Western water in the age of climate change


Dead Pool: Lake Powell, Global Warming, and the Future of Water in the West
James Lawrence Powell
304 pages, hardcover: $27.50.
University of California, 2008.

In 1893, at a meeting of the International Irrigation Congress, Major John Wesley Powell, known for his daring exploration of the Colorado River, stood up to grand applause in front of men eager to build big water projects. And then he said what nobody wanted to hear. As the applause turned to boos and hisses, the major stated clearly: "I tell you, gentlemen, you are piling up a heritage of conflict and litigation over water rights, for there is not sufficient water to supply these lands."

Powell's words were a prophecy, and they set the tone for Dead Pool by James Lawrence Powell (no relation to the major). The book is a lively and comprehensive account of the ruinous policies that dominate the history of water in the West and threaten the region's very survival.

At once a suspense thriller, a history in the tradition of Marc Reisner's Cadillac Desert, and an informed warning, Dead Pool deserves to be read now, before we make even more mistakes. With both temperatures and the demand for water rising, it's tempting to see dams as a source of salvation. But, argues Powell, dams only increase Westerners' demand for water and, in so doing, make our problems even worse.

Dead Pool logically sets out the case against new dams by showing the failings of Glen Canyon Dam. Lake Powell, during the drought in 2002, was so low that it was nearing "dead pool" status -- the level at which water can no longer flow out of the outlets. All reservoirs are ultimately doomed, explains Powell; it's just a matter of when it happens. Silt builds up, salt content increases and human control of the situation lasts only so long. 

For readers knowledgable about the story of water in the West, much of Dead Pool will be familiar -- an enjoyable refresher course. But the book goes well beyond other histories in its clear discussion of climate science and its impact upon the West's future. "Like Major Powell and his crew as they launched into the unexplored canyons of the Colorado," the author warns, "the West has already entered a new territory, with no maps and little knowledge of what lies ahead."

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