Saturday, March 31, 2012


I've recently been reading a lot about water. Namely, water politics, the use and misuse of water and the problems it's causing in the world. It started when, browsing the rather bare ecology section at the library, I happened across this book, When The Rivers Run Dry by Fred Pearce. This is a supurb book, I cannot recommend it enough; I blasted through it in about five hours, I was so engrossed... and it's not a small book. Pearce takes us on a worldwide tour of water issues facing the globe; being an egocentric American, I was naturally most interested in the parts on the Rio Grande and especially the Colorado River (despite these not being anywhere near the focus of the book).

Part of the interest here was that these rivers are the first I really learned of water crises or shortages, aside from vaguely knowing about thirsty kids in Africa. To know that these great rivers no longer reach the sea most years-- what an eye opener this was for me! I mean, it boggles the mind. The Colorado especially, with its enormous flow rates... I recently read this book about John Wesley Powell's incredible first boat trip down the Green and Colorado Rivers in 1869, and the way the author goes on about the sheer force of the unimaginably massive flow of water squeezed between sheer canyon walls and crashing over huge rapids-- and somehow all that water is almost completely gone by the time the river reaches the Mexican border! And then the Mexicans use what little remains, leaving the once rich Colorado River Delta a death zone.

One interesting non American water issue was what Pearce called the world's first water war: the Six Day War between Israel and its neighbors in 1967. Apparently, less than 3 years before the war, Israel completed a dam on the Jordan River just below the Sea of Galilee, capturing most of the flow and pumping it over the mountains and west into Israel's farms and faucets. The Kingdom of Jordan was left with next to nothing, aside from one tributary. The Dead Sea is truly dying now, and Israel continues to occupy lands for their water (the Golan Heights is where the Jordan originates, and the West Bank has 3 large aquifers, the water from which is still being stolen daily by Israeli settlers from the Palestinians). Water is truly a major flashpoint in the region, hampering peace to this day.

Another crazy thing is the issue with dams. Now, I'm a student of Edward Abbey, and therefore hate dams. I hated them before I read his books, but it's safe to say I hate them more thanks to him. And now, after reading Pearce's book, I hate them more than ever. Dams are almost always disastrous. Talking about the environmental effects hardly needs to be done, we all know the damage done to fisheries thanks to these giant plugs in their rivers, halting both the travel of fish and the drainage of pollution. Consider dams to be concrete arteriosclerosis blocking the lifeblood of the world. But here's one I never knew, or thought about. All the vegetation buried by a dam decays slowly, and anaerobically, producing large volumes of methane, a gas that is 8x more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. And it's not just the initial trees covered by the water, but the vegetation brought yearly by floods. Bad news.

End of the line for the Colorado River
Here's another one. Dams are often sold to the people as being built to prevent floods, as well as the benefits of hydropower and recreation. What do you need out of a dam/reservoir system to prevent a flood? An empty reservoir. What do you need to produce hydropower, and for the most recreation? A full reservoir. Ninety-nine percent of the time a flood is not imminent, and power is always needed, so the flood gates are kept shut and the water impounded. But what happens when, in a land that gets, say, 20 inches of rain a year, gets that much in two or three days? Well, the reservoir is already full, so the only way to prevent the total collapse of the dam is to open the floodgates wide open and let the water through. So, uh, how does this stop a flood, exactly? And this is if the spillways going at full bore is indeed enough to prevent the water from overtopping the dam, a pretty big if, depending on how full the reservoir was to start.

Dams also cost on average 50% more than they are budgeted for. Of course, in the end these books (I picked up two more books about water today) are largely about money, economics. I came across this line today in Every Drop For Sale: "People, as we've learned clearly by now, are driven more than anything by market forces, by the desire to improve their lives with commerce, transactions, robust economies, and profits." The author lends no support to this statement, it is blithely written, taken as blindingly obvious. In the author's defence, he does say a few pages back the "skewed attitude" adopted by some "environmentalists... that unless a price tag is placed on water, people won't value it enough to protect it...", clearly written as a critique of such a view.

This is a strange thing to come across in a book, for me at least. I've seen studies that show that after a certain level of affluence, money ceases to become a driving motivating factor. It's still there, of course, but, once people have attained what is considered (subconsciously) a normal, average way of living (or maybe just a bit above average), they stop being totally driven by money. Really, it is clear that very few people are totally driven by money, save for the money addicts comprising the 1%; most people are at least equally interested in love, children, their hobbies, their passions, and even their work for its own sake. Not to mention their spiritual beliefs and principles, which, at least here in America, is, at least in talk if not in practice, a central theme for millions.

So, do people only value things that have a price tag? I doubt this very much. I know I don't. People look at me crazy for my need for wilderness, because I walk away from decently paying jobs to go hike around in it for months at a time. But many people quit jobs for love, or because of their principles, or any number of things. I might be on the fringe because my passion is directed towards Nature, but only because of the object, the direction. The passion, one could say, values, are normal. Which is it crazier to value: money and luxury, or the human passions of love, spirituality, principles, and yeah, even nature?


  1. Thanks, Brandon. When the Rivers Run Dry looks really good. I'll have to read it.

    Another great book is William deBuys's "A Great Aridness". It's mostly concerned with how climate change will affect the southwestern United States, but it goes into great detail about how the western states have totally oversubscribed the Colorado river. Even without the added stress of climate change there is TheBadTrouble(tm) coming for this region. In the section on how the water treaties are so brain damaged he talks about how the taps could legally be allowed to go dry in Phoenix and Tucson while lettuce fields and golf courses in California will be business as usual. Seriously broken stuff.

    I think that once you've had to carry all the water you will need for a couple days' desert camping in a backpack along with all your other gear you will have a new appreciation for water.

  2. You might find this interesting:

    Also, though you didn't talk about the infamous Three Gorges Dam, it is interesting that this plan to dam the Yangtze, on the books for a long time, was a project beloved by Mao who was inspired by FDR's TVA.

  3. That's crazy. If it got to that point, I believe you could seriously see some actual conflict over it, though surely the feds would step in. Still, what could the resolution be? They allocate more water than even exists in the River, but we need the food, and "the economy" needs golf courses and fountains in Las Vegas. TheBadTrouble, indeed...

  4. Thanks for the link, baroness. I'd be concerned too, if I lived on an island, about food and water import rates and other related issues. There's a lot of people living on those little islands, and what kind of capacity for self-sufficiency do they really have for all those souls? I mean, worst case scenario, you all can't just hit the road for elsewhere. You're stuck. You think such an "island consciousness" would have sunk in by now. Maybe it is.