Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.
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- Tuesday, May 28, 2013, 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Steamboat Springs The words “lyrical prose” and “water policy” seldom are written in the same sentence, but author Stephen Grace has melded the two in his new book, “Dam Nation: How Water Shaped the West and Will Determine its Future.”
Grace comes to the Alpine Campus of Colorado Mountain College on Tuesday night for a book talk that is part of the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council’s Talking Green series. "Dam Nation" is a finalist for the 2013 Colorado Book Awards.
“When an editor suggested to me that I write a book about water issues, at first I thought it was preposterous. I was working on a second book about China. I wasn’t a water expert,” Grace said in a phone interview Friday.
However, the editor persuaded Grace that the coming scarcity of water is an issue that affects the lives of everyone.
“I pretty quickly found that most books about water are deadly boring,” he said. “I realized there was a need for a book that makes the topic accessible to the public.”
And after all, without water, we wouldn’t have beer, right?
“I tried to work a little humor into the book,” Grace admitted.
And then there is his lyrical way of describing the landscapes and wild creatures that depend on the subsurface water of the West.
Consider this excerpt from "Dam Nation" about the Ogallala Aquifer: “Beneath the parched surface of the western landscape lie oceans of water. This liquid plentitude is sometimes squeezed between layers of impermeable rock. When a well is bored into these wet depths, liquid overcomes gravity as it rushes to the place of lowest pressure and pushes upward toward the opening — an artesian well. It may even flow like a fountain, or a pump can be used to bring groundwater to the surface, where meadowlarks spread their melodic songs across the windy silence of the plains.”
In "Dam Nation," Grace explores the changes to the great American prairies brought about by the destruction of the bison range, breaking of the sod with plows and pumping of the aquifers to feed pivot irrigation systems, all of which also have provided food for the world. He writes about how giant dams on the Colorado River produced cheap electricity to make it feasible to pump the majority of the water out of the Ogallala Aquifer and how some of the arcane water law that prevails in the West was born of the gold rush.
But of all the research he did for his book, the information that concerns him the most is the revelation that we have been living in an era of relative water abundance in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, and we might be about to return to a much drier epoch.
The 1922 Colorado River Compact that divided water among the upper basin states like Colorado and Wyoming with those of the lower basin states like California and Nevada, was hammered out based on just 20 years of data in the midst of a moisture anomaly, Grace said.
That era offered so much relative moisture that it was a fluke of climate even though the pioneers found the region to be parched, according to research on tree rings by paleoclimatological scientists, he added.
“It’s almost certain we’ll have less water in the future than we do now,” Grace said.
“It will be hotter, drier, and we’ll have less snowpack. And the West will continue to experience population growth” producing “increasing demand on a decreasing supply of the one element essential to life. That, to me, is a big story.”
You can read an extended excerpt from "Dam Nation" at Mother Earth News.
To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com