The importance of water

This entry is part of my journal from Semester in the West. For all SITW journal entries, click here. For all SITW posts, including blog posts I wrote while on the program, click here. To learn more about the program, click here.

camp: Escalante, Utah

I feel like I’ve been so busy writing I haven’t had time to journal. I wish we had a longer segment on water, though I suspect it will come up again. Water and grazing seem to me to be the defining political issues of the West—almost everything else that gets people riled up can be tied back to one of those things.
I read books about dams—A Story That Stands Like a Dam over the summer, and now I’m starting Cadillac Desert. I find it so hard to imagine growing up in a world where there was no environmental conscience, yet I look at and listen to the Reclamation boys and politicians during the dam-building frenzy and I have to conclude they had no sense of looking at ecosystems or of seeing things in a way not tied to human industry and profit. Even the conservationists saw wildness and wilderness as spiritual refuge for men, a place not to be civilization, a place to calm our troubled and overworked souls. I don’t think the word salmon was mentioned once in the things I read, though I’m also not sure they live in the Colorado. But some other animal, plant, ecological function must have been imperiled when they closed the floodgates in Page. Why did no Rachel Carson spring up? Or if they did, why did history not remember them? I suppose the movement had to progress in a certain way. Maybe no one could conceive of ecology until we’d idolized wilderness as a spiritual refuge. Maybe no one thought to listen for the birds or count the salmon. But I have a hard time believing that’s the case. Native Americans, who fished the salmon, knew runs were declining precipitously, and so did other in the Northwest. And I don’t know enough about the ecology of Glen Canyon to say what anyone noticed when.
I’m worried about water, though. More than climate change, though of course they’re related. Some people somewhere will do just fine on a hotter planet, and because I’m among the rich and the privileged, because I live at 48˚N, I will be saved. Not that it’s not important to fight and mitigate, and not that we shouldn’t all be thinking about climate justice. But I’ve never felt that fear or panic that I’m supposed to. Where I get that fear is water, and once again I’m grateful to be on the west of the mountains. But Cali makes my food, and it does so artificially, pretending it’s not a desert by drawing on the Colorado and irreplaceable groundwater. When there’s not enough water to irrigate California, what do I eat? When we run out of topsoil from erosion, where will my food grow? These are the things that keep me up at night. Climate change will accelerate them, too. We can survive heat, tornadoes, hurricanes, cold winters. But we need water to live.

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