Travels along the endangered Colorado River and its tributaries reveal the challenges of providing water to 36 million people throughout the West.
New Yorker staff writer Owen (The Conundrum: How Scientific Innovation, Increased Efficiency, and Good Intentions Can Make Our Energy and Climate Problems Worse, 2012, etc.) elaborates on the critique he presented in his previous book, this time focusing on one crucial natural resource: water. Devising a sustainable water policy, he argues convincingly, is complicated and sometimes counterintuitive. “Many of the technological wonders that we think of as solutions to our gathering environmental problems actually exacerbate other environmental problems,” he asserts. Wind turbines, electric car batteries, and computer chips, for example, depend on the extraction of rare elements from places “where labor and land are cheap, and where regulatory oversight is minimal.” This extraction damages land, ecosystems, rivers, and, not least, miners’ lives. Foremost among the many problems inherent in water use from the Colorado is salt. Because salt does not settle out the way silt does, it remains in recycled water, making that water unsuitable for drinking and agriculture. In high enough concentrations, plants cannot grow in topsoil saturated with salt: the salt flats of Utah stand as an example. If lawns and golf courses use salt-laden water, they can add tons of salt to every acre of soil. Following the river’s winding route, Owen interviewed environmental experts, farmers, RV drivers, and politicians, investigating water policy, laws, and conservation strategies. In California, he visited the agricultural Imperial Valley, irrigated by “a valley-sized plumbing system,” and the Salton Sea, “created by an act of engineering imbecility” that involved diverting the Colorado River. The largest lake in California is now desolate, saltier than the Pacific Ocean and unable to sustain the fish and birds that once thrived in it. The author chides off-the-grid environmentalists who are willfully blind to the energies they use to sustain their lives and makes a case for city life as environmentally responsible.
As Owen amply proves, “water issues are never only about water.”