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Know the West

The true believer and the skeptic: A review of River Republic and A Ditch in Time


Two optimistic new books exhort Americans to embrace the challenges of their aging water infrastructure, but they provide sharply opposing views. In River Republic: The Fall and Rise of America's Rivers, political scientist Daniel McCool calls on citizens to undo the damage done to the country's waterways by the engineers of yore. In contrast, in her new book, A Ditch in Time: The City, the West, and Water, historian Patricia Nelson Limerick demands respect for the people who put water in the pipe dream of Manifest Destiny.

McCool's world of possibility opens with collapse. The University of Utah professor cites an American Geophysical Union estimate that 85 percent of U.S. dams will approach the end of their useful lives by 2020. As he sees it, this sweeping decrepitude makes it not just ecologically desirable but also economically timely for America to restore its rivers, almost all of which he describes as "developed, dammed, diverted, dried up, or dirtied."

As evidence of what's possible, McCool traverses the country to report on river restoration efforts, including the undamming of Washington State's Elwha River, the remeandering of Florida's Kissimmee, and Atlanta, Georgia's checking of the sewage that once poured into the Chattahoochee. McCool even visited the group whose 26-year fight recently got the Los Angeles River reclassified from a storm drain to a river.

Just as the dredging, paving and damming of rivers created winners and losers, benefits and burdens will shift when waterways are restored, McCool explains. Winners will be cities with sparkling harbors, rejuvenated fisheries and tourism; losers will include barge companies, whose freight would have to move by rail. Fans of hydropower would have to shift some, if not all, of their enthusiasm to wind and solar. Builders would have to respect the boundaries of natural floodplains. Some who rely on the federal purse would have to find new ways to make a living. "If barge channels were not so generously subsidized," McCool calculates, "the price differential would be minimized or eliminated," adding that "our railroad system is overdue for radical modernization."

Like McCool, Limerick is on a mission to inspire. Still, A Ditch in Time doesn't condemn dam culture. In fact, early in her history of Denver Water -- which serves 1.3 million people in the city and surrounding suburbs -- the University of Colorado professor asserts that Manifest Destiny claims about how settlement would transform dry plains to pastoral paradises "turned out to be right."

"Thanks to astonishing exercises of human ingenuity, Denver -- and many other communities in the arid West -- turned into green, tree-filled places that millions now call home," she writes.

Marc Reisner, the country's most famous dam critic, called Denver the "Los Angeles of the Rockies" in his 1986 classic Cadillac Desert. Read Limerick and it's tempting to call Los Angeles the Denver of the Pacific. Before L.A. completed its aqueduct draining Owens Lake, and before San Francisco flooded Hetch Hetchy Valley, Denver had built the 221-foot-tall Cheesman Dam on the South Platte River. As Denver grew, it defied the rainshadow of the Rockies by boring through the Continental Divide to tap rivers on the state's Western Slope.

Limerick's insistence that her account is dispassionate doesn't quite mesh with her conviction that "the contemporary need for inspiration -- for parables of people facing tough problems, refusing discouragement, and pressing on to solutions and remedies -- is the most urgent need of the twenty-first century."

Even the fiercest dam critics may find inspiration here, not least in what happened when, in 1990, Denver Water faced a federal veto of its massive Two Forks Dam project. The appointment a year later of Chips Barry, director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, as Denver Water's general manager changed the dam-building culture so profoundly that a target was set for 50 percent of new supplies to come from conservation. At one point, there was a former Earthjustice lawyer on the board. The 2002 drought gave rise to conservation slogans such as "only wash the stinky parts" and "real men dry shave." Daily per capita water use dropped by 19 percent.

Yet, as Limerick explains, insulating Denver against shortage meant negotiating a new move on the West Slope's Fraser River and the enlargement of Denver's Gross Reservoir.

A Ditch in Time concludes with a description of the Western water manager's role, written by Barry shortly before his death in 2010. "It is to hold a mid-nineteenth century water development and natural resource exploitation position while encased in an early twenty-first-century regulatory straight-jacket tailored by federal, state, and local governments."

Both books are aimed at the inheritors of a tamed West. McCool dwells on recapturing what was lost, while Limerick focuses on what was won. We are lucky to have both books as we press forward. It won't be easy; it never was. But both writers want us to understand that the future still might be great.