Book: Where the Water Goes: Life and Death Along the Colorado River.

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New Yorker Magazine staff writer David Owen has a new book out on the water system that makes use of the Colorado River. Owen’s book “Where the Water Goes: Life and Death Along the Colorado River,” looks at the patchwork of engineering marvels, legal agreements, infrastructure, and cooperation among states that enables life to flourish in the desert. Owen will tell us more about his book.

TED SIMONS: YORKER MAGAZINE STAFF WRITER DAVID OWEN IS OUT WITH A NEW BOOK THAT FOCUSES ON THE COLORADO RIVER. THE BOOK IS TITLED, "WHERE THE WATER GOES: LIFE AND DEATH ALONG THE COLORADO RIVER," AND IT LOOKS AT THE PATCHWORK OF ENGINEERING MARVELS AND LEGAL AGREEMENTS THAT ENABLE LIFE TO FLOURISH HERE IN ARIZONA AND MUCH OF THE SOUTHWEST. WE WELCOME DAVID OWEN TO "ARIZONA HORIZON." WE SHOULD MENTION YOU WILL BE CHANGING HANDS TONIGHT IN TEMPE. IT WILL BE A LIVELY CROWD, I'M SURE. WHAT DID YOU KNOW OF THE COLORADO RIVER BEFORE YOU WROTE THIS BOOK?

OWEN: I GREW UP IN KANSAS CITY, SO I SPENT A LOT OF TIME THINKING ABOUT OTHER PLACES. COLORADO IS ONE OF THE PLACES I THOUGHT ABOUT AND SPENT A LOT OF TIME IN WHATEVER TIME I COULD IN THE DRAINAGE BASIN OF THE COLORADO RIVER. I WAS INTERESTED IN WATER. WATER IS A GROWING ISSUE GLOBALLY AND FOLLOWING A RIVER START TO FINISH SEEMED TO BE THE WAY TO LEARN ABOUT IT. AND THE COLORADO IS THE IDEAL SUBJECT FOR A STUDY LIKE THAT. IT'S PRETTY LONG BUT NOT TOO LONG. THE MISSISSIPPI IS A THOUSAND MILES LONGER, AND WE USE IT ALL UP IT DOESN'T GET ALL THE WAY TO THE END. IT STARTS IN COLORADO AND WYOMING AND ENDS NOT FAR INTO THE BORDER IN MEXICO.

TED SIMONS: IS THAT STILL THE CASE? DOES IT PETER OUT BEFORE GETTING TO THE SEA OF CORTEZ?

OWEN: IT DOES. HISTORICALLY, IT FORMED A HUGE DELTA ACROSS PART OF MEXICO, A LUSH WETLAND. IT HASN'T GOTTEN THERE VERY OFTEN SINCE THE 1960S AND ONLY ONCE SINCE THE 1990S.

TED SIMONS: TALK ABOUT PRIOR APPROPRIATION AND WHAT THAT MEANS. READING THIS BOOK, IT'S AMAZING WHO GETS TO DO WHAT AND WHY.

OWEN: WESTERN WATER LAW, YOU COULD FALL INTO IT AND DISAPPEAR. I READ A USEFUL BOOK CALLED COLORADO WATER LAW FOR NON LAWYERS. IT HELPED IF YOU WERE THE KIND OF NON LAWYER THAT WENT TO LAW SCHOOL. IT'S INTERESTING IN OTHER PARTS OF THE WORLD IF YOU ARE A PROPERTY OWNER NEXT TO A BODY OF WATER, YOU HAVE A RIGHT TO SOME OF THAT WATER. NOT SO IN THE WEST. IN THE WEST, YOUR RIGHT IS GOVERNED BY WHEN YOU STARTED TAKING THE WATER AND WHAT YOU USE IT FOR. THE SYSTEM THAT EVOLVED BEGINNING WITH THE GOLD RUSH WAS CALLED FIRST IN TIME, FIRST IN RIGHT. THE FIRST PERSON TO MAKE BENEFICIAL USE OF WATER FROM A STREAM GAINS THE RIGHT TO USE THAT WATER FOR THAT PURPOSE FOREVER.

