Humans are great at giving real problems the side-eye

Two new titles provide insight on the willful ignorance that lead to the West’s water woes.

 

For someone like me who reports on the politics of water and the challenges of climate change in the arid Southwest, pilgrimages to places like Abiquiu Lake, with its reflection of Cerro Pedernal and backdrop of the Jemez Mountains, are a necessary rite of summer. If I want to keep ahead of despair, stave off cynicism — and remain present with the issues I write about — I need to submerge myself, often and diligently, in water that is cool and transformative.

This summer, I lugged two new books to my secret swimming spot and found that immersing myself in both fiction and nonfiction helped me make sense of the world we’re facing today, as climate change demands that humans make better decisions — and as it’s become entirely too easy to indulge fears of a dystopian future. Kimi Eisele’s novel, The Lightest Object in the Universe, and Science Be Dammed: How Ignoring Inconvenient Science Drained the Colorado River, by Eric Kuhn and John Fleck, are both powerful books. Kuhn and Fleck examine how politics exacerbated today’s problems with the over-allocated Colorado River, which supplies more than 40 million people. And Eisele carries us into a future in which we see what happens when we refuse to heed the warning signs and commit to a more resilient path.

Together, these writers show what happens when we give urgent problems the side-eye and slink off down the road, hoping someone else will devise a solution. They also urge us to reconsider what we think we know about the past, what we want to believe about the future, and what we need to decide — and accomplish — right now. 

In The Lightest Object, her first novel, Eisele envisions a post-collapse United States. The economy has tanked, the electrical grid has failed, and people are left without governments and global food systems. The illusion that people can thrive independently of their neighbors — holed up and binging on Netflix and GrubHub — is gone.

She shows us how people survive this new world through her main characters, Beatrix and Carson, who long for one another — from opposite sides of the country — after everything falls apart. An organizer, Beatrix throws in with her neighbors, people she knew only casually before the collapse. They work together, try to protect and teach one another. And they aren’t looking back; there’s no reason to try to figure out what went wrong or how things might have gone differently. Surviving today and figuring out ways to thrive tomorrow are all that matter. Carson, meanwhile, embarks on a trip across the landscape, hoping to reach Beatrix. His journey enables Eisele to show the reader a smattering of what’s going on in the region the coastal media once dismissed as “flyover country.” He encounters bands of hungry kids, towns decimated by flu, and people willing to share what little food they have with a stranger, frightened by rumors and at the same time fueled by hope.   

Whether in the city — where Eisele doesn’t spend much time — in small communities or in rural places, people need one another, intimately. Only together can they eat, trade information, fix problems and start telling new stories. Not everyone’s intentions are good, of course. There are crooks, creeps and charlatans in Eisele’s world. And two characters leave the makeshift community Beatrix and her neighbors have cultivated to embark on a journey toward The Center, the promised land hocked by a charismatic radio personality who regales his listeners with tales of ice cream, utopia and redemption.

From the air, the Colorado River is seen running north of Castle Valley, Utah.
Doc Searls/CC via Flickr

Eisele’s writing shines most when she’s exploring landscapes — no surprise, since she’s a geographer as well as an artist — and the emotional pull between Beatrix and Carson. 

Through Carson in particular, Eisele considers the natural world. “The morning brought dampness and more aches,” Eisele writes. “Carson didn’t want to move. He opened his eyes as a large crow flew overhead. The birds were so fortunate. They could see the sprawl and order of cities. They could take in a long strand of coastline, the blur of white waves crashing. They could drift over the green-gold quilt of farmland. If only he could have that view of the landscape, a more coherent geography, to see clearly where he was going, where he had been.”

But even when that is the case — when we have at our fingertips everything from paleoclimatic reconstructions to snapshots of the planet from the International Space Station — we human beings still ignore the facts. 

In Science Be Dammed, Kuhn and Fleck remind us of that, taking us back to the early 20th century, when seven Western states and the federal government divided the waters of the Colorado River between farmers and cities from Wyoming to California, in the grand bargain known as the Colorado River Compact of 1922. (It took two decades more to negotiate with Mexico over the river’s waters.) The common narrative has been that the compact’s signatories over-allocated the river’s waters because they’d tracked its flows during an unusually wet period almost a century ago. The poor schmucks, the story goes, just didn’t know better.

