Down River: Into the Future of Water in the West, Book Review by John Miles
Down River: Into the Future of Water in the West, by Heather Hansman, The University of Chicago Press, 2019.
One of America’s great rivers, the Green River, rises in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming and runs 730 miles, mostly through Wyoming and Utah with a short stretch in western Colorado before joining the Colorado River. It is a contested river, demands made on it for irrigation, recreation, power generation, wildlife protection, and wilderness preservation. It is impounded behind two dams, runs through two units of the National Park System (Dinosaur National Monument and Canyonlands National Park), is surrounded by oil and gas development in some stretches and protected by Wilderness in others.
Heather Hansman is a journalist and has been a river guide. Her guiding began in Maine, and after college she moved west and ran stretches of the Green, among other rivers. She found the Green “everything I thought a western river should be: far off, achingly beautiful, seemingly wild.” Obsessed with the river, she decided to run its entire length to try and understand “the complexity of the ways rivers are used.” Over the months of her trip and many interviews with river users, a deeper complexity than she had imagined emerged. How is the water of the Green being used and what are the prospects in a warming, drying region that is growing seemingly without controls? “It’s a question of whether our current way of living is sustainable in a drier, increasingly crowded West, and how it will have to change if it isn’t.”
Off she goes, drifting out of the headwaters in a packraft. She summarizes the Colorado River Compact of 1922 and subsequent agreements on how to parcel out the Colorado, and its tributaries like the Green. It is, she says, “a rigid framework for a system that’s inherently variable,” agreed to during a historically wet period, that has resulted in a “structural deficit,” too little water for too many users that will only grow worse in a warming and drying region like the Southwest. As she drifts downriver, talking with farmers, water managers, wildlife managers, reflecting on the impacts of Fontenelle and Flaming Gorge dams, seeing and hearing oil and gas development near the river, she comes to various insights:
There are a lot of different, broadly polar ways of looking at a river: you can think of it as a connected habitat that needs constant attention, or as a plumbing system that should be used until it’s maxed out. The water rights system plays to the second view.
Stored water is even more important in drought years, but drought depletes it. The more we need it, the less we have. Between evaporation, reduced inflow, and increased use, the West is sucking itself dry.
The endangered fish have become a thorn in the side of the energy and agriculture industries, and they make power generation and dam management more complicated. They’ve become shorthand for heavy-handed government oversight. But they’re also holding the river close to what it used to be.
I’d had this idea that I could push myself physically through anything if I was tough and smart and rugged, and that the push would show me something about myself and my place on the river. That being able to do things alone was a sign of strength, not fear. I’d thought I could conquer the landscape and fully understand the problem of water use. But none of that is true. The tough part is connection, looking across lines and knowing when to push the lever on what you think is right.
This last part is the most perplexing to her. As she talks with people along the river who make the case for how they use the river, she empathizes with them. Some of her chapter titles are “All Those People Have to Eat,” “Protect the Green River at All Cost,” “Humans Are a Species Too,” and “You Can’t Just Sell Out to a City.”
Hansman gives the impression that when she started “down river” her sympathies were with river preservation – that the river should be kept as close as possible to what it once was as a wild river. But she has to admit as she goes that it is what it is, harnessed, modified, essential to “desert civilization,” depleted, and threatened. The Colorado River System is not what the negotiators who came up with the compacts assumed it would be. The world has changed since 1922, and so has the river. Protecting and restoring the greatly modified Green River, and most American rivers, will be far more difficult than she thought before her trip. As she nears the end of her journey, approaching the confluence of the Green and the Colorado, she reflects that what she’s learned about the Colorado Basin is that “Both the good work and the bad news are true.”
The river will be threatened and stretched further. That seems unavoidable. We’ve risked our rivers up to this point, so I don’t see it stopping. Climate, unhelpful policy, and market forces will pull on it, degrade it, and thin it out. The embedded structures of water use, from flood irrigation to large-scale storage, are hard to break down, and we don’t want to just shut them off. But there will be a point where the river can’t stretch any more. Shortages will kick in; market forces drive the reshuffling. Change in use has to be steady, but it also has to be serious enough that it motivates people to amend their behavior. I’m worried, but I’m not hopeless, because I know that there are people trying to come to consensus at late-night meetings. There are ranchers saving fish, cities saving water. Things are changing in small, hopeful ways.
Will changing “in small, hopeful ways” be enough? Hansman’s assessment here seems at odds with the story she tells. Reading this book does not give comfort but is a call for those of us living in the arid Southwest, and across America, to understand that we have big water-related problems, which is not news to some of us but may be to many.
Decades ago, I read Ann Zwinger’s Run, River, Run: A Naturalist’s Journey Down One of the Great Rivers of the American West, published in 1975. Zwinger was an artist, naturalist, and prolific writer who explored the American West and wrote of it in detailed and lyrical prose. Run, River, Run chronicled her exploration of the Green River nearly a half-century ago from high in the Wind River Mountains to the Colorado in a way very different from the approach taken by Hansman. While journalist Hansman focused on the challenges facing people dependent upon an over-allocated river, Zwinger wrote of the nature of the river, its natural and cultural history and context. Hansman writes in a clear, journalistic style to awaken the reader to the very serious issues facing everyone using the river today and those who will rely upon it in the future. In comparison, Zwinger waxes lyrical throughout the description of her trip. Here is an example of Zwinger’s account:
It is late as we pull off river and the brilliant pink sunset flushes deep and lurid, color washing the underside of the clouds, glazing the river surface like a sheet of Tiffany glass, turning the sand an incredible mauve. A thin, high whimpering floats across the river from a den of baby coyotes as I pitch the tent. Around it cobbles tile the beach. As far as I am concerned, no stones are more elegant than those worked by a river.
