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

  • The abstracted image of an autumn landscape is reflected in a Colorado lake.

    Sergio Ballivian
 

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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • TROUT UNLIMITED NORTH IDAHO FIELD COORDINATOR
    The field coordinator will work with TU members, other fishing organizations, community leaders, businesses and elected officials to build support for actions necessary to recover...
  • STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    New Mexico Land Conservancy (Santa Fe, NM), Stewardship Coordinator - Seeking highly motivated individual with excellent interpersonal skills to coordinate stewardship activities and support conservation...
  • 40-ACRE LAMBORN MOUNTAIN RETREAT, PAONIA, CO
    One-of-a-kind gem borders public lands/West Elk Wilderness. Privacy, creek, spring, irrigation, access. $270,000. Info at https://hcne.ws/LambornMT or call 970-683-0588 or 970-261-5928.
  • RECRUITMENT & HIRING MANAGER WITH WRA
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is seeking a dynamic, organized, and creative person with great people skills to be our Recruitment & Hiring Manager to recruit...
  • CLEAN ENERGY ATTORNEY (NM) AND POLICY ASSOCIATE/ANALYST (AZ & NV)
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is looking for a variety of positions around the West with our Clean Energy Program. Currently we are hiring a Staff...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, HAWKWATCH INTERNATIONAL
    We are seeking an experienced dynamic leader for a growing conservation organization; $65,000-75,000 salary plus benefits; job description and apply at hawkwatch.org/executivedirector
  • FRIENDS OF THE INYO IS HIRING FOR THE SUMMER OF 2019
    Friends of the Inyo is excited to post our seasonal job offerings for the summer of 2019! We are hiring Trail Ambassadors, Stewardship Crew Members,...
  • DONOR RELATIONS MANAGER
    This position is responsible for the identification and qualification of major and planned gift prospects and assists in cultivating and soliciting donors through meetings, trips,...
  • STREAMFLOW RESTORATION IMPLEMENTATION LEAD (ENVIRONMENTAL PLANNER 4)
    Keeping Washington Clean and Evergreen Protecting Washington State's environment for current and future generations is what we do every day at Ecology. We are a...
  • SENIOR STORMWATER ENGINEER (ENVIRONMENTAL ENGINEER 5)
    Keeping Washington Clean and Evergreen Our Water Quality Program is looking to hire a Senior Stormwater Engineer at our Headquarters building in Lacey, WA This...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, family farms, challenging politics, and big conservation opportunities? Do you have leadership abilities, experience with rural land protection,...
  • MAJOR GIFT OFFICER
    University of Wyoming Foundation Haub School of ENR, Biodiversity Institute, Environmental/Natural Resource Programs https://uwyo.taleo.net/careersection/00_ex/jobdetail.ftl?job=19001001&tz=GMT-06:00
  • MONTANA LAND STEWARD
    The Montana Land Steward develops, manages, and advances conservation programs, plans, and methods related to TNC's property interest portfolio in Montana. For more information and...
  • RAISER'S EDGE DATABASE ADMINISTRATOR
    POSITION DESCRIPTION: RAISER'S EDGE DATABASE ADMINISTRATOR The Raiser's Edge Database Administrator ensures the integrity and effectiveness of the member/donor database by developing systems and processes...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    We are hiring a Director of Development Full time, competitive pay and benefits. Location: Bozeman,MT Visit www.greateryellowstone.org/careers for details GYC is an equal opportunity employer
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, KANIKSU LAND TRUST
    Kaniksu Land Trust, a community-supported non-profit land trust serving north Idaho and northwest Montana, is in search of a new executive director. The ideal candidate...
  • MARKETING AND COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Arizona Wildlife Federation seeks an energetic Marketing and Communications Director. Please see the full job description at https://azwildlife.org/jobs
  • 3 POSITIONS: ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR, DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR, AND FOREST PROGRAMS ASSOCIATE
    Mountain Studies Inst (MSI) in Durango and Silverton, CO is hiring 3 staff: Please visit mountainstudies.org/careers for Assoc Director, Dev and Engagement Director, and Forest...
  • CENTER FOR COLLABORATIVE CONSERVATION DIRECTOR, COLORADO STATE UNIVERSITY
    The Center for Collaborative Conservation is hiring a full-time, permanent Director. Applications are due on March 31. Description can be found at http://jobs.colostate.edu/postings/65118 No phone...
  • CHIEF OPERATING OFFICER/DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Friends of Cedar Mesa seeks a skilled non-profit leader to play a crucial role in protecting the greater Bears Ears landscape. Experience working with government...