Wednesday, February 6, 2019

What's Water?

When I was growing up, my family was in the agriculture business in Central California and even though I can’t personally tell the difference between a Case IH Module Express 625 cotton picker and a John Deere CP690 round module harvester, I still have a bit of metaphorical dirt in my veins. Mostly this manifests itself in my life as an annoying propensity to find boring things interesting. Things like dam spillways or almond harvesters (you ever SEEN an almond harvester??? Look one up on Youtube, you won’t believe that’s actually how we do that).

For about as long as I can remember, I have had a book on my Read-This-One-Day list called Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner. This book has always been on a bookshelf nearby pretty much my entire life. It is considered one of the BIG, IMPORTANT books about water in the west. The subtitle is, “The American West and its disappearing water.”

Recently it occurred to me that I am having a moment in my life where I can finally and actually sit down and read a 600 page book about the history of water infrastructure. It is much better written than I’d expected and at times it is genuinely fascinating.

If you did not grow up interested in water and/or around people whose very livelihoods were wrapped up in issues of water, then you might be all like, “What the fuck kind of book is that, even? Like … water? Water, water? Like … showering?”

Yes. That kind of water.

So, if you’re from Maine or something, I’ll break it down for you real quick: basically the western half of the United States is pretty much a desert. Not like the Sahara desert, but often a high desert, a rocky desert, even the great middle west has natural rain-less cycles when not much grows that isn’t yellow.

The rough dividing line between the East (which gets a lot of rain) and the West (which doesn’t) is considered to be the 100th meridian (see pic above). If you’re West of that line and you want to maybe fuck around and get crazy and do some agriculture, you’re going to need a way to get water to what you’re growing.

Now I strongly believe that there are certain types of facts people know without understanding them; they know them without knowing them.

On some level you know that farmers water crops. That’s, like, what they do, right? You know that they drive around in old faded blue Ford pickup trucks and they wear cowboy boots and ten-gallon hats and spurs and they have quick-draw shootouts in the middle of the one street that runs through the middle of the Old West town where they play card games and mine gold and actually all the prostitutes are robots because really it is the future and life is a dystopian vacation land?

First of all, no. You are thinking of the HBO series Westworld. That is nothing like what farmers do. You have no idea what a farmer does.

Second, you probably do not now, nor have you ever, cared about the American water infrastructure that has made possible virtually every meal you have ever eaten.

The book I am reading is the story of that infrastructure, of how it came to be and why and what had to happen to get it done. That means it is a story that brings together politics and climate and ego and geology and money and mountains and ideology and dirt and tectonic plates and greed. It is a fascinating story about America and in large part about the America that no one ever really sees. It is an invisible America that allows the visible America to exist. It is a story about projects of size and scale larger than the freeway system or the Moonshot, but about which most of our population knows nothing and cares even less.

In many ways the book is an instruction to think about all that which we have been trained not to think about. Remember the story of the two young fish who encounter an old fish and the old fish says, “Isn’t the water great today?” and the young fish respond, “What’s water?” This is that kind of book.

This is one of the more startling passages I have run across and it is why I wanted to tell you about this book. This passage is about the Colorado River which if you have ever thought about it at all, is probably because it carved the Grand Canyon:

The Colorado's modern notoriety (...) stems not from its wild rapids and plunging canyons but from the fact that it is the most legislated, most debated, and most litigated river in the entire world. It also has more people, more industry, and a more significant economy dependent on it than any comparable river in the world. If the Colorado River suddenly stopped flowing, you would have four years of carryover capacity in the reservoirs before you had to evacuate most of southern California and Arizona and a good portion of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. The river system provides over half the water of greater Los Angeles, San Diego, and Phoenix; it grows much of America’s domestic production of fresh winter vegetables; it illuminates the neon city of Las Vegas, whose annual income is one-fourth the entire gross national product of Egypt— the only other place on earth where so many people are so helplessly dependent on one river’s flow.

And the real kicker is that this book was published in 1987 and things have gotten a whole lot worse in the West since then. The use of that word “evacuate” is so evocative here because it lays bare our relationship to water and to the invisible infrastructure we rely on it bring it to our showers and kitchen sinks in our homes build west of that 100th Meridian. It exposes our very real daily vulnerability and the artificiality of the civilization we have built for ourselves.

*** Tune in next week when we investigate the history of doors and ask the question on everyone's minds: should trust them?? ***


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