Where in the Universe is the Colorado?

Following a brief period of unpopularity during the seventeenth century, Nicolaus Copernicus and his successors have been getting mostly good press for several hundred years.  Of course, the world has changed since the Inquisition’s thugs locked Galileo and his telescope away for taking things up where Nico left off, and, these days, nobody really seems to get their britches in a bundle when people claim the earth isn’t the center of the universe.  Compared to evolution or climate change or birth control the Copernican revolution is about as dated as Kepler’s neck doily, Newton's hairdo, or the scratchy wool hosen Copernicus himself wore to the office each day.  We’ve moved on.  But every now and again you’ll hear somebody giving a shout out to these movers and shakers by using the term “Copernican Revolution” to talk about finding a new perspective that will rewrite the rules of the game, that paradigm shift that will take us one step closer to enlightenment. [caption id="attachment_689" align="alignleft" width="135" caption="Nico Copernicus"][/caption]

[caption id="attachment_688" align="alignleft" width="135" caption="Johannes Kepler"][/caption]

[caption id="attachment_687" align="alignleft" width="135" caption="Sir Isaac Newton"][/caption]






Environmental writings and films on the Colorado River are no exception.  We have some serious problems surrounding this river system and there are some serious people out there working on solutions.  Mostly we hear that we’re going to have to make some changes in coming decades.  With the number of people who rely on Colorado River water expected to nearly double in the next 50 years and the amount of water available expected to decrease with climate change, we’re often told those changes need to amount to some kind of revolution in how we view and use water in the Southwest. This much seems inevitable, but the debate over what the change will look like is in full swing.

Some say we need a “new water ethic” as a recently released film on the Colorado, Watershed, suggests. A rafting guide interviewed in the film alludes to a Copernican-style shift (albeit in a different direction) where we’d come to view the Colorado as some native peoples did, as “the center of the universe.”  Elsewhere, there has been plenty of doom and gloom used to help spur our new vision of water in the West from Philip Fradkin’s River No More (1981), to Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water (1986), all the way up the my recent source to sea kayak expedition which has produced articles with titles like “The End of a River?” or Will Stauffer-Norris’ documentary film about the trip, Remains of a River (2012).

None of these reports, as far as I know, were meant to serve as a hopeless prophecy of the imminent end of our desert civilization and the impending evacuation of 30 million people living between Denver to Tucson. That may come eventually but it wasn’t the point for Will and I, at least. Other commentators on the river whose work has lasted over the years are for the most part well-read, well-practiced journalists who are well-versed in Colorado River history and politics, people who based their reports on extensive research and interviews.  If these folks want to make grim predictions, they can go right ahead.  Will and I, on the other hand, get our credentials from having spent 113 days kayaking the length of the Green and Colorado Rivers. We graduated from college about a year ago, didn’t know what else to do, and paddled.  The less-than-bubbly titles of our film and writings came less from research and more from failing to shake an uneasy feeling that overtook us on the U.S./Mexico border.  There, we met the physical end of the wet river after three months of hard paddling. And spending the next nine days dodging trash in irrigation canals and struggling through mudflats watered by the near-toxic agricultural runoff didn’t do much to ease our troubled minds.

                                                                        Canal in Mexico

We crossed the delta by foot and pack raft, and in the process we became convinced that something is very wrong down there, whether or not the fate of everything upstream rests on it or not. The environmental groups we talked to in Mexico told us a small amount of water would go a long way to restoring the wetlands below the border, providing habitat for the 320 bird species that can’t survive in farmlands or desert, the fish and other aquatic species who need something resembling an estuary, and the people who rely on a functioning ecosystem in the delta for their livelihoods. The problem is that seven states in the U.S. and two more in Mexico have coveted that very small amount of water for a very long time.  And there are other problems on other parts of the river, equally complicated and equally urgent. Perhaps they won’t all require total reorientations of our worldviews if we were to respond to them, but they will take creativity and work, two things that were probably more familiar to Copernicus than revolution.

[caption id="attachment_694" align="alignnone" width="614" caption="                                               Dry bed of the former Colorado River, Mexico"][/caption]

So in the midst of preparing to launch on the river for another source to sea float—and while still harboring some hope that the Gulf of California might one day meet with flowing water from the Colorado once again—I was distressed to read an article in the May issue of Mountain Gazette, which says we should “get used to” a dewatered delta.  And it didn’t stop there: “Once we have thoroughly ‘firmed up’ our control and utilization of the world’s freshwater resources…no river will be drowning itself in that salty cesspool.”  The article, “The Colorado: First River of the Anthropocene” by George Sibley, argues that the Colorado is so dammed, diverted, and depended upon it is beyond “restoration.”  Instead of lamenting the natural river’s loss and giving into our “nostalgia centers,” we should begin to view the river as an opportunity to “take an active role in the evolution of life,” by rebuilding a new, entirely managed river in “the image of the old one.”  Sibley claims that in order to understand the scale of our species’ effect on the earth, we need a kind of Copernican revolution in geologic terms.  Our current era should be known formally as the Anthropocene, “a biological and climatological epoch in which the earth has been impacted by things happening among humans [in contrast to the earth’s cycles happening to humans] (advanced technologies, release of banked carbon, et cetera).” In the Anthropocene, it would be expected that we use our money and resources try to modify the earth to our advantage before the earth and its cycles modify us instead (by curbing our growth, determining where we live, et cetera).

