When and where is the most powerful or fun or harrowing experience you’ve ever had with water?
After my husband Jeff Limerick’s death, I underwent a totally improbable transformation from couch potato to fitness nut. For several years, it was my ritual to begin every morning by running down the hill to the Boulder Creek Path, and then running along the creek. (In the broader context of Boulder fitness nuts, this was a modest level of exertion—maybe three or so miles each morning). This was a soothing and restorative custom, and watching the water in the creek was certainly a big feature of the redemptive quality of this custom. Although I love nature-writing, and had even taught a course in nature-writing at Yale in 1979, I was not (and, alas, am not) very acute as a nature-observer myself. So I was surprised to find that the water was changing its consistency with the seasons. The ice in winter was not a surprise, but the fact that the water in spring had acquired a viscous, molasses-like quality was unexpected and bewildering. Why was it draping itself and sort of melting over the drop-offs with a fluid dynamics that seemed closer to frosting than to water, instead of scattering and splashing as it had done previously? It is important to say that my mind was not focused on this question, since I was thinking about running and about the writing assignments for which I was running (so to speak) late. And I had also come to know a number of the homeless people hanging out along the creek path, and so I also had to think about how people became homeless and how or if they could ever be made homeful. Still, the syrupy-ness of the water in spring was a puzzle.
While I would prefer, on behalf of self-respect, to conceal this story, it was in truth powerful, fun, and harrowing, when the recognition suddenly coalesced in my mind as to why the water had become so syrupy.
This, I realized one day, was the spring run-off I had read so much about. The water came up on a drop-off and eased, rather than splashed, its way over the edge and down to the lower level, because there was more of it than in the three other seasons. I am going to take the stance that this exercise in recovering from witlessness was worthwhile: I carried away a better sense of why it had seemed, to our predecessors in the West, a good idea to build dams and reservoirs to store this spring run-off before it had pursued its syrupy way downstream.
What property of water most fascinated you? How did your appreciation of this property affect your book?
In graduate school, I became preoccupied by the historical experience of thirst in landscapes where water was scarce. I wrote my dissertation and first book, Desert Passages, on American attitudes toward deserts. When I came upon a passage in an explorer’s journal or an overland traveler’s diary, recording an ordeal of thirst, I went to town in note-taking and (if reading a book I had bought, not a document in an archive!) deploying a yellow highlighter. Thanks to that intellectual era, I do not use “thirst” as a “lite” figure of speech; I would not, for instance, have been tempted to call the Denver Water book anything like Denver’s Thirst for Water, since securing water for “needs” like lawns and laundry seems a very different matter from responding to actual thirst. Since the writing of Desert Passages had me constantly in the company of the written records of people facing thirst and fearing that they would die if they could not relieve it, I am particularly well set up to be knocked over, flabbergasted, and astonished by the complacency of Westerners’ water use over the last century. Easy and reliable access to water seems to me nothing to take for granted. My principal hope for the book is that it will invite others to join me in being knocked over, flabbergasted, and astonished by the circumstances we take to be normal.
What attitude did you have about water and people that changed in the course of researching and writing your book?
I had an instinctual sense that using water for cities was intrinsically less “right” than agricultural water use or the maintaining of water as in-stream flow in its basin of origin. I was surprised to find myself persuaded by the idea that urban water use—if practiced with conservation and with density rather than sprawl—can permit a lot of people to live with a much less significant environmental impact, producing much less disturbance, than if they all headed for the hills and lived “close to nature.”
In writing your book, what was the greatest difficulty you encountered in conveying the feeling of what you’ve learned about water and people?
The American people begin to perish of boredom within seconds of encountering words like “bureaucracy” and “infrastructure.” Oddly, many people in the West today have adopted a habit of declaring, with earnest and authoritative conviction, that “Water is the most important issue in the West today.” But if you take the next step and mention the actual complexity of the administrative and technological arrangements that are central to this topic, the people who just told you that “there is nothing more important than water” will flee in desperation and dismay. I have put everything I can into anticipating and countering the epidemic of yawns that a serious discussion of water history unleashes, and I think I have gained some ground. But I have never encountered a more strenuous literary challenge. The very phrase, “Green Mountain Reservoir,” makes me sigh.
What is your favorite image/passage in your book?
‘Once upon a time, the area where Denver now sits was defined by water—in unmanageable and unimaginable abundance. The part of the planet we know as the Front Range of Colorado once sat '600 feet beneath the salty waves of a giant sea.' Seventy million years can make quite a difference.”
What is your hope for Colorado and the World’s water future?
I hope that reflecting on the fact that people without water are headed toward the domain of death will encourage us to take up the enterprise of distinguishing genuine needs from luxuries and whims. The act of making that distinction and taking it to heart offers the only trustworthy way I can conjure up—to transform scarcity into sufficiency and even abundance.
What is your favorite water book by another author?
William deBuys and Alex Harris, River of Traps: A Village Life, but it is hard not to mention Stanley Crawford’s Mayordomo.
A Ditch in Time, Denver, the West, and Water will be available soon. Pre-order your copy today!