Dam Nation: Dispatches from the Water Underground

Dam Nation: Dispatches from the Water Underground

by Cleo Woelfle-Erskine, Annie Danger

Notes from the Water Underground combines environmental victories in the sustainable use movement with hands-on, participatory options for country and city dwellers. Not just a "how to" but a "why to," the book begins with the story of dams in the American West—a story in which millions of acres of perfect farmland were flooded in order to irrigate the


Notes from the Water Underground combines environmental victories in the sustainable use movement with hands-on, participatory options for country and city dwellers. Not just a "how to" but a "why to," the book begins with the story of dams in the American West—a story in which millions of acres of perfect farmland were flooded in order to irrigate the marginal land that—due to the same natural process that destroyed several ancient Native American civilizations—would turn the area into the Dust Bowl. Cleo Woelfle-Erskine and Laura Allen, both restoration activists and educators, demand a different approach for American watersheds and taxpayers. Through their own experiments with alternative water systems and thousands of hours of interviews with innovators from around the world, they create a comprehensive game plan for reusing household water, constructing miniature wetlands and improving our communities physical and political health. From people building protest villages atop dams in Thailand to activist entrepreneurs in Mexico and Africa, to Spanish squatter-gardeners, Native American restorationists and wetlands activists battling bureaucracy in Louisiana and California; To the Last Drop gives voice to the water warriors battling for a sane relationship to our most essential shared resource.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal

Covering such diverse topics as the environmental consequences of China's Three Gorges Dam and the how-tos of converting human feces into humanure (human manure), this book initially seems disjointed in its efforts. It is divided into three sections: dams and water privatization, do-it-yourself ways to conserve water, and the negative effects of water re-engineering and pollution. Interspersed are chapters presenting case studies on individuals from near and far who have successfully found ways to "disengage from the water grid." While some of the disengagement methods may be too radical for most (the composting toilet might be a bit unpractical for apartment dwellers), the need for considering such alternatives is outlined in the informational and historical chapters. What seems like a disconnected collection of anecdotes ultimately resonates. The chapter "Blues for the Bayou" (written pre-Katrina) eerily portends the vulnerability to hurricane devastation of Louisiana's coastland owing to wetlands depletion. Complete with glossary, annotated bibliography, and pictures illustrating the mechanics of at-home water conservation techniques, this book presents novice conservationists with the basics concerning our most precious natural resource. A nice addition for public as well as academic libraries.
—Diana Hartle

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Soft Skull Press, Inc.
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Dam Nation

Dispatches from the Water Underground

Soft Skull Press

Copyright © 2007 Soft Skull Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-932360-80-6

Chapter One

Section I: Up Shit Creek and How We Got There

Who Needs Dams? by Cleo Woelfle-Erskine

The conquest of nature, which began with progressive control of the soil and its products, and passed to the minerals, is now extending to the waters on, above and beneath the surface. The conquest will not be complete until the waters are brought under complete control. -W. J. McGee, 1909 Irrigation experts are now convinced that the rapidly growing U.S. agricultural industry can expand almost indefinitely within its boundaries. -Time, 1951

On the Fringes of the Water Grid

In the Sonora desert, in January, enclosed by the radiant metal of a freight car stalled on a siding, the air begins to vibrate with heat at eight A.M. When the train starts moving again, hot wind wicks sweat from my skin, leaving a brief memory of coolness. The train passes through rocky hills covered in a dull green mosaic of ocotillo, palo verde, and cacti; saguaros spread their crooked arms above the others. The water heats up in my two-liter bottle. If I had to find water out here, I wouldn't know where to look. Most likely I would die before I found enough toreplace what I'd sweat out in the search.

In the language of the Tohono O'odham (desert people), original residents of this area, the desert is the "bright shining place." O'odham subsisted on crops they grew in floodwater fields and made seasonal journeys in search of wild plant foods. They ate a wide variety of desert plants and animals, drank saguaro cactus wine in ceremonies to bring the rains, and could survive for days without water. They knew that the strength of their communities depended on living in balance with the delicate web of desert life.

Because of its scarcity, water was central to O'odham life. In Killing the Hidden Waters, Charles Bowden describes how for hundreds of years, O'odham kept records, most often concerning water, by inscribing marks and notches on sticks. The sticks record storms, dry periods, flows of springs, and the level of water in the rock cisterns that were often the sole source of water for several villages. During these same years, settlers and military convoys passed through the O'odham's Sonoran desert home. Missionaries came and mining towns sprang up. U.S. history books report "Apache Wars" in the region. The O'odham sticks only note settler and army movements when settlers drained a three-month supply of water from O'odham cisterns in order to save their horses and cows from death by dehydration.

