Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Anasazi pueblo near a desert spring

Hoover Dam on the Colorado River

Road trips reveal many things...about the land, the country, yourself, your traveling companion...the nature of things. On my recent adventure around the great basin, I have discovered the desert and the so-called winter. The desert, as Katie and I have so narrowly concluded, "is a nice place to visit, not to live." In fact, my constant and over-riding thought about the desert has been "how do people live here?" In Death Valley National Park, I discovered that it was possible for a multi-millionaire to set up a mansion household in the desert because of his money. But first of all, how did the native people live here? With no roads and little to no food and water? Native plants probably provided ample, if not unconventional food such as prickly pear cactus and pinyon pine nuts. But water, their whole lives must have been consumed by the search for a steady water source. Yes, there are rivers, springs and even lakes in the desert and yes it rains but I can't imagine people (and I actually saw ancient settlements far from water) were able to stay near water and still find enough food to survive.

I read about how some people built dams to capture flash flood runoff. Ingenious, sure, but uncertain, almost certainly. A friend, who works 8 days at a time in the desert with a wilderness therapy group must make camp within a certain distance of a road to facilitate daily water drop offs from vehicles. In the summer temperatures are reported to reach 120 degrees F.

For a couple of years now, I have been pondering water... how it affects the ecology and geography of the land, where people settle or camp, how forests are managed or how trails are built. In a Natural Resources Policy class we discussed the importance of water in the arid west and what laws and doctrines have shaped water use today. This is a summary of what I learned, the bolded parts are, well, more pertinent:

To understand the current situation and conflicts of water in the West, one must first understand the circumstances under which water policy has evolved and the relationship between public policy and social values. In the mid 1800s and early 1900s, the United States government focused on passing policy that dealt with populating the empty Western frontier. The mission to spread democracy and freedom, expand and populate was called Manifest Destiny. Laws accomplished this end by aiding, promoting and facilitating the settlement and development of Western resources. Laws passed from this time period which are still on the books today are referred to as the “Lords of Yesterday,” “a battery of nineteenth century laws, politics and ideas that arose under wholly different social and economic considerations but that remain in effect due to inertia, powerful lobbying forces and lack of public awareness.” One such law is the 1902 Reclamation Act. This federal law funded irrigation projects for arid lands and set aside money from sales of semi-arid public lands for the construction and maintenance of irrigation projects. Much of the West could not have been settled by the original miners, ranchers and farmers without the water provided by the act.

The prior appropriations doctrine is a set of principles that evolved during the same time period to address water scarcity and embraced the Manifest Destiny ethos of use, consume and extract. The prior appropriations doctrine, itself, is not a law, but is the basis on which Western water law has formed. The fledgling doctrine began in the mines where miners freely diverted water from streams and rivers and solidified with farmers and ranchers who diverted water for crops and stock. Eventually, most Western states created laws and statutes that addressed water use rights based on the prior appropriations doctrine.

The prior appropriations doctrine’s tenets are the the fundamentals on which each Western states based their water laws. These features include the following: An individual does not own the water, the state does, and an individual only has the right to use the water. These rights are not bound to the land and can be bought, sold or inherited independently of land. Senior appropriators have the first right to the water. This is important because, in most cases, the water in a stream is either completely appropriated or over-appropriated, which means that during years of drought or low flow, junior appropriators (people who started using water from the stream later in time) might not get their full allotment, even if they are upstream. The prior appropriations doctrine calls for the beneficial use of water. Early settlers defined this as consuming and using the water in an out of stream manner. Little thought was given to the benefits of water left in the stream and if appropriators did not use all of their appropriated water, they lost their water right. The idea of “use or lose it” typifies the early utilitarian mentality on which the West was built; Unused resources are wasted resources and do not have any value in that form.

A right on paper does not necessarily translate into wet water, especially in low flow years. This is especially true of interstate water use. One way the federal government dealt with scarcity was by having the Bureau of Reclamation, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Tennessee Valley Association engage in an era building dams, reservoirs and other water projects from the 1930s to the 1960s. Marc Reisner, the author of Cadellac Desert, points out that in the arid West “everything depends on the manipulation of water - on capturing it behind dams, storing it, rerouting it in concrete rivers over distances of hundreds of miles” (708). He also points out that some rivers have been siphoned, tunneled and manipulated to the point that they flow backwards, through mountains, in other rivers’ beds and have made lakes out of deserts or deserts out of lakes (710). The Yellowstone River is the only major Western river that has not been dammed. In defense of all these projects, which supply water to over twenty percent of all irrigated acreage in the West as well as to twenty million domestic users (712), former director of the Bureau of Reclamation, Floyd Dominy, pointed out the need for reservoir water over stream habitat when he said that humans can live without fish but they cannot live without beans and wheat.

