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Haunted by Water

By Christopher Miller

Norman Maclean ends A River Runs through It with an eerie confession: "I am haunted by waters." I, in turn, am haunted by Maclean's words, to the point now where I have lifted them from his pages and adopted them as my own.

Heat pervades the little room where I write, and as I pause one more time to admire my new mantra, I gratefully sip a little water from a mug. But my mind cannot leave it at that, and gradually my head fills with the effort to imagine the history of those few drops just swallowed. I race back through the pipes in my apartment, sharp, man-made turns zipping me this way and that until I pop out in a mountain stream. Blinded by the light, I presently slide up the concrete skin of spillway to some anonymous dam. There I languish, until memory of rain flights me backward to the sky in a violent reverse-storm. Suddenly I am able to shake these wet cobwebs from my ears, and I snap back to the present.

How did I become so possessed with a substance so ubiquitous and mundane? Like a good college student, I have professors to blame. A class of mine this semester examines closely water in the West, and my thought has been commandeered. Initial skepticism led me to wonder how a semester could fill with what seemed, at the time, a shallow topic. Like all good classes, though, the subject matter crept into daily attention. A newfound consciousness has spawned manic awareness, and now I am compelled to share this fresh perception. Essential in Colorado and any arid Western state, awareness of the vital status of water must occupy every life, every day. Water is important.

If you doubt the heavy hand of water in your life, please go get in your car. Get in your car and drive twenty minutes to the nearest farmland. Observe the carefully regulated flow of water to the crops and cattle that feed your nation. In the upper Colorado River basin (Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Wyoming), a little more than 90 percent of Colorado River water is used for irrigation purposes, and most of that goes directly or indirectly for the raising of livestock. Of the 3.1 million acre-feet allocated from the river to the state of Colorado, only 500,000 acre-feet go annually to the big front range cities. These sorts of figures brought feelings of surprise and ignorance. The cities I live in have a finite amount of water, with a number describing exactly how much! Now I must consider that water exists as a communal resource; I share my water with the cows down the highway.

When you are done visiting agriculture, only a short drive takes you to the airport, and so you might as well get on a plane to Las Vegas. As the plane climbs westward, see again how humans' hunger for water transforms the land. Note the green oasis painted out in a too perfect circle by an irrigation sprinkler. Let it serve as reminder of the arid climate, and that water here survives only as a limited resource. While that sits in your mind, put your forehead on the window glass and try to spot one of the many man-made reservoirs that speckle the high country. Estimates of the number of dams in the world vary with definition; numbers jump as high as 840,000. In Colorado, know, with certainty, that any river you are enjoying is tightly controlled somewhere along its length. Perhaps you will notice a slight increase in flow as the workforce returns home and flushes their toilets?

But Las Vegas. Las Vegas exists as a desert city. From above, even Boulder looks slightly out of place, an island of lush greenery among a smattering of cowering grasses. But Las Vegas remains an oddity unparalleled. On a map, the Colorado River seems to turn politely and provide an out-of-the-way comer for the city to thrive on. In reality, of course, people decided to put Hoover Dam and Lake Mead on that stretch and build a city nearby. At some point, though, population growth stopped driving the need for readily available water, and more readily available water started driving population growth. In Las Vegas, growth now reigns king; Colorado River water will no longer supply the city's needs by 2007. An ambitious conservation plan has trimmed water use by 16 percent. But already, residential water costs rise above any-thing imaginable in a non-arid climate. Las Vegas serves as a time machine for the rest of us in the West. Water has rather rudely forced its way into public thought and private lives. How Las Vegas deals with it should interest us all considerably.

In the past, water needs would spark the hasty construction of another dam. But that strategy of water management no longer carries assured public support. On the contrary, a small but persistent group now calls for the draining of Lake Powell and other reservoirs. The fact that such environmentally-minded organizations even have a voice attests to the changing views on water use in the West. Engineering a dam ranks as a great technical feat, but brute force can no longer eke out more water from an already exhausted watershed. The West needs innovative strategies for future management of the real "liquid gold". Unfortunately, solutions rarely accompany complaints about current water management. This worries me only when it fails to worry others. Societal awareness necessarily precedes change. I appreciate now that no new strategies can even appear without first placing the idea in the public psyche to ferment awhile.

With water on my own brain, I admit to adopting a commitment to the necessity of thoughtful water use. But not everyone must or should join the fight to drain Lake Powell. Few will frenetically rush out and begin xeriscaping their lawns. Rather, I only hope for a heightened level of consciousness. As the arid West stretches its water resources ever thinner, serious difficulties could, and doubtless will, arise. We will not be surprised by water. The first step to solving future water management problems will be a broad public recognition that problems exist.

Water flows all around you. Let it flow in your mind as well. Be haunted by waters.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Christopher Miller was a student in Limerick's Water- in the West class. He is a Junior at UC-Boulder majoring in Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology as well as Computer Science. His hometown is Englewood, Colorado.

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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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