I admit, when I first began writing a book about water in the West, I kept thinking: Do we really need another book about water in the West? The literature is voluminous; the idea of slotting my book on the shelf with all those grizzled historical figures, experienced river guides, climate change experts, and established journalists seemed audacious at best.
But water is like that: it pulls on us. You can’t ignore the tug. There’s always something new to say about water. It’s personal, political, divisive, binding, subtle, dramatic. Let’s be clear about this: the future of water is the future of civilization. In this age of permanent drought and unstable climate—skyrocketing populations and diminishing rivers—we’ve got reason to worry.
To start, two books that offer historical context. Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water is still the standard today for exhaustive research on the dam-building politics of the 20th century. Like many other books published during the dry 1980s, just after Lake Powell filled, it’s a somewhat grim read, but a necessary one.
Wallace Stegner’s Beyond the Hundredth Meridian gives a glimpse into a West that never was. Stegner draws a compelling portrait of Major John Wesley Powell, who crafted an intelligent (and ultimately ignored) vision for settling the West based on water’s availability.
More recent books have set forth modern visions for how to manage water in an age of climate change—akin to Powell’s in their recognition of ecological limits. My favorite of these is James G. Workman’s Heart of Dryness. Workman argues that America can learn from how the Kalahari Bushman handle drought, in a book that is sometimes heartbreaking in its intensity.
For more works of investigative journalism, try Robert Glennon’s Unquenchable, Cynthia Barnett’s Blue Revolution, and Charles Fishman’s The Big Thirst. All three take readers on a tour of water management in the United States, with insightful attention to follies and failings. They offer solid solutions based on solid research: not a tenuous hope with feathers, but a decisive hope with talons.
Lastly, two books that offer a more intimate look at water: Ellen Meloy’s Raven’s Exile: A Season on the Green River is a lyrical, funny, personal look at a river’s history and future. Among the many books about running the Colorado and its tributaries, Meloy’s stands out for her characteristic humor and her playful slide between reality and imagination.
Robert Michael Pyle’s The Thunder Tree: Lessons from an Urban Wildland gives a primer on Western water politics wrapped in elegiac storytelling. Pyle explores water through the lens of his childhood rambling the High Line Canal in Colorado, and makes a powerful case for fostering an ethical relationship to the natural world.
Melissa is the Interviews Editor at Terrain.org. To read more, see “Poetry is Impervious to Bullets,” an interview with Sholeh Wolpé, or one of her essays, “The Bighorn’s Dilemma” and “On the Trail of Mountain Lions,” appearing in earlier editions of Terrain.org.
Header image of Hoover Dam and the Colorado River at Lake Mead by Simmons B. Buntin.