Historically, the conflicts surrounding Western water have been between upstream appropriators versus downstream appropriators, senior versus junior and powerful versus powerless. These conflicts have begun to shift as more and more environmental concerns surface. The Colorado River is a contentious issue from both a conservation and an appropriations standpoint. It highlights the contrast between American mentality during the frontier era and the beginning of prior appropriations and evolving current goals. The river is dammed and diverted to the extent that, in some years, it does not even reach the sea. Indeed, the arid West relies on dams and reservoirs to supply water for megalithic cities with green lawns and fountains and for subsidized agriculture in areas that, were it not for the access to water, would be desert. In the early days of Los Angeles, Mulholland, the director of water resources, rerouted the Owens River for its water needs and left an arid dry river valley in its place. Other places like Mono Lake (which I visited) and the Salt Sea are suffering negative environmental effects because of rerouting and damming, as well.

Beginning with Jimmy Carter, in the 1970s, environmental concerns and legislation on both a federal and state level continued to change the face of water law. Over the years, prior appropriations has become somewhat of a shadow doctrine, being preempted by state laws and federal statutes such as the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the National Environment Protection Act (NEPA) and the Clean Water Act (CWA). In addition, some states have moved away from the traditional definition of beneficial use by making provisions for in stream appropriations. In Montana, the Montana Water Use Act of 1973 installed a permit process for new or changed water rights, established water judges, and also allowed the state to set aside water for existing beneficial uses and for maintaining minimal flows and minimal quality of water. It is important to note, that not all new legislation is conservation oriented and despite the efforts of or special interest groups to change the paradigm of use, consume and extract, we are still attempting to turn the desert green.

So with all this information roiling around in my head, I traipsed through the desert of Utah to the Hoover dam on the great Colorado River. Dams...another technology made possible by a lot of money and a lot of "need." The Hoover and Glen Canyon dams make it possible for Las Vegas and Los Angeles to not only exist but to be cities with green golf courses and cool fountains. Before the arid desert communities sucked up the Colorado and reduced it to a trickle that doesn't even reach the Gulf of California, they sucked up innocent lakes like Lake Mono. People taking valuable resources from other people. Sounds familiar and we have all heard it before; there will be wars fought over water just as they are being fought over oil now, just as they are/were fought over land. People have no business building golf courses and sustaining fountains in the desert. Live there...fine. As far as I can see, natives did it sustainably for years. But don't expect to drain waterways as you see fit. I have heard tell of pipes through mountains and pipes flowing from Montana lakes to quench the thirst of big arid towns trying to make wet wonderlands and I won't have it. As Edward Abbey said, "The idea of wilderness needs no defense. It only needs more defenders."

I have also discovered on this trip that perhaps people can be characterized by a triangular spectrum of mountain, water and desert or prairie...a generalization for sure, thus the word spectrum. Many of us are not blue or yellow but somewhere in between in a nice teal or kelly green.

Broadly speaking, there are mountain people who prefer to see their horizons above them and feel inspired by the peaks above them, comforted by their shelter yet challenged by their snowy passes and distant lakes. Mountain people work hard and play hard-ski, hike, mountain bike, log and ranch. We like to feel cozy and able to quantify our surroundings while also knowing we could go for days in the expansive wilderness. I like to be surrounded in my bed and I can't sleep uncovered or on my back, symptoms of being a mountain person, I'm sure. Mountain people like to know where they are going, fixate on it and push towards it. Mountain people must be goal oriented. We know the value of the warming sun and the cooling lakes. We like variety, diversity, adrenaline rushes. We are strong, we are calm, we are stoic, we are explosive and gentle. We like the stars close and we like the animals big and furry. Mountain people expect great change.

Broadly speaking, there are ocean people too, or maybe water people. They like the purgatory between solid and liquid. Thrive on salt water and all the recreation it affords. Ocean people ebb and flow, follow the moon, follow the gravity. They know two worlds, two natures and feel moisturized by the salty sea breeze. They delight in the patterns of nature and bounty of the sea. I sometimes with to be an ocean person but can't fully understand or explain them.

Broadly speaking, there are desert or prairie people. I expect, they like the freeness that the open horizon explores. They are the slow and steady who win the race. They are fearless, love adversity and to problem solve. They like extremes and then again, they like predictable evenness. Desert people are difficult to read but open and seductive. Desert people must be tough on the outside. Desert people are a mystery and there other qualities are unknown to me.

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