DOWNRIVER by Heather Hansman


Into the Future of Water in the West
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Environmental journalist Hansman paddles down the Green River considering the legacy of conflict and waste that surrounds water in the West.

The Green River marks the northerly beginning of the Colorado River, stretching down from the mountains of Wyoming into central Utah—remote country, mostly, but pocked by big farms and bigger cities, all thirsty. The author, a former raft guide who has written for Outside, Smithsonian, and other publications, takes as her larger subject a historically overallocated water supply that is quickly running out in the face of crushing demand. “At some point,” she writes, “the inflow and the amount we’re using will have to be balanced, and right now no one quite knows how that will work out.” True enough, except that it will almost certainly be worked out in a generation of lawsuits that will have to contend with, and perhaps amend, the long-standing western water doctrine of prior appropriations, which holds that whoever gets to the water first owns it (“First in time, first in right, the saying goes”). That doctrine is of a piece with the boom-and-bust West, much of which is “a world built on future expectations” that somehow never come to pass, including the breaking of a long cycle of drought. Hansman’s journey serves as a vehicle for an issues-driven narrative so full of detail that moving across the landscape sometimes seems an afterthought: “In the morning we make eggs and bacon, dancing to avoid the mosquitoes while we finish rigging the boat," she writes near the end of the trip. At times, readers may wish that she slowed down to fully describe the scene on the ground and take a few more pages to do so. Still, she delivers a worthy updating of a core library containing such works as Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert and Philip Fradkin’s A River No More.

An insightful look into the unsustainability of western waterways.

Pub Date: April 1st, 2019
ISBN: 978-0-226-43267-0
Page count: 248pp
Publisher: Univ. of Chicago
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 2019


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