(My review on goodreads)
It is probably not a surprise to anyone that water shortages are looming in the desert southwest. There has been recurring news coverage of the decreasing water level in Lake Mead, and the possibility that Glen Canyon dam will be decommissioned owing to inability to continue to produce hydroelectric power. And during the California drought we were told about wasteful agricultural irrigation that used 75% of California’s water allotment while contributing 3% to the economy. And we were also told how vitally important it was that people take shorter showers and flush their toilets less often. So - avoiding a water shortage should be a no-brainer, with plenty of easy and obvious solutions.
Not so, says David Owen, and tells us why in great detail. The world of western water is interconnected in about every way imaginable. “Obvious” solutions such as more efficient use of water can have side effects that can negate the benefits. Not all water use is fungible, and it’s not obvious that diverting water from agriculture to cities is an overall win - not if it simply enables cities to keep expanding.
Owen spends a good deal of time describing the crazy laws that apply to the allocation of Colorado river water: laws that were to some extent codified by a 1928 compact between the states with an interest in Colorado river water, along with state laws and constitutional provisions regarding water rights more generally. The bottom line is that anything that disturbs the status quo will be challenged to death in the courts, and it is likely that nothing short of a water catastrophe followed by a vigorous response from the federal govenment will ever enable a change to the fundamental way that water is allocated in the west.
This is a good book for anyone who lives in or near the Colorado river basin. Owen doesn’t really offer any solutions, despite the title of the final chapter being “What Is To Be Done.” But he does provide a careful and mostly neutral look at the legal, political, economic, demographic, and environmental factors that constrain any possible solutions to the slow crisis of water shortage in the west.