Western water, in poetry and policy: A review of Dam Nation

by Emily Green

Dam Nation: How Water Shaped the West and Will
Determine its Future

Stephen Grace
360 pages, hardcover: $24.95.
Globe Pequot, 2012.

To snatch a moment from the wild and capture it in words that pulse with life is quite a feat. Stephen Grace, author of the 2004 novel Under Cottonwoods, makes it seem effortless. When he describes sandhill cranes rising from the wetlands of the Blackfoot Valley, the reader can almost hear the thunderous applause of their wings.

It takes an entirely different kind of gift to comprehend and then explain the tortured sophistry of the policies that are destroying those cranes for the sake of alfalfa farms, feedlots, casinos, suburban lawns and swimming pools. But Grace can do that, too. In his most recent book, Dam Nation: How Water Shaped the West and Will Determine its Future, Grace acts as both poet of Western wilderness and a knowledgeable translator of water policy.

It should be acknowledged up front that he does not accomplish this alone. Dam Nation's debt to Marc Reisner's 1986 classic Cadillac Desert is so heavy that Grace's passages on explorer John Wesley Powell, L.A. Aqueduct builder William Mulholland and Bureau of Reclamation dam champion Floyd Dominy, among others, could be mistaken for Cadillac Desert's CliffsNotes. Yet, 12 years after Reisner's death, in a time when drought has cracked fundamental assumptions about the Colorado River's ability to keep the West in water, Grace's use of his predecessor's work seems less a case of larceny than of public service.

Like Reisner, Grace is stubbornly lucid. He sugars few pills as he describes how 19th century mining law governs 21st century water sharing, illustrates how pork-barrel politics corrupt decision-making, provides a primer in groundwater mining and takes short but appalling looks at the challenges posed by pollution and climate change.

But, unlike Reisner, Grace is not jaded. Twenty-six years ago, as then-President Ronald Reagan joked about taunting Mikhail Gorbachev with an aerial view of L.A.'s suburban spangle of private pools, Reisner's morbid wit seemed justified. Now that helicopters survey Southern California pools not to impress Soviet leaders but to police breeding grounds for mosquitoes stagnating behind repossessed homes, nihilism is out. The times demand solutions rather than sarcasm.

Grace believes that drought and climate change won't necessarily condemn the West, offering as evidence gray-water and sewage-reclamation pilot programs, conservation easements, turf buy-back efforts, ag-to-city water markets and a handful of dam demolitions. Recent reports about temporary conservation easements designed to return small flows to the long-parched Colorado River Delta reinforce Grace's case for optimism. But Grace sounds unconvinced -- and is unconvincing -- when he writes about the plunder of our aquifers: "Developing a system that manages groundwater in the West in a sustainable manner is as easy as standing blindfolded on a greased bowling ball while removing a straitjacket and solving differential equations. But it is something we must summon the will to do."

Grace is not a pundit; he is a poet. He introduces Dam Nation with this plaintive passage about a tributary of the South Platte River near his home in Denver:

"Between boulders big as houses and through slopes of scrambled talus, the little stream meanders down the mountains. It glides over beds of polished rocks and slips past pads of moss. In huddles of wind-twisted trees, it floods the gaps between roots. From other streams it gathers volume until it is too wide for a person to leap across. Each riffle creates a small violence of water, and in curved and hollow places the stilled flow deepens. Mayflies ride across its rippled skin. Among the forests that crowd its shores, owls open the soft fans of their wings and dippers dive from the trees. Ponderosa pines armored in bark that smells like vanilla reach their stiff limbs across the water. Children gather to swing from ropes above pools that darken to jade. Anglers cast flies into eddies, droplets of water flinging from the arcs of their lines in a bright scatter. Retirees with binoculars in hand scan the banks for birds. Adventurers craving jolts of adrenaline pilot tipsy boats through whitewater that lifts in leaping peaks and gnashes in scissoring waves. Denverites on the plains below drink from it and grow their grass with it and flush their toilets with it, and they head to the mountains seeking solace and adventure in its flow. This stream is in their bodies and homes and souls. It is everything, it is life itself. And it is not enough."

Twelve chapters later, the pressure on the West's limited water remains intolerable. But by intertwining poetry and policy, Grace redraws the line between engineered and wild places in a way that demands a clear respect for both.

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