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Where the Water Goes: Life and Death Along the Colorado River by [David Owen]
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Where the Water Goes: Life and Death Along the Colorado River Kindle Edition

4.5 out of 5 stars 64 ratings

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Length: 285 pages Word Wise: Enabled Enhanced Typesetting: Enabled
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Editorial Reviews

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“Owen has the keen observation of a birder combined with the breezy writing to draw you in with unusual insights. . . . As Owen shows, the Colorado River is a great, sad, terrifying, possibly hopeful example of the pervasive, permanent mark people are making on the planet.” —The New York Times Book Review

“This wonderfully written book covers issue that will, or should, give you a headache. But it is a good headache, one that makes you a more informed person. Mr. Owen writes about water, but in these polarized times the lessons he shares spill into other arenas. The world of water rights and wrongs along the Colorado River offers hope for other problems.” —Wall Street Journal

“Owen is effortlessly engaging, informally parceling out information about acre-foot allotments alongside sketches of notable, often dreadful figures in the river's history… Where the Water Goes doesn't pretend to solve the problems Owen acknowledges are overwhelming and, in some ways, impossible. It's a restless travelogue of long-term human impact on the natural world, and how politics and economics have as much to do with redirecting rivers as any canal. But with its historical eddies, policy asides, and trips to the Hoover Dam, at heart Where the Water Goes is about water as a function of time, and a reminder that we're running out of both.” —NPR.org

Where the Water Goes makes an eloquent argument for addressing the impact of human inhabitants on the natural world.” —BBC.com

“Part road-trip documentary, part memoir, and part geopolitical and hydrology lesson, author David Owen’s book follows the historical and geographic course of the river, the water it carries, and the lives that depend on it… [Owen] effectively describes the links between historic precedents, choices, and events that led the river and the millions of people who depend upon it to the present state.” —Science Magazine

“The story Owen tells in Where the Water Goes is crucial to our future.” —Boulder Daily Camera

“David Owen's new book, Where the Water Goes: Life and Death Along the Colorado River… handles its sprawling subject with deftness and quirkiness… Owen delves into the history and politics of the much-dammed, over-allocated river, as well as the arcana of Western water law and the weirdness of RV culture, without losing sight of larger questions about the sustainability of America's efforts to make the desert bloom.” —Westword

“This gorgeous new book is a compelling and fascinating read about the Colorado River, a crucial water source for a surprisingly large portion of the United States. David Owen, with utmost elegance and wry wit, examines the river from headwaters to terminus and all the stops along the way.” —BookPeople’s Blog

“Mr. Owen owns our attention. We have a lot to learn, but this is not a textbook. Mr. Owen offers a detail-rich travelogue, an amalgam of memoir and journalism and history.” —Wall Street Journal

“[A] revealing investigation of hydroecology in extremis. . . Rather than simply bemoan environmental degradation, Owen presents a deeper, more useful analysis of the subtle interplay between natural and human needs.” —Publishers Weekly

“An essential read for not only the environmentally minded but also citizens who are curious about where their water comes from. Highly recommended.” —Library Journal

“Owen offers a wealth of engrossing and often surprising details about the complicated nature of water rights, recreational usage (worth $26 billion a year), and depletion threats from climate change and the fracking industry. With water shortages looming across the globe, Owen’s work provides invaluable lessons on the rewards and pitfalls involved in managing an essential natural resource.” —Booklist

“It’s a rare writer who can explain the inexplicable, but David Owen manages to do just that. Where the Water Goes is at once informative, entertaining, and unsparing—essential reading for anyone who cares about the American West.” —Elizabeth Kolbert, author of The Sixth Extinction 

“Fascinating, thoughtful, and wise. David Owen is an extraordinarily gifted writer.” —Bill Bryson, author of The Road to Little Dribbling and A Walk in the Woods

“An important work that brings the questions surrounding water use in the American Southwest forward to the era of climate change. With humor, an acute eye, and un-showy skill, Owen has written a book that deserves to stand with Marc Reisner’s classic, Cadillac Desert.” —Ian Frazier, author of Great Plains, On the Rez, and Hogs Wild

“I have traveled the American West all of my life and thought that I knew everything about its fabled water wars. But David Owen fills in so many gaps that I feel that I've been to water reeducation camp. Whether you read for fun, or edification, this is a gem.” —Rinker Buck, author of The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

THE HEADWATERS

Our pilot, David Kunkel, asked me to retrieve his oxygen bottle from under my seat, and when I handed it to him he gripped the plastic breathing tube with his teeth and opened the valve. We had taken off from Boulder not long before and were flying over Rocky Mountain National Park, thirty miles to the northwest. Kunkel was navigating with the help of an iPad Mini, which was resting on his legs. “People don’t usually think altitude is affecting them,” he said. “But if you ask them to count backward from a hundred by sevens they have trouble.” What struck me at that moment was not how high we were but how low: a little earlier, we had flown within what seemed like hailing distance of the sheer east face of Longs Peak, and now, as Kunkel banked steeply to the right to give us a better view of a stream at the bottom of a narrow valley, his wing tip appeared to pass just feet from the jagged declivity beneath us. Snow had fallen in the mountains during the night, and I half expected it to swirl up in our wake.

