian law,” whose guiding principle is that the right to draw water from a stream must be shared equitably by all adjacent property owners. That didn’t work with gold, because in the West there was so little water that dividing a stream among multiple users often made it useless to all."
The whole idea of water rights has led to an incredible system of lawyers arguing over “dry water” (water which exists only on paper and legal agreements and “wet water” (actual water in the river), some of the seven states in the Colorado River Compact storing water so that California does not get more than their share, measuring water in unimaginable acre-feet, and the unexpected problem of the river's salinity dealt with by a desalinization plant along the Dolores River by the Paradox Valley Unit.
Humans have created this system, and are learning that all of the components are far more inter-related than we might have suspected originally. Having seen Hoover Dam and the “bathtub ring” at Lake Mead, I was quick to blame Las Vegas, but Owen points out that it's not all their fault, nor is this solely a western problem. Much of the water that is siphoned from the Colorado irrigates the fields in California that grow food for all of us. Global change means water change, and all of us are going to feel the effects of diminishing snow pack that feeds the river.
David Owen has written the fascinating, complex, and scary story of the Colorado River in such an engrossing and educational way that it is one of my favorite books of 2017. This cautionary tale is something all of us should be aware of because “water issues are never only about water.”
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