There is general agreement that river stones are flatter than those worked by the ocean, and that abrasion and rock type have something to do with the final shape, but there is no agreement as to the precise way in which they are formed.
No matter: river rocks are perfect. They fit firm and smooth in the hand and are part of what the river does to my sense of time. In the cooling air, the cobbles still retain a noontime heat. I hold in one hand the warm remnant of a mountain.
Hansman immerses herself in issues while Zwinger probes and explains qualities of the Green River and its surrounding country with the eye of an artist and mind of a naturalist.
I mention Zwinger’s book here because it so well complements Hansman’s treatment of the river. We need to know what is happening to it in the 21st century and rally to address the fraught issues we and it face. Yet at the same time we should recall the fascinating, beautiful, even wondrous qualities of the river and its surrounding landscapes. These qualities are at risk. Hansman describes demands on the river for irrigation, diversion, hydropower generation, and impacts from dams and oil and gas development, which make the future of the river a troubling prospect. Increasing demands on the river threaten the qualities Zwinger so eloquently describes.
While doing a little background research on the Green I was surprised to find a project in the offing that Hansman never mentions – the Blue Castle Project which aims to build a nuclear power plant upstream from Green River, Utah and use Green River water as a coolant –a projected 53,600 acre feet annually or 87 million gallons per day. Construction would begin in 2023 with completion around 2030. Proponents claim the project would increase electrical generation for Utah by 50% and have little impact on the environment. One undeniable takeaway from Down River is that the unbridled growth of America’s desert civilization, as in Utah, is unsustainable. The Colorado River system is stretched beyond its limits. Somehow proponents of endless growth in these arid places must be stopped.
Rewilding a river on the scale of the Green is a daunting prospect which only seems possible long-term and must involve the entire Colorado River watershed. It will require reduction of population in the watershed, rejection of the “growth forever, even in the desert Southwest” mindset, and a drastic change in energy use and development. No small order! In her recent book Abundant Earth: Toward an Ecological Civilization, Eileen Crist proposes three “frameworks” for tackling such a huge project: first, protect, as E. O Wilson has advocated, half of Earth’s biomes; second, “reimagine human communities integrated within the vastness of free nature”; and third, design human habitation “on bioregional principles, which, like indigenous ways of life, invite the creation of distinct but interconnected human cultural-economic identities fashioned in reciprocity with geographical place and grounded in love for all its beings.” Human habitation in the Green River watershed, as Hansman describes, is anything but a reciprocal relationship with this geographical place. Bioregional principles have not been applied to modern settlement in the region.
Such a reciprocal relationship would bring back endangered species like the razorback sucker, bonytail chub, and humpback chub, currently being sustained in a hatchery and here and there in the Green and Yampa Rivers, but unable to complete their life cycles in the wild. It would mean more action like the recently established Labyrinth Canyon and Desolation Canyon Wilderness units. It would, eventually, mean removal of dams on the Green, the lives of which are limited anyway.
Heather Hansman recognized that the future of the Colorado River watershed will have to be different, for the current path is unsustainable, but could not see how to get to a future that would allow the flourishing of life in this arid geography with the prospects of climate change and endless economic and population growth. She left the river hopeful because she met many people working to solve current problems, but at the same time she seemed discouraged.
Ann Zwinger, in contrast, finished the last leg of her river odyssey in a different mood.
Without shadow – without all the familiar framework of my other world, in the self-imposed isolation of the wilderness, I had found moments of nonrecordable time: the discovery of sinuous beauty in a point bar, the elegance of a meander, the challenge of running a rapid myself. The river had brought moments of elation that had come so unexpectedly that I could not breath for the delight: a mockingbird at midnight in a quiet-rimmed canyon; the constellation Orion wheeling up at four in the morning, striding a misty sky over a misty river; the moon rising in a cool sidereal light, locked in star patterns, over an October-frosted sand bar; a rim of white sandstone turning rose in afterglow. I admitted this necessity of solitude. When I turned to walk back to camp, I gained a shadow. It went before me, outlined by an opalescent aura of sun catching in prisms of dew. I walked into a glowing mandorla of aloneness, toward a river.
Nearly a half-century ago, when Zwinger traveled the river, the degradation of it may have seemed less oppressive than today. Artist and naturalist that she was, she looked at the river through a different prism than Hansman can today. These two very different perceptions of the Green River inform us of what we must value, and what we must do to sustain such value.
David Brower, then Executive Director of the Sierra Club, gave a talk at Dartmouth College in 1965 on the threat of dams to Grand Canyon National Park. John, a New Hampshire native who had not yet been to the American West, was flabbergasted. “What Can I do?” he asked. Brower handed him a Sierra Club membership application, and he was hooked, his first big conservation issue being establishment of North Cascades National Park.
After grad school at the University of Oregon, John landed in Bellingham, Washington, a month before the park was created. At Western Washington University he was in on the founding of Huxley College of Environmental Studies, teaching environmental education, history, ethics and literature, ultimately serving as dean of the College.
He taught at Huxley for 44 years, climbing and hiking all over the West, especially in the North Cascades, for research and recreation. Author and editor of several books, including Wilderness in National Parks, John served on the board of the National Parks Conservation Association, the Washington Forest Practices Board, and helped found and build the North Cascades Institute.
Retired and now living near Taos, New Mexico, he continues to work for national parks, wilderness, and rewilding the earth.