O'odham women often had to walk for most of a day through the desert to fetch water. Yet even when European settlers' wells lowered the water table and dried up their springs, the people of Santa Rosa fought the drilling of the first well in their village. Bowden recounts,

The cost of the improvement would be charged to the tribe and this was the first reason given against it. The chief called together his advisors and they talked and they unanimously rejected the well. It was not needed: "For although we do not have to pay for the well now, sooner or later the money must come. The people have lived a long time on their lands and prospered without this improvement and they wish to continue to live without the gratuitous assistance of anyone."

The white men drilled the well anyway. The chief asked that it be ignored, that people continue to lug water sixteen miles in the heat "in order that the [Tohono O'odham] might continue their old life." Eventually the chief himself stole out to the well for a late-night drink of water. The well had come to Santa Rosa village-so long as the aquifer lasted.

The train rolls over a low hill. Dusty roofs of Tucson suburbs suddenly sprawl out ahead. A haze hangs over the city. Incongruous patches of green lawn and chlorine-blue swimming pools stand out from the grey and red roofs. As we roll down into the strip malls, I think about how little these urban desert dwellers know about the rhythms of life beyond the city's edge.

Most Tucson residents would find old-time O'odham life unbearably austere. In their minds dams, canals, electric pumps, air conditioning, and irrigated agriculture provide stability in a harsh region. But the infrastructure that stocks the supermarket shelves and keeps the sprinklers running to grapefruit orchards is a precarious buffer to the unforgiving aridity of the surrounding lands. The network of dams, pumps and aqueducts is vulnerable to earthquakes, power failures, floods, and long-term drought; large-scale irrigated agriculture in the region is gradually collapsing in response to the relentless accumulation of salts in the soil.

The train pulls into the city through a riot of exotic green and flowering plants growing among a chaotic web of freeways and unseen sewer pipes, waterlines, and storm drains. The desert land has been so completely transformed as a result of waterworks that questions about how much water is necessary to sustain human society become distorted. With fossil fuel-powered pumps, rivers and aquifers rise to fulfill human expectations of swimming pools and year-round citrus crops. At times it seems these luxuries function to make people forget that the tap is connected to the river or that the water could grow something other than shoddy subdivisions where people live for five years on their way to somewhere better.

In contrast, the fields that some O'odham farmers still cultivate in the floodplains of ephemeral streams are watered by ponds that store runoff from the summer monsoon rains. To this day, they grow corn and tepary beans that have been bred to mature in sixty days on only six inches of runoff. Some O'odham youth are turning back to the old ways to preserve their native seeds and agricultural traditions. Their farms provide a different example of stability in the desert. And some non-O'odham desert dwellers are turning to traditional O'odham foods and farming practices in search of better ways to inhabit their desert home.

Part 1: Setting the Stage for Dams

The savage must ever recede before the man of civilization. The square mile which furnishes game to the single family of hunters, will support a thousand families by agriculture and the mechanic arts! -George Lepner, Southern Literary Messenger, 1845 The untransacted destiny of the American people is to subdue the continent-to rush over this vast field to the Pacific Ocean-to animate the many hundred millions of its people, and to cheer them upward to teach old nations a new civilization-to confirm the destiny of the human race. -William Gilpin to the U.S. Senate, 1846

Few of us think about dams when we turn on the faucet to wash the dishes, the same way we don't think about strip mines when we flip on a light. Yet dams and other infrastructure of industrialized society destroy ecosystems and traditional cultures far from the centers of power they were designed to benefit.

Irrigation poisons much of the world's arable land with salt. Deserts expand as clear-cut logging and overgrazing erode soil and shift rainfall patterns. Mountains disappear into the jaws of strip-mining machines to produce coal that fuels the electric grid. Oil and gas pipelines disrupt animal migrations. Offshore oil-rigs tear apart the fragile habitats of the ocean floor, and thousands of birds and ocean creatures die in inevitable oil spills. Power generation, industry, agriculture, car culture, and the by-products of war release into the soil, air, and water toxins that accumulate in living things, causing deformity and disease in humans and animals. Dams disrupt the delicate hydrological processes of rivers, robbing deltas of their silt and upper tributaries of their spawning salmon. This devastation cannot be separated from the standard of living in postindustrial countries. It has been woven so tightly into the fabric of our lives that it has become invisible.

Dams, towering over the rivers they plug, are perhaps the supreme evidence of the idea that humans can improve natural systems by simplifying them and modifying their natural processes. A shortsighted obsession with the control of nature in the service of industrial