The Colorado River is an essential resource for a surprisingly large part of the United States, and every gallon that flows down it is owned or claimed by someone. David Owen traces all that water from the Colorado’s headwaters to its parched terminus, once a verdant wetland but now a million-acre desert. He takes readers on an adventure downriver, along a labyrinth of waterways, reservoirs, power plants, farms, fracking sites, ghost towns, and RV parks, to the spot near the U.S.–Mexico border where the river runs dry. Learn more from David Owen on this episode of The Write Question.
The following are highlights from an interview with David Owen about his book, “Where the Water Goes: Life and Death Along the Colorado River.” To hear the full conversation, click the link above or subscribe to our podcast.
Sarah Aronson: You describe the Moore’s Law of human comfort. Can you give an example from your current life, where you think you’re making an exchange that’s going to help conservation and then it turns out you just find another way to use it?
David Owen: In 2008, when the price of oil went crazy. . . I live in a 230 year old house that for insulation basically has dust and mouse poop and very little else, so we can just put the furnace in the yard for all the good the house does in keeping the heat from just going up the roof. My furnace runs on home heating oil, which is the same as diesel fuel, and it was suddenly almost $5 a gallon and I was in a panic . . . so finally I did some insulation projects that I’d been meaning to do since we moved in 20 some years before. I blocked up drafts and got much better at turning off lights and turning down the thermostat and it had a real impact and actually reduced our electric and fuel bills by a noticeable amount. But then that savings, which was considerable, my wife and I then spent on an anniversary trip to Europe. So the real effect of our conservation efforts was to transform natural gas . . . into jet fuel. So it wasn’t a reduction in our impact, it just kind of changed the complexion of it, changed the composition of it.
This effects all of our efforts to be better environmental citizens. The difficulty with energy efficiency is that you become more efficient you feel as though you’re making a contribution to reducing your carbon energy footprint. But what the actual impact depends on what you do with what you save and for that reason, your electric bill is a less revealing indicator of your environmental impact than your tax return is because what our impact really correlates with is our level of affluence. Climate change, energy shortages, these are all really functions of our ever-increasing affluence. . .
David, one of the questions I kept coming back to was the ethics of recreation. You know out here we’re alpine skiers . . . I don’t think twice about driving 4 hours to and from a trailhead and thinking that’s my highest, best purpose for the day. Psychologically, how do we. . . I don’t know. . .
I don’t know. It’s a really good question, and it’s because environmentalists have trained us to think of cross country skiing or hiking as good, not just for us, but good for the environment. There are a number of arguments made saying that you have to expose people directly to the wild to make them appreciate the importance of preserving it. But you can also think that’s a pretty self-serving argument. This is a very high energy, large impact pastime. Maybe I shouldn’t be doing it, or maybe I don’t feel as bad about it as I should.
Actually, I had a discussion with somebody in San Francisco who was angry about the traffic congestion on highways heading north out of San Francisco because he liked to go hiking in the mountains and he viewed that traffic congestion as a big environmental problem. I’m one of the few, maybe the only, people who argues for the environmental value of traffic congestion, because I think anything that makes you unhappy to be in your car is probably good for the environment and conversely anything that makes you happy to be in your car is probably bad. So I said, "Rather than eliminating the congestion and making people feel even better about getting in their car and just heading out, it would be more environmentally sound to think about about increasing traffic congestion to reduce the car-carrying capacity of roads leading out of town." He was appalled, because in his view his hiking had value for the environment--not just for him, but for the environment.
So it’s a tricky one. We almost always interpret our solutions to environmental problems in ways that end up making things better for ourselves. There are two kinds of climate change denial: one is the obvious kind where you say that scientists don’t know what they’re talking about, but the more insidious kind is the belief that it’s a sufficient response to climate change simply to be angry at those people and to not really think about what sustainable human life would look like. I think it would look very different from the way we live. And none of us, for good reason, are eager to pursue that.
I feel crestfallen.
So before we end, David, what do we do? Or where’s the silver lining? Or can you just tell an anecdote from an RV park somewhere?
I think there is a silver lining. Certainly with water there is a silver lining. In comparison with what’s happening in other parts of the world, our mismanagement of the Colorado River, if that’s what it is, is nothing like India’s mismanagement of the Ganges. We don’t have the same kind of problems that are faced by millions of people in large parts of the world. At the same time though, we are the big-hitters in environmental impact. It’s perfectly within our capability to live in a way, truly, that would be significantly less of a problem for everybody else and ourselves included, but it’s very hard to do. We tend to think of the issue as "Do we have the will to make a sufficient investment in wind and solar?", when in fact the real question is "Do we have the will to leave some very large proportion of all the earth’s fossil fuels in the ground untouched forever? For always?" And that’s a very different question. We all answer no to that in a variety of different ways.
I think we are fully capable of solving these problems. As a species, in addition to all the havoc we’ve wreaked, we’ve also been pretty ingenious at solving the problems we’ve created. I have faith that we actually will figure these things out.
About the Book:
The Colorado River is an essential resource for a surprisingly large part of the United States, and every gallon that flows down it is owned or claimed by someone. David Owen traces all that water from the Colorado’s headwaters to its parched terminus, once a verdant wetland but now a million-acre desert. He takes readers on an adventure downriver, along a labyrinth of waterways, reservoirs, power plants, farms, fracking sites, ghost towns, and RV parks, to the spot near the U.S.–Mexico border where the river runs dry.
Water problems in the western United States can seem tantalizingly easy to solve: just turn off the fountains at the Bellagio, stop selling hay to China, ban golf, cut down the almond trees, and kill all the lawyers. But a closer look reveals a vast man-made ecosystem that is far more complex and more interesting than the headlines let on.
The story Owen tells in Where the Water Goes is crucial to our future: how a patchwork of engineering marvels, byzantine legal agreements, aging infrastructure, and neighborly cooperation enables life to flourish in the desert—and the disastrous consequences we face when any part of this tenuous system fails.
About the Author:
David Owen is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of 14 books, most recently Where the Water Goes. He lives in northwest Connecticut with his wife, the writer Ann Hodgman.