TED SIMONS: THAT'S STILL THE BASIS FOR WATER LAW?

OWEN: DIFFERENT STATES HANDLE IT DIFFERENT BUT IT'S THE THEME THROUGHOUT THE WEST.

TED SIMONS: WHAT ABOUT AMERICAN INDIANS?

OWEN: SEVEN STATES THAT BORDER THE RIVER DIVIDED UP THE RIVER IN 1922. ONLY AT THE INSISTENCE OF HERBERT HOOVER, WHO WAS THE SECRETARY OF COMMERCE AT THAT TIME, DID THEY EVEN MENTION THE TRIBES, ONE SENTENCE. IT REMAINS AN UNRESOLVED ISSUE. IT'S TRUE IN ARIZONA. ARIZONA IS A GOOD EXAMPLE. THE PRIORITY CLAIM, THE TRIBE IN THE UNITED STATES WOULD HAVE A PRIORITY CLAIM TO ALL OF THE WATER ON THE CONTINENT, BUT IT'S STILL BEING WORKED OUT.

TED SIMONS: YOU MENTION THE ORIGINAL COMPACT IN 1922. THAT WAS, YOUR RIGHT, BASED ON SOME PRETTY WET YEARS.

OWEN: WHEN THE STATES DIVIDED UP THE RIVER AMONG THEMSELVES, THEY BASED THEIR DIVISION ON HYDROLOGICAL STUDIES THAT TURNED OUT TO BE INACCURATE -- ACCURATE FOR THE TIME, MAYBE BUT THE EARLIEST 20TH CENTURY WAS THE WETTEST YEAR SINCE THE 1400S, SO THEY WERE DIVIDING WATER THAT WASN'T THERE AND HASN'T BEEN THERE SINCE. AMONG WATER LAWYERS YOU HAVE PAPER WATER, WATER THAT PEOPLE THEORETICALLY HAVE A LEGAL RIGHT TO TAKE AND WET WATER WHAT YOU AND I THINK OF AS WATER, AND THERE'S MORE PAPER WATER THAN WATER WATER EVEN IN WET YEARS.
TED SIMONS: AT THE TIME IN LAS VEGAS 80,000 PEOPLE WERE LIVING IN LAS VEGAS WHEN IT WAS SIGNED?

OWENS: WHEN THE COMPACT WAS SIGNED THEY DIDN'T EVEN HAVE 5,000. IT WAS 80,000 WHEN THEY CAME FOR NEVADA… IT WAS NOBODY I DON'T THINK EVEN NEVADA WAS THERE. IT TOOK SO LONG TO COME TO THE NUMBER, BY THEN -- STILL, IT WAS NOTHING. AS A RESULT, LAS VEGAS DOESN'T HAVE A LARGE SHARE OF THE COLORADO RIVER.

TED SIMONS: THE IMPACT OF HYDROLOGISTS GETTING IT WRONG BECAUSE OF THE WET YEARS AND NOT FORESEEING THE BOONE TOWNS THAT WOULD ARISE. OVERALL IMPACT OF THAT?

OWENS: IT'S BIG. FOR YEARS PEOPLE TREATED THE RIVER AS THOUGH IT CONTAINED MORE WATER THAN IT DOES. WHEN THEY MADE THE INITIAL DIVISION, THEY TREATED IT BY PERCENTAGES INSTEAD OF BY VOLUME. FOR MUCH OF THE 20TH CENTURY IT DIDN'T MAKE ANY DIFFERENCE BECAUSE WE HASN'T FIGURED OUT HOW TO PULL OUT ALL OF THE WATER. CALIFORNIA IS THE MAJOR USER. THE DIFFICULTIES ARE MAGNIFIED BY DROUGHT BACK TO THE TURN OF THE MILLENNIUM.

