The desert and the sown


“Aridity, more than anything else,” Wallace Stegner once wrote, “gives the Western landscape its character.” Though we sometimes forget it, we can never escape this fact. This issue of High Country News offers us a chance to check in on that essential piece of our nature, one that is shaped, for better or worse, by water and its lack.

The dark side of our character is portrayed in Matt Jenkins’ cover story on an impending trial in Nevada, where two men are facing a long list of charges related to a complicated water rights swap. In an echo of the water wars that have simmered in the West for more than a century, prosecutors hope to prove that the two nearly pulled off a major water heist — to the tune of $1.3 million. One of the accused is a top water regulator. We’ve followed this case’s many twists and turns in order to explain how a complicated system of water rights is still open to corruption and abuse.

On a somewhat brighter side, writer J. Madeleine Nash travels to Mono Lake, in California, a terminal lake that was nearly destroyed a few decades ago by Los Angeles’ water greed. Wielding lawsuits and savvy publicity campaigns, environmentalists saved the unique briny ecosystem in the 1980s, forcing the city to return to the lake some of the water it siphons off. The saving may prove temporary, though, as Nash reports: Climate change and drought are exerting new pressures, and the lake’s survival is tenuous.

And finally, writer Sarah Tory offers a more optimistic view of Los Angeles, in a story about two architects, a married couple who want us to better see water and its value. Inspired by the waterways of Rome, as well as the acequias of New Mexico, they imagine a world where water is not an invisible commodity, but an everyday part of our lives. They’ve created a beautiful model that informs planners how and where to capture water and limit its waste. There’s more water out there than you might think, and urban designers in Los Angeles, or any Western city, could do a lot more to connect people to the arid reality of their lives.

All three stories remind us that, as a warming climate retunes the planet’s hydrological system, the West needs to adjust its approach to water. In the end, we’ll need better systems, better laws, and better ideas about water. That requires rethinking a vital part of our character. Because in the end, as Stegner wrote, “aridity still calls the tune, directs our tinkering, prevents the healing of our mistakes; and vast unwatered reaches still emphasize the contrast between the desert and the sown.”

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