Learning to Ride the Water Cycle

May 20, 2010

Sooner or later, anyone who bicycles in the desert Southwest begins to understand the crisis that is building up in that increasingly stressed part of the world. The basic problem for the Colorado river system, which collects the waters of this region and takes them to the Gulf of California, is easily described. Despite its might, this wild river cannot water and power Denver, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Tucson, Palm Springs, and San Diego. Nor can it be expected to make the deserts bloom year round with vegetables and fruit that require vast quantities of water in order to grow.

Until I read Fred Pearce’s When the Rivers Run Dry, I had assumed that the profligate over use of water in the American Southwest was unique. From Pearce I have come to realize that water is “the defining crisis of the twenty-first century.” The Colorado River system is but one example—and not even the worst case—of rivers around the world that are being abused, with some of them running dry. Among them: the Nile, Ganges, Indus, Mekong, Yellow, and the Lake Chad system of waterways.

He also shows that for the most part the death of rivers is caused by the steady, oftentimes principled action of some of the world’s smartest people. Engineers, politicians, and financiers convert the rivers into systems to irrigate dry land and generate power for the people. This heavy duty harnessing of the earth’s waterways throws the hydrological system out of balance. The water table plummets, critically important wetlands are turned to dusty wastelands, the probability and severity of flooding are increased, and long-settled people are left worse off than they were before.

Speaking more broadly about our way of life, Pearce declares that we should “learn to love the meanders” and learn “to ride the water cycle.” He refers, of course, to the cycle by which water moves from sky to earth to river to sky, bringing beauty and life to living things, but I want to bend his literary figures to my own purposes, using them to characterize the bicycle journey along the Potomac River that I will soon begin.

My route will be the towpath of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. Like the river that the canal was built to improve upon, the C & O canal meanders, more than any other river I have traced on two wheels. Here bicyclists experience the water’s cycle because the system is still intact. The river runs with its ancient power still flowing, surrounded by the deep greenery of mountains and forests. The road surface itself—clay, gravel, crushed limestone, sometimes mud and only a little pavement—will encourage travel at a modest rate.

In 1784, when George Washington, superb horseman that he was, plotted the transformation of the natural river into a transportation artery, he could ride at five miles an hour. On my Waterford with 700 x 32 tires, I’ll try for fifteen. Cycling along through the leafy quietude of the Potomac’s banks, I will be able to see remnants of old-time travel and industry that still were maintaining a respectful complimentarily with the river’s way. The journey will also take me past sites that memorialize the nation’s convulsive, inconclusive efforts to rid itself of slavery more than a century and a half ago.

There will be full opportunity to develop a deeper appreciation for “Nature’s free services,” to use another of Pearce’s phrases, Nature’s own ways of “maintaining fisheries, protecting against floods and drought, cleaning pollution, delivering free irrigation on floodplains, watering valuable tourist sites, and much else too valuable to be lost.”

Cycling these clay paths at a slowed-down bicycle pace, is a way for some of us, at least, to see the world in a deeper way and begin to think how much better the world would be if all of us would learn to meander and to ride the water cycle. If we could reshape our modern civilization to Nature’s plan—as still is case along the Potomac—perhaps we could develop the willingness to scale back our craze for full development—as we are doing along the Colorado.

Note: Although I plan to travel solo, I gladly acknowledge the assistance given in various books, including practical advice from experienced tour guides Mary Shaw and Roy Weil.