TED SIMONS: THUS WE GET TO CONSERVATION, AND THIS IS A RUNNING THEME THROUGHOUT YOUR BOOK. IRRIGATION IMPROVEMENTS, FOR EXAMPLE, IRRIGATION IMPROVEMENTS INCREASE NET WATER USE. EXPLAIN THAT.

OWENS: IT'S AN INTERESTING CONCEPT. IT TAKES A WHILE TO EXPLAIN. BUT THE SIMPLEST IDEA, IF YOU IMAGINE A WATER MAIN CROSSING THE YARD. IT'S LEAKING, YOU'RE LOSING WATER, YOU'RE PAYING FOR WATER YOU'RE NOT GETTING. YOU REPAIR THE PIPE. NOW YOU FEEL YOU HAVE BECOME MORE EFFICIENT. YOU ARE GETTING MORE GALLONS FOR YOUR DOLLAR, BUT THE TREE IN THE YARD DIES BECAUSE IT TURNS OUT THE LEAKAGE IS WHAT WAS KEEPING THE TREE ALIVE. NOW THAT YOU ARE NOT WASTING THE WATER, THE TREE IS GONE. SIMILAR KINDS OF DIFFICULTIES ARISE WHEN FARMERS MAKE THEIR IRRIGATION MORE EFFICIENT. OFTEN IT TURNS OUT THE WATER THEY WERE WASTING WAS REPLENISHING GROUND WATER, WAS RETURNING TO STREAMS AND USED BY OTHER PEOPLE. THERE ARE HUGE EXAMPLES, ESPECIALLY AT THE SOUTHERN END OF THE RIVER. THERE IS A CANAL THAT CARRIES WATER FROM THE COLORADO RIVER TO THE IMPERIAL VALLEY IRRIGATION DISTRICT IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA. IT WAS CARRIED ACROSS DESERT, LEAKED LOTS AND LOTS OF WATER SO THE CANAL HAS BEEN LINED WITH CONCRETE SO THAT WATER DOESN'T LEAK ANYMORE. BUT AS SOON AS IT STOPPED, A WETLAND JUST OVER THE BORDER IN MEXICO DRIED UP. IT WASN'T SAVING WATER. AND FARMERS ON THAT SIDE OF THE BORDER WHO DEPEND ON THAT WATER AREN'T GETTING IT. WE MOVED WATER FROM ONE SIDE OF THE BORDER TO THE OTHER.

TED SMIONS: IF YOU SAVE WATER, THAT MEANS WATER HAS BEEN SAVED. LET'S GO FIND OTHER WAYS TO USE WATER. IT'S AVAILABLE NOW.

OWENS: THIS IS ALWAYS TRUE WITH EFFICIENCIES OF ALL KINDS. THE NET EFFECT IS, WHAT DO WE DO WITH WHAT WE SAVE? IT'S TRUE WITH ENERGY TOO. IF THAT YOU ARE BETTER ABOUT TURNING OFF THE LIGHTS AND THE ELECTRICAL BILL GOES DOWN, AND SPEND THE SAVINGS ON A TRIP TO EUROPE AS MY WIFE AND I DID, YOU HAVE TRANSMUTED NATURAL GAS INTO JET FUEL.

TED SIMONS: INTERESTING. SPEAKING OF INTERESTING, YOU MENTIONED JOHN WESLEY POWELL. A VERY MAJOR CHARACTER AS FAR AS THE GRAND CANYON IS CONCERNED. EMPHATIC WARNING BACK IN 1893, THERE IS NOT ENOUGH WATER TO IRRIGATE THE WEST. HOW DID THAT GO OVER?