That’s the tale we’ve told ourselves, over and over again. It’s not an accurate one.

Kuhn is the now-retired general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, while co-author Fleck directs the Water Resources Program at the University of New Mexico. Both are keen and active observers of what’s happening today, as the seven states that rely upon the Colorado work to provide all the river’s users with water even as they grapple with a drought contingency plan meant to address its declining flows. 

In their book, they point out that multiple studies in the 1920s showed flows that were significantly lower than the 17.5 million acre-feet parceled out at the time.

This means that the river’s deficit isn’t a baffling, unforeseen problem: The natural flows of the Colorado were even in the early 20th century less than the amount of water promised to users. And men consciously decided to use up more water than the river actually carried, rather than heed studies based on U.S. Geological Survey stream gauges, drought data, and some limited paleohydrologic studies. One hydraulic engineer in particular, Eugene Clyde LaRue, repeatedly warned commissioners and politicians about over-allocation.

That commissioners chose to ignore the facts isn’t necessarily surprising, given the pressure they felt from powerful interests, both agricultural and political. In the introduction, Kuhn cites Rolly Fischer, his predecessor and mentor at the Colorado River Water Conservation District: “One of Fischer’s favorite sayings about the river was that the tried-and-true method to solve disputes on the Colorado River Basin was to promise the combatants more water than was available in the river, then hope a future generation would fix the mess.”

We don’t even have to look to Eisele’s imagined future to know that doesn’t work.

“Before the Compact Commission even began its meetings, the path had been chosen,” write Kuhn and Fleck. And LaRue wasn’t the only one who “put commissioners in a tight spot” by pointing out the facts.

Kuhn and Fleck note that three different estimates prior to the compact’s signing pegged the river at somewhere between 14.3 million acre-feet and 16.1 million acre-feet annually. (Annual flows have dropped even further, thanks to warming, and a 2017 study showed that between 2000 and 2014, they averaged 19 percent below the 1906-1999 average.)

But commissioners preferred to listen to those who told them what they wanted to hear, and, the two authors write, “they saw no advantage in asking too many questions about whether the numbers were right.”

Kuhn and Fleck write:

There was now credible science that the river’s long-term flows might be much lower than they assumed. Yet in the short term, conditions on the Colorado River remained wet. Pushed by U.S. commerce secretary Herbert Hoover and Colorado lawyer Delph Carpenter, the commissioners chose to either ignore this information or challenge the credibility of the messenger. Ultimately, a review board of distinguished engineers and geologists would endorse LaRue’s view that the water supply was insufficient, but by that time there simply was too much momentum for ratification of the 1922 compact and the authorization of the Boulder Canyon Project.

The decisions men like Hoover made in the 1920s killed off native species of fish; inundated canyons, sovereign lands and archaeological sites; favored the powerful over the vulnerable; and sucked the Colorado River dry. They also set the stage for how future “water resources” would be managed. 

This isn’t just another tale of the West’s unenlightened past: We’re still dealing with its fallout, and that shortsightedness threatens to repeat itself today. In New Mexico, for example, the future of an important tributary of the Colorado River, the Gila, is uncertain. The state’s plans to build a diversion on the river, just downstream of where it flows out of the nation’s first wilderness area, are outside the scope of Science Be Dammed. But it’s hard not to connect the willful ignorance of science with what’s happening in the Colorado River Basin today.

Yet there are always ways to pry ourselves loose from the narratives that bind us to our past mistakes. Kuhn and Fleck remind us we can excavate the past and hold decision-makers accountable, in part by making sure that science isn’t ignored, diminished or squelched altogether. And Eisele shows us why it’s worth deciding now to create a future that doesn’t damn future generations with the consequences of our mistakes.

Note: This story has been updated to correct the number of people who depend on the Colorado River.

Laura Paskus is a reporter in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Her book At the Precipice: New Mexico’s Changing Climate is forthcoming from UNM Press in 2020. Email HCN at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

High Country News Classifieds