A Journalist's Archive

Dead Pool
James Powell
Reviewed by Kathy Hare

"We can't create water or increase the supply."- Wallace Stegner


          Humans are an odd species. Ever since mankind learned to control fire, we've had the erroneous notion that we can control nature. But the laws of nature always trump human folly. And if James Powell's predictions in "Dead Pool" are correct, inhabitants of the Southwest are about to discover what happens when humans ignore the limitations of their environment.

          "Dead pool" is a term used by hydrogeologists to describe a reservoir where water levels have declined to the point where generating hydroelectric power becomes impossible. But Powell probably picked the title because it provides a visual image of what is occurring at all reservoirs on the Colorado. Visitors standing on the shores of Lake Powell or Lake Mead gaze upward at bathtub rings etched onto canyons walls. The marks record past water levels extending hundreds of feet above the current water surface.

          Ominously, the highest ring shows the water level in these reservoirs just ten years ago. So what happened to the water stored in these great reservoirs? Powell's subtitle, "Lake Powell, Global Warming, and The Future of Water in the West," lets readers know he will address that issue and a whole lot more! Powell reviews man's impact on the Colorado since the 1800's. He gives many examples of how politics, more than science, shaped the policies governing the river today. Readers learn why the era of big dam building in the Southwest, stretching over four decades, may one day be considered the Bureau of Reclamation's biggest environmental mistake. Then he addresses the current drought and demands placed on the watershed by the Southwest's growing population. He also studies the feasibility of many proposed solutions, such as desalination plants, but inevitably returns to the logic of the quote at the top of this review.

          Powell is no lightweight when it comes to water issues. He earned a PhD in Geochemistry from MIT, taught Geology at Oberlin College for 20 years, and spent years studying the Grand Canyon. Today he is the executive director of the National Physical Science Consortium at the University of Southern California. The man knows his subject! Better yet, Powell's writing skill lets him convey that knowledge to the average reader. There's not another book on the market that explains the complex issues surrounding the Colorado River in such a straightforward and concise manner. Best of all, "Dead Pool" is a wake-up call for all those who believe populations can continue to expand unabated in the Southwest.

          For me, Powell's explanation of how the Colorado River Compact was formed is the best example of why politicians shouldn't be making decisions about any water supply. In 1922 water measurements were taken at Lee's Ferry, and it was determined the Colorado River carried 16 Million Acre Feet of water annually that could be tapped to transform the Great American Desert into a blooming oasis. Politicians then divided the river into two basins. The Upper Basin includes parts of Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico. Combined, these states could use 7.5 MAF of the river's water each year. Geographically, the Lower Basin covers most of Arizona and a very small portion of California. But California already relied on the river to support its cities and agricultural industry; its population was also far larger than that of the Upper Basin. So the state applied enough political pressure to insure the Colorado would fuel California's growth for generations, and the Lower Basin was allotted 8.5 MAF of water annually.

          Unfortunately, while school children know the quantity of water in the Colorado is based on the amount of snowfall the mountains receive each winter, the politicians did not. Powell provides a graph dating from 1896 to 2007. It shows water quantities fluctuated greatly from a high flow of 26 MAF to a low flow of 5 MAF. One glance at the chart reveals the insanity of trying to set a "constant flow rate" for the Colorado River. 

          Oddly enough, politicians pointed to those fluctuations when the federal government wanted to construct Boulder Dam during the 1930's. Its primary purpose was to control flooding, generate power, and store water for agricultural use in California. The dam still attracts millions of tourists each year who marvel at its engineering. But it was constructed with little regard for downstream environmental consequences. And over the next four decades dams were built up and down the watershed from Flaming Gorge Reservoir in Wyoming to Morelos Dam in Mexico. Now silt is building up behind the dams, reducing their capacity to hold water. And evaporation occurring in the large reservoirs increases water salinity, which increases the amount of irrigation needed to grow crops each year.

          Drought, human demands, and poor management practices have stemmed the flow of the Colorado. Powell concludes "Dead Pool" with a dire prediction. "We can save either Lake Powell or Lake Mead, but not both."

          I predict "Dead Pool" will reach the same iconic status as "Silent Spring" by Rachael Carson. Read it and see if you agree.

First published in The New Falcon Herald
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