I lived my earliest years in the dry land farming region of the Palouse country, south of Spokane, followed by growing up years in the marine climate west of the Cascades. After schooling in Indiana, I lived in the hot, dry South San Joaquin Valley of California and, after retirement, in the desert Southwest near Phoenix. For a decade now, I’ve been back in the Pacific Northwest on the rainy side of the mountains. The wet-dry, hot-cool alternations are basic to my way of experiencing the world.
So, too, is the geographical and hydrological importance of the three river systems that penetrate the American West: The Columbia-Snake-Willamette in the north, the Sacramento-American-Kings-San Joaquin in Central California, and the Colorado-Salt-San Pedro-Gila through the canyon lands and deserts of Arizona and southern California.
These rivers serve as the organs that connect the dry (usually hot) and wet (usually cool) elements of the western regions of the United States. They also shape the roads and highways for my cycling endeavors. At home, I’m always riding along the Columbia and its tributaries and whenever I’m back in the southwest, the dwindling streams of the Colorado determine my routes.
In general, I’ve always been aware of two features of this part of the world. The first is that despite the stability of wet and dry as the basic character of the climate, there are occasional anomalies. Sometimes, the unusual periods are the normal features played out to the extreme: far more rain than usual or longer and hotter periods than seem to be normal. At other times, however, the weather seems to reverse the climate: wet lands become dry and constant rain turns dry lands to wet.
Another factor has always been evident. We human beings interact with the meteorological and hydrological features of the natural world. We adapt to wet and dry and to hot and cold. For hundreds of years, we have been able to engineer systems that allow us to reshape how nature functions. Irrigated agriculture is one of the most persistent and important elements of the engineered life. Urban civilization is another.
What we easily overlook is that our engineering successes last only for a time before forces greater than our own overpower us and the wet-dry alternation takes control once again.
Both as citizen of the West and open-road cyclist, I devote some of my time to learning about these climatic realities. My list of books-read in this area of study keeps growing. While I am generally aware of the history of wetness-dryness in the American West, what has been lacking is the longer perspective—a fact-based, narrative history of water in the West and how it has impacted human activity in this part of the world. There are so many questions, some of them dealing with time on a vast scale.
When and why were the southwestern deserts swampy lands lush with greenery and life? How could the ancient ones develop such elaborate civilizations? What caused their rapid disappearance? How could desert people in pre-discovery times live such well-nourished and seemingly leisurely lives? How could California’s arid central valley sustain lakes and swamps as recently as 150 years ago?
Some of the questions are of more immediate importance to us. Will the technologies that we have developed enable people like us to continue our current way of life in the dry places of the West? Is western climate cyclical? And if it is, how long are the cycles? How extreme are the oscillations? What changes in climate should we anticipate during the early decades of the twenty-first century? What can we do now that will help us make ready for the future?
The book that is helping me understand these factors more fully is The West Without Water by B. Lynn Ingram and Frances Malamud-Roam. Ingram is professor of earth and planetary science and geography at the University of California (Berkeley) and Malamud-Roam is associate environmental planner and biologist at Caltrans and visiting professor with her co-author at the University of California.
The subtitle of their book offers a summary of its contents: What Past Floods, Droughts, and other Climatic Clues Tell Us About Tomorrow. The publisher’s blurb on the book jacket gives a more complete synopsis:
“The authors show that, although the Western states have temporarily buffered themselves from harsh climatic swings by building dams and reservoirs and by making other changes to the natural landscape, they may be unprepared for the effects of climate changes that are occurring now and may continue for hundreds of years into the future. The authors argue that it is time to face the realities of the past and prepare for a future in which fresh water may be less reliably available.”
There are many things to observe and reflect upon as I bicycle along the rivers of my part of the western world. The West Without Water is one of them.