The other passenger, sitting in the copilot’s seat and leaning out the window with a big camera, was Jennifer Pitt, who at the time was a senior researcher for the Environmental Defense Fund. Pitt is in her forties. She has long brown hair, which she had pulled back into a ponytail,and she was wearing a purple fleece. She worked at the EDF, mostly on issues related to the Colorado River, from 1999 till 2015, when she moved to a similar job at the National Audubon Society. In recent years, her focus has been on the river’s other end, in Mexico, but she had agreed to show me its source. Our principal destination that day was the Colorado’s headwaters, just over the Continental Divide, roughly fifty miles south of the Wyoming state line. “The best way to see a river system is from the air,” she’d told me earlier. She arranged our flight through LightHawk, an international nonprofit organization that supplies volunteer pilots and their airplanes, at no charge, for a varietyof environmental purposes. The previous day, a LightHawk pilot had flown twenty black-footed ferrets from Fort Collins to a spot nearthe Grand Canyon, for relocation.

Before our flight, I looked up Kunkel on Google and was disconcerted to find a news story about him landing his Cessna 340 on a highway high in the Rockies after losing both engines in succession. But then I realized that nothing like that could happen to us, because the plane he’d be using for our trip, a Maule M-7, had just one engine. I looked up Pitt, too. She was born in Boston and grew up in Westchester County, New York, in a suburb of New York City. “I think you can trace my interest in rivers back to my childhood in Westchester,” she told me later, “because I grew up in a river town, on the Hudson, and when I was a kid Pete Seeger came to my school and sang to me about rivers.” As an undergraduate, at Harvard, she majored in American history and literature, but developed an interest in urban planning and landscape architecture. “After graduation,” she continued, “I worked in Manhattan for a year, for the Department of Parks and Recreation, and realized that that was not what I wanted to do.” She got a job as an interpretive ranger in Mesa Verde National Park, in southwestern Colorado,and that experience, she said, “gave another twist to my view of the world, and how an ancient culture used the resources around them.” She earned a master’s degree in environmental sciences, with a focus on water, at the Yale School of Forestry, then worked in Washington, D.C., for five years, mostly at the National Park Service. In 1999, the Environmental Defense Fund hired her to create programs related to the Colorado River and the ecosystems that depend on it. In 2003, she married Michael Cohen, a senior associate at the Pacific Institute, another environmental organization. (They met at a water conference in Tucson.) They live in Boulder and have a daughter.

Kunkel dipped a wing, and Pitt pointed toward the Never Summer Mountains, on our right. “There’s the Grand Ditch,” she said. I saw what looked like a road or a hiking trail cut across the face of a steeply sloping forest of snow-dusted conifers; she explained that it was an aqueduct, dating to 1890. Its original full name was the North Grand River Ditch. (Until 1921, the section of the Colorado that’s upstream from its confluence with the Green, in eastern Utah, was called the Grand. Hence: Grand Lake, Grand Junction, Grand Valley—but not Grand Canyon, which was named for its grandness.) It was built with pickaxes and black powder, mostly by Japanese laborers, and it operates by gravity—an impressive feat of pre-laser engineering. The Grand Ditch is fourteen miles long, and much of it is above ten thousand feet. It carries water across the Continental Divide at La Poudre Pass and empties it into a stream that flows toward the state’s eastern plains, where even by the late 1800s farmers were feeling parched. It doesn’t tap the Colorado directly, but captures as much as forty percent of the flow from slopes that would otherwise feed it, like a sap-gathering gash in the trunk of a rubber tree. We had already flown over several larger, more recent additions to the same network: Long Draw Reservoir, completed in 1930; Estes Lake, which serves as a trans-basin junction box; and five connected natural and man-made lakes that lie on the western side of the divide and gather and store water from the Colorado or its watershed. The northernmost of the lakes spills as much as a third of a billion gallons a day into the Alva B. Adams Tunnel, which was built in the 1940s. Adams was a lawyer and a U.S. senator, and in the early 1930s he served as the chairman of the Committee on Irrigationand Reclamation. The tunnel moves the water under the center of the park, drops it through five hydroelectric generating plants, and delivers it to a distribution system that serves a populous area east of the mountains, including Boulder. The main elements of the system are known collectively as the Colorado-Big Thompson Project. (In the West, “project” almost always means “dam,” “reservoir,” “aqueduct,” “canal,” or all four).

Kunkel made a slow turn to the left. “We just flew over the headwaters,” he said. Our position was easier to see on his iPad than on the ground. The sky had been blue when we took off, but since we’d entered the mountains he’d had to pick his way under and around what sometimes looked like an upside-down ocean of clouds. The ceiling made flying difficult but helped to explain the existence of the water-storing-and-shifting network we’d been looking at. As moisture-laden weather systems move eastward across the western United States, they pile up over the Rockies, dumping snow and rain. Eighty percent of Colorado’s precipitation falls on the western half of the state, yet eighty-five percent of the population lives to the east, in the mountains’ “rainshadow.” If transporting water from one side to the other were impossible, most of the people who live and farm on the eastern side of the mountains would have to move. Pitt said, “Even people who describe themselves as worried environmentalists usually have no idea where their water comes from. We did a focus group once where somebody asserted vehemently that Denver did not get any water from the other side of the mountains, and we actually had to intervene and make sure that the guy leading the focus group knew that that was wrong, so that the whole two-hour discussion didn’t go off in some other direction.” --This text refers to the paperback edition.

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