What and where is the most powerful or fun or harrowing experience you've ever had with water?
I suppose it should be something like surviving Lava Falls in the Grand Canyon (or Serpentine, the rapid where we came closest to flipping the boat), knowing that I would undoubtedly panic and drown if thrown into that chaos – I am riparian life all the way, not a bit aquatic. But I think probably the most enjoyable, and cumulatively most powerful, experience with water was getting intimate with a small spring in Gothic, Colorado (high in the East River, tributary to the Gunnison River, tributary to the Colorado River), where my wife and young son and I were winter caretakers for the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory for four winters. No one knew when we went there for our first winter whether that spring would actually run all winter, but it did, into and through a small rock springbox that collected a small pool from which I would dip our daily five or ten gallons. With an uninsulated wood cover, it never froze over, even at thirty below. The engineering side of my soul suggested burying a plastic pipe from the spring the two hundred feet to the caretaker cabin, but I never did it. I came to love sitting on the edge of the spring box, in all kinds of weather, dipping water into a five-gallon jug, watching Gothic Mountain, and thinking of this and that.
What property of water most fascinates you?
Its patience and persistence in its eternal effort, from drip on stone to rampant flood, to bring everything on earth down to sea level, and the landscapes it creates in exercising that effort.
How did your appreciation of this property affect your book?
It allowed me to transcend the virtuous belief that all human activity in the 20th century CE related to water development was somehow permanently ruinous to rivers. The water will have its way again, eventually; it has already leveled at least one set of Rocky Mountains, and our water projects, good and bad alike, will be erased very quickly in the river’s timetable. This allows me to appreciate without guilt the beauty of many of those projects as well as their temporal utility.
What attitude did you have about water and people that changed in the course of researching and writing your book?
I wish I were close enough to being done to better answer this question. But I think it probably has to do with the altering of the idea that, if we only had more knowledge about the quantity of water we have left to develop, it would help us make better decisions. Things I am learning about that belief are: a) it goes back 75 years (probably farther) without ever being resolved to everyone’s (or anyone’s) satisfaction; b) western rivers are too changeable and unpredictable from year to year to ever answer the question to everyone’s satisfaction; c) a firm knowledge of supply limits would not keep demand from growing; and d) engineers will never stop saying “Can do!” when everyone asks for yet another technological miracle of supply development. These things drummed into me by 75 years of history, I no longer see much hope for cross-Divide resolution of issues through another study.
In writing your book, what was the greatest difficulty you encountered in conveying the feeling of what you've learned about water and people?
Trying to convey the difference between the “conservation” of Gifford Pinchot and that of the post-NEPA generations. “Water conservation” for the people who founded and developed the Colorado River Water Conservation District (or the Colorado Water Conservation Board for that matter) meant something very different from what it means to most Coloradans today. Negotiating that transition has been (still is to some extent) very difficult for Colorado’s water organizations, and writing through it isdifficult without feeling like one is selling out either one’s own or one’s grandparents’ generational sense of “living conservatively” on earth.
What is your favorite image/passage in your book?
Each part of the book now begins with an attempt to fit the coming chapters into a sort of mythic “dialectic” about America that posits the real “American revolution” as the Industrial Revolution, and sets against it an ever-present, ever-retreating and always semi-articulated “counterrevolution” that seeks a “kinder gentler” political economy, first through the Jeffersonian “agrarian” vision, then the populist rebellion, then the progressive technocratic vision of T. Roosevelt and Pinchot, then the New Deal (which gave rise to our three 75-year organizations), then finally (to this point) the environmentalist vision….
So here is the concluding paragraph from a “mythic” introduction to the river (the name for which I feel has always been misunderstood because Anglos think “colorado” means “red” (rojo) rather than “colored” or “of color”):
“The River of Color: Taking the words “color” and “colorado” back to their earliest common root, we come to an old Latin verb for “conceal” or “camouflage” – in other words, a word for things that take on the color of their surroundings. Which the Rio Colorado did, does, and will do again—for its evident aim was, is, and until it is finished, will be, not just to take the colors of what it runs through, but in the patient way of water, to take it all: color, sound, smell, mass, biota, stone, mountains of origin and earth itself down to the level of the sea. Not for any reason other than that is just the nature of water running in rivers.”
What is your hope for Colorado and the World's water future?
I hope Americans (which includes Coloradans) learn some humility in the face of our appetites and habits, realizing that even a virtuous toilet uses more water per flush than the daily per capita water budget for a vast number of the world’s people, maybe a majority of them. This would not help the rest of the world that much in a direct way, but the world would begin to be a better place if Americans learned some humility in the face of our appetites.
What is your favorite water book by another author?
Riverworld by Philip Jose Farmer. A very riparian myth, with Mark Twain, King John of England, Sir Richard Burton and a caveman with a big nose in a titanium steamboat seeking the source of a river along which all humans who ever lived have been reborn. A really long river runs through it. I learn a lot from Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner, and enjoy his style, but wish he were not so trapped in his late-20th century virtue.
Water Wranglers: The 75 Year History of the Colorado River District will be available for purchase Fall 2012.