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The Once and Future Generations of Water

"How can you expect a man who is warm to understand a man who is cold?"

-Alexander Solzhenitsyn

By Jeremiah Zartman

A part of today's environmental debate revolves around a squabble between generations. Environmentalists want to tear down existing dams, such as the Glen Canyon Dam, and increase in-stream flow in rivers, like the Colorado River. In 1996, the Sierra Club National Board voted unanimously to publicly back efforts to decommission the Glen Canyon Dam. In fact, decommissioning small dams already occurs. People rightly question dams that extensively alter the environment. However, we must realize that the call to drain reservoirs opposes the efforts of past generations, who worked hard to turn a hostile environment into a comfortable place to live. I worry that the attempt to correct the excesses of the reclamation era rests on an overly severe judgment of the past.

Proponents of decommissioning Glen Canyon Dam make a strong case for doing so. We would benefit in many ways if we could restore the ecosystems flooded by reservoirs. Dams spoil plant and animal habitats, hurt aquatic life, and cause erosion below the dam. As the painter Chuck Forsman points out, dams destroy many of the most beautiful places, like the colorful cliffs of Glen Canyon that have been completely submerged by the waters of Lake Powell. If only we could regain those lost places, we would finally know the true price of industrializing the West.

As liquid banks, reservoirs provide a poor dividend. First of all, reservoirs do not store water efficiently. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt pointed out in 1999 that "Lake Mead loses a million acre feet per year to evaporation as does Lake Powell. That is more than 10 percent of the average flow of the Colorado River, enough to supply a city the size of Los Angeles." Dams also trap silt that accumulates and diminishes the reservoir's storage capacity. The Bureau of Reclamation built many dams that lacked economic justification, and aging dams carry a high maintenance cost. In some cases, we would save money by draining an old reservoir.

Yet, western settlers built dams for many vital reasons, and irrigation topped the list. Farming in most areas west of the 100th meridian requires irrigation. Aridity defines the West to such an extent that it intimidated the first Euro-American settlers who came here. In his book In Death Valley in '49, the early traveler William Lewis Manly describes Death Valley in words applicable to many western arid regions: "a corner of the earth so dreary that it requires an exercise of the strongest faith to believe that the great Creator ever smiled upon it as a portion of his work and pronounced it 'Very Good.'"

However, Western Americans quickly overcame initial apprehensions toward the land. Driven by Manifest Destiny, the Agrarian myth, and the hope of an improved life, Americans went to work creating large irrigation systems. Past generations felt justified in plugging the Colorado River and in diverting its flow to irrigated fields. They knew that water flowing through a riverbed did not do anyone any good. They saw the West as their home, a little neglected, and went straight to putting things in order. Perhaps the words of Richard Hugo's Plans for Altering the River: echo the thoughts of dam builders:

Last week, you'll recall, I spoke about how water never complains.
How it runs where you tell it, seemingly at home,
flooding grain or pinched by geometric banks like those in
the graphic description of our plan....
The river approves our plans to alter the river.

Hugo's poem describes the thoughts of a dam builder who remained certain of his cause and persevered until he finished his dam project. He mirrors other Western Americans who worked within the constraints of a dry climate to make the "desert bloom."

The results of reclamation successfully shield today's suburbanites, like myself, from experiencing the true Arid West. Dams helped to establish the West as an economic powerhouse. Dams provide electricity, especially during peak demand. The power from dams contributed toward victory in World War II by powering the aluminum industry. With the smelted aluminum, we built more planes than the Germans, helping us win the air war.

Partly due to the hard work of past generations, we now have the luxury of questioning some of their actions. At the end of Hugo's poem, the tone of the dam builder's tale changes:

Flowers on the bank? A park on Forgotten Island?
Return of cedar and salmon? Who are these men?
These Johnnys-come-lately with plans to alter the river?

As an advocate for reclamation, he worries about the prospect of losing his way of life:

Children sing through my locked door, 'Old stranger,
we're going to alter, to alter, alter the river.'
Just when the water was settled and at home.

Today's generation holds new ideas for Water in the West, and those who conquered the West now find themselves defending their extensive use of irrigation. Yet I wonder how much we can condemn past generations for desiring control over nature? A reporter in Nebraska in the late-19th century, W.E. Smythe, became an outspoken proponent of the reclamation movement after witnessing first-hand a severe drought. If I saw what he saw in the terms of his time, would I have been drawn to support reclamation as well?

The conflicts over water rights, the attempt to change outdated laws and the recent move towards decommissioning dams-all are a part of a conflict between generations past, present and future. We have inherited the efforts of those who came before us, but we do not understand their labor or their troubles. True, we are doing ourselves a disservice if we do not fight against dams and irrigation projects that carry an excessive environmental cost. But as a suburbanite who has never struggled to raise a crop during a drought or to turn a wasteland into a place for cities and farms, how can I expect to understand the challenges of those who built this great nation? Can a man who has plenty of water judge the thirsty?

EDITOR'S NOTE: Jeremiah Zartman was a student in Limerick's Water in the West class. He is a junior at the University of Colorado at Boulder majoring in Chemical Engineering and Engineering Physics and makes his home in Colorado Springs.

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"In Alice in Wonderland, poor Alice was plagued by the problem of regulating her own size. One side of the caterpillar's mushroom made her grow, and the other made her shrink, and Alice was hard put to consume the right stimulus at the right rate to achieve the right size. If she erred on one side, she would swoop into hugeness; if on the other, she would instantly dwindle. Twentieth-century efforts at the management of nature bring Alice's dilemma to mind. The goal is to get humanity's role in nature back to the right size, neither too big or too small, neither too powerful nor too powerless. Like Alice, the manager finds it difficult to regulate the rate of change; a seemingly subtle move will have enormous repercussions; causing humans abruptly to become huge again; and a seemingly forceful and direct move will meet implacable resistance from nature, causing them to appear as creatures of great self-importance and little actual stature. Swinging from huge to tiny, dominant to dominated, humanity's place in nature changes from day to day, hour to hour."
--Patricia Nelson Limerick
The Legacy of Conquest
W.W. Norton & Company
1987, New York, New York

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