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Know the West

Against the current


When I moved to Phoenix in the early 1990s, my first home was an apartment in a complex with a courtyard dominated by what seemed to be a football-field’s worth of vigorously green lawn. That lawn was no anomaly. The neighborhood I lived in over the next four years had a Leave It to Beaver aesthetic, each house bracketed, front and back, by rectangles of grass that had to be watered and watered to keep them from disintegrating into rectangles of desert. By terms of my lease, I had to keep the lawn up, so I worried about the water bill. I soon stopped worrying. Water in Phoenix was cheaper than water in my previous home, Houston. It was even cheaper than water in my Chicago-area hometown, which sits directly on the shore of Lake Michigan.

In 2002, when I was living in Northern California, I watched an Alaskan businessman propose to take water from the redwood-lined Gualala River in Mendocino County, pump it into giant plastic bags floating offshore in the Pacific, and then tow the bags south, to San Diego. It seemed a loony plan, and opposition from area residents shot it down. But it was certainly a signal of San Diego’s thirst.

Phoenix water largesse and San Diego water desperation are reflections of more than 80 years of complex efforts to divide the flow of the Colorado River among seven U.S. states and Mexico. Essentially, Arizona played the water game well in the first half of the 20th century, won an outsized share of the Colorado and has been able to grow a lot of sod in the Sonoran Desert.

Now, though, with galloping growth across the arid Southwest, the game has changed. With the Colorado fully allocated, state governments are trying to squeeze benefit from every drop of their allotments. Using water with maximum efficiency is, in general, laudable behavior. In the specific case of the lower Colorado, however, increased efficiency in human water use is — as Matt Jenkins’ counterintuitive story, “The Efficiency Paradox,” shows — a looming threat to the extremely diverse ecology of the Colorado River Delta.

With help from Stanford University’s Bill Lane Center for the Study of the North American West, Matt took a long and deep look at cross-border water issues and came away convinced that if environmental concerns aren’t soon factored into the Colorado River equation, efficient water use may — very efficiently — kill a biological wonder. I think the piece more than worth a long, deep read.


In general, I use this space to comment on a notable article or two from the current issue, but this time around, I’d like to direct you to GOAT, our blog on environmental, political and cultural goings-on in the West. It’s thoughtful commentary and real reportage from a diverse group of editors, each of whom has deep experience and expertise in different aspects of Western life. I don’t think there’s anything much like GOAT on the Web, but I’m biased, so I’ll let you be the judge: Go to blog.hcn.org/goat. Or just visit our Web site — www.hcn.org — click on the smiling goat skull, and let me know what you think.