Distressing as it was to hear somebody say that the sea doesn’t “need the leftover piss-in-the-ocean semi-fresh water from rivers” (which clearly depends on what we mean by “need”), Sibley’s article upsets me because, up to a point, he’s on to something.  Hoping to restore the Colorado River to its “natural” state is as ridiculous as trying to get the earth back to the center of the universe, but I don’t think anybody’s arguing for that.  It’s also probably true that we don’t need any more literary “lamentations,” as he calls them, books recounting the clumsy history of the Colorado’s total transformation thorough widespread manipulation and management (though it is important that we already have some very good accounts of this history). We have a better chance of working with what water and wild river canyons we still have left by protecting and healing what we can instead of wishing for a time machine.  And we should pay attention to one of Sibley’s main points: that we can’t let environmentalism become a dogma that keeps us from looking into whether or not a severely damaged river system might befit from more manipulation, not less.  As an example, he cites stretches of the upper mainstem of the Colorado where Denver Water is working on remaking the riverbed to fit the amount of water still there (they’ve taken 60 percent across the continental divide already and are looking to get more) by narrowing and deepening the channel.  This will help the river-turned-creek stay cooler and deeper for the benefit of “aquatic systems that fish and kayakers…depend on.”  Perhaps this is a good idea, but at “maybe a million bucks a mile,” shouldn’t we also be working on ways to prevent taking any more water out of the riverbed by curbing water use outside of the basin?

[caption id="attachment_691" align="alignnone" width="819" caption="            Beginning of Colorado River Aqueduct, which takes water 242 miles to Los Angeles"][/caption]

The article ends with a quote from The Whole Earth Catalog by Stewart Brand: “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” The quote sums up the true burden of the scientific revolution’s legacy—the question of whether or not our values and restraint, our very capacity for goodness, can catch up with our technological capacities before we’re tangled in a net of power, production, and growth so dense it becomes impossible to move at all.  Or so widespread that there is nowhere left to move to.  If Copernicus cast us out of the center of attention all those years ago by making a local God a little less likely and by making our ability to manipulate the planet a little more detached, calculating and godlike, then isn’t it our task to better take on not just the power of the gods, but their responsibility and compassion as well?  Sibley is right in chastising those of us who reject everything the modern world has given us including the ability to live in our beloved desert Southwest in numbers that would have been unthinkable a few centuries ago. I think he is wrong, however, to suggest “the first time life has ever presumed to take and active role in the evolution of life” should be an entirely active process.  As wielders of immense power, learning to let things be themselves is just as important as learning to change them. We know far too little to presume to know what’s best for all life.  And moreover, we can’t take part in the evolution of life, as Sibley suggests, if there is no life left to evolve—in the delta of the Colorado, for example.

Sibley urges us to “adjust to the reality” before us and “acknowledge the miracle associated with the dual facts that there is still water in the Grand Canyon as well as in the faucets of Denver and LA.”  I disagree. That would be impressive only if LA, San Diego, Phoenix, Tucson, Las Vegas, Tijuana, and Mexicali, and the thousands of square miles of farmland near these cities were all upstream of the Grand Canyon.  The big ditch in the desert has water in it because it happens to be the most convenient way to transport the liquid gold to those with water rights further south; it’s not because we’re entirely enlightened in our river management schemes.

Copernicus may have proven that we are, in principle, on the periphery of things.  But only in principle. In the 21st century, we still have little trouble convincing ourselves that the world revolves around us as individuals or as a species. We remain, quite effortlessly, at the center of our own attention. The real revolution will come not by continuing to espouse our special privileges or by predictably furthering our quest to control the world down to its smallest details. It will come instead when we fully adjust to the complexity of our ecological orbits and make it a priority to leave as much space, sunlight, water, and air for our fellow earthlings as possible by finding a balance between management and restraint. A real miracle will take place when we’re able to spare just a little water (say one percent of the total flow of the Colorado) for some of the other creatures that need that water, creatures that have been living in the region a whole lot longer than our clan of dammers and diverters. A real miracle will take place when there is water in the faucets of LA and Denver as well as in the delta wetlands, not because it’s convenient or profitable, but because it's the least we can do.

[caption id="attachment_692" align="alignnone" width="819" caption="                                             The sun sets on Baja mountains, Mexico"][/caption]

Posted on June 4, 2012 and filed under Writing.