OWEN: IT DID NOT GO OVER. HE WAS BOOED WHEN HE TALKED ABOUT THAT. HE WAS A VISIONARY WHEN IT COME TO WATER. IN SOME WAYS WE HAVE PROVED HIM WRONG. WE HAVE BEEN SO INGENIOUS MOVING WATER AROUND THE WEST. WE HAVE IRRIGATED A LOT OF PLACES POWELL WOULD NOT BELIEVE. IN THE BIG PICTURE, HE WAS RIGHT ABOUT. YOU CAN'T IN A DRY LAND GROW FOREVER BY PUMPING WATER OUT OF YOUR RESOURCES. WE ARE CLOSER TO LIMITS THAN WE WERE AT THAT TIME.

TED SIMONS: IT SOUNDS LIKE A COUPLE OF CURIOSITIES YOU'RE RIGHT ABOUT, REMOVE SALT FROM THE COLORADO RIVER DOES CAUSE EARTHQUAKES?

OWENS: THE COLORADO RIVER IS SALTY TO BEGIN WITH. IT GETS SALTIER AS IT FLOWS SOUTH. NEAR THE DELORES RIVER, IT FLOWS OVER A SALT DOME LEFT BY ANCIENT SEAS. IN ORDER TO DEAL WITH THE SALT, WE DRILL DEEP INTO THE GROUND AND INJECT SALTY, BRINY WATER INTO THE GROUND AND CAUSES EARTHQUAKES. LOTS OF LITTLE ONES.

TED SIMONS: IT'S INTERESTING THAT HOOVER DAM WAS SO BIG THEY THOUGHT IT WOULD THROW THE EARTH OFF THE ORBIT, I THOUGHT THAT WAS FASCINATING. WE HAVE TO WRAP IT UP, BUT THROUGH ALL OF THIS, SUCH AN INTERESTING BOOK, THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE. WE GET THROUGH ALL OF THIS AND THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE TO THE COLORADO RIVER YOU WRITE IS NORTHERN CALIFORNIA?

OWENS: CALIFORNIA DEPENDS HEAVILY ON WATER FROM THE COLORADO RIVER IN SOUTHERN COLORADO AND IT DEPENDS HEAVILY ON THE NORTHERN PART OF THE STATE. THE NORTHERN SUPPLY IS MORE THREATENED JUST FROM THE INFRASTRUCTURE THAT CARRIES IT. IF SOMETHING GOES WRONG THERE, RISING SEA LEVELS THAT CAUSE SALT WATER INTRUSIONS INTO A JUNCTION BOX, THEN COLORADO -- CALIFORNIA BECOMES MORE DEPENDENT ON WATER THAT PEOPLE IN ARIZONA WOULD JUST AS SOON HAVE FOR THEMSELVES.

TED SIMONS: WATCH OUT FOR THE SACRAMENTO RIVER.

OWENS: WATCH OUT FOR THE BAY DELTA. ARIZONA IS GOOD AT KEEPING THEIR EYE ON CALIFORNIA. DON'T STOP.

TED SIMONS: LAST QUESTION, IS THERE HOPE FOR THE COLORADO RIVER?

OWENS: I THINK THERE IS. ONE THING HERE IN THE UNITED STATES, WE DON'T HAVE RESOURCE PROBLEMS ON THE SAME SCALE. THERE ARE PARTS OF THE WORLD THAT ARE FAR BEYOND ANYTHING WE HAVE TO DEAL WITH. WE HAVE SHOWN IN RELATIONSHIPS AMONG THE STATES AND IN RELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN THE UNITED STATES AND MEXICO, THAT WE'RE CAPABLE OF ADDRESSING SOME REALLY COMPLICATED PROBLEMS WITH INGENUITY. THE GOOD THING ABOUT WATER, IF YOU DON'T HAVE IT, YOU DIE. PEOPLE TEND TO WORK IT OUT.

TED SIMONS: THEY TEND TO FIGURE THINGS OUT, DON'T THEY. IT'S A FASCINATING BOOK, REALLY A GOOD READ. CONGRATULATIONS ON THE EFFORT. GOOD LUCK AT CHANGING HANDS TONIGHT AND THANK YOU FOR JOINING US.

OWENS: THANK YOU.

David Owen: New Yorker Magazine staff writer

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