Reflecting on groundwater from the Owens Valley Watershed

Growing up in the high desert, I learned water doesn't just fall from the sky.

  • High winds blow sand over the original north shore of Owens Lake.

    David McNew/Getty Images

Sometimes we hunt for the trappings of a thing rather than the thing itself. Near the surface, desert groundwater leaves unmistakable tracks: Sky-blue tiger beetles stab their long jaws into the wet clay in March; pink and yellow shooting stars bloom in the 100-plus degree heat of early June; red-and-black desert blister beetles helicopter from bloom to bloom on white-flowered rabbitbrush in September, whether or not rain fell that year. Underground water has no regard for weather. When it's nearby, plants and animals spring up above it as regularly as carved cuckoos from clockwork.

If you're born in the high desert, you learn at an early age that water doesn't just fall out of the sky. When – if – it rains, people go outside and lift their faces to it; horned lizards emerge from sleep and tilt their bodies to catch the drops, which travel from their flat backs to their mouths by capillary action. Elementary school teachers and stilted manuals advise you, if you're lost and thirsty and can't find a faucet, to dig for water, eat cactus fruit, or wait for lightning season. Surface water migrates through as snow or the occasional flash flood, which the teachers and manuals recommend that you avoid. In places where groundwater hides too deep beneath your feet to track, it's easy to believe that wildflowers spring from bare ground only after a good rain year and that water only springs from the ground higher in the mountains, near lakes and other magical places.

I learned those rules well, or thought I had.

But in the Owens Valley, where Nevada meets California, borders and rules flow into each other. National sacrifice zones look back over their shoulders at national parks; creationists who believe the earth is 6,000 years old attend school with Paiutes whose ancestors have lived in the valley nearly twice that long; the Sierra Nevada mountains herd clouds away from the western Great Basin and Mojave deserts, but snowmelt and rain seep down and through the mountains' eastern slopes to be cupped in the "deserts" below.

Drinking water here is an act of time travel. You lift your glass and drink the past: water that fell as snow maybe a few winters ago or as rain a few thousand years before. And – please, this is important – thousands and thousands of years of stored groundwater reach the surface, sustaining desert wetlands under an unrelentingly blue sky.

Here, groundwater transforms from a bone-dry, indigestible word into a green invitation, as irresistible as meadows and cottonwoods growing in an otherwise hot and empty plain. Groundwater here smells like wild roses and peppery Anemopsis; it feels like the soft white clay beneath a broken salt crust; it sounds like a buzzing armada of ruby, emerald and gold insects that evolved with and depend on a constant, reliable source of moisture in the ground rather than on fickle almost-raindrops fleeing from the direction of the sun.

Absent groundwater leaves tracks, too, such as spadefoot toads hunkered down in sewage ponds. Air nearby tastes like something between blood and salt. Fine dust on the surface acts like spilled flour in a windstorm. Missing groundwater looks like a tasteful buff-colored well-pumping station slipping its proboscis deep underground while sitting on top to hide the wound.

Almost every year, the city of Los Angeles – hundreds of miles away – exports more groundwater from the Owens Valley than the mustered forces of the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada can recharge and steadfastly ignores established studies, the objections of local residents and water agencies, and the constant, inevitable decay of wet meadows into alkali moon dust.

Groundwater-specializing flowers and insects act as a moving, living timekeeper, but this perfect clock stutters and dies when water is pumped too far from its roots, no matter how much water people dribble on the surface in token efforts to save it. If you put a fish in a colander, it will die, even if you water it daily.

Sometimes I try to keep the fish out of the colander; sometimes I linger next to it, whispering apologies while people admire the size of the fish. Mostly I look for the ones that got away. I don't ask myself why. The reasons are there for anyone to see: water solid enough to walk on, under a sky deep enough to make anyone thirsty.

Ceal Klingler was born in Nevada, grew up in New Mexico and lives in the Owens Valley watershed of California, where she spends more time than she can justify studying small animals in groundwater-dependent ecosystems.

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