River Notes: A Natural and Human History of the Colorado
By Wade Davis
Island Press, $22.95
Reviewed by SHANNA LEWIS
In his aptly titled book, River Notes, Wade Davis meanders through stories and images from the history, geology, culture and politics of the Colorado River.
The National Geographic explorer-in-residence opens his notebook and describes what the river once was and what it has become.
Starting at the river’s end, he describes the lush delta seen by conservationist Aldo Leopold in 1922. Davis conjures the memory of a place where jaguars and wild boar were among hundreds of species roaming acres of willow, mesquite and cottonwood, where the sea harbored a profusion of fish, and where the Cocopah people hunted and farmed.
Then Davis turns to the present. Plugged upstream by the mighty Hoover Dam, the reviled Glen Canyon Dam and dozens of other diversions, the Colorado’s once abundant mouth has become a barren mudflat broken only by the tough invasive plants that grow in salt-poisoned soil.
The river is now a trickle of contaminated water seeping into a sea where marine life has fallen by 95 percent.
After lamenting the loss of the delta, Davis looks back upriver, recounting the triumphant construction of the Hoover Dam as the nation pulled itself through the Great Depression.
Then he paints a blunt comparison with the troubled Glen Canyon Dam project that followed a few decades later.
Each section of this book is punctuated by quotes from others who also know or knew the “American Nile.” The voices of Leopold, John Wesley Powell, Wallace Stegner and others frame Davis’ observations and opinions, giving a focus and perspective to the story of the river. Davis says although the Columbia is bigger and the Rio Grande longer, the Colorado surpasses both in status as the river of the American West. It is the most regulated river on the planet, with some 25 dams. It’s the water source that feeds, powers and slakes the thirst of some of the West's largest cities.
As the source of life for much of the desert southwest, more water is exported from its basin than any other river in the world. Davis boils down the Southwest's growing water crisis to "cows eating alfalfa in a landscape where neither really belongs."
It’s a surprise, and perhaps a touch disappointing, to learn that explorer John Wesley Powell’s amazing account of his harrowing travels down the Colorado River in the 1870s was written a couple of years after he actually made these expeditions, and he conflated events from several trips into one journal purported to be a daily diary. Yet, Davis’ admiration for Powell’s genius, spirit and accomplishments is clear.
Woven into an account of his own journey through the Grand Canyon, Davis explains the geologic forces at work there, as well as the spiritual relationship of the Anasazi and other early people with the Colorado. Billions of years of geology are compressed into just eight pages.
However, Davis takes his time with the origins of water law in the West and places it into the saga of the Mormon mission to make the desert green and build settlements in the dry wilderness, a philosophy that helped create the agencies and water laws still controlling water in the West today. He explains the plan that, in 1922, divvied up the waters of the Colorado River among seven states and Mexico — creating challenges still being sorted out 90 years later.
In the end Davis says, “For nearly one hundred years we have sacrificed the Colorado River on the altar of our prosperity. Surely it is time to shatter this way of thinking and recognize that the river’s well-being is our prosperity…we must let the river flow.”
Shanna Lewis is an independent radio producer, freelance photographer and SEJ member based in Pueblo, Colo.
* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Winter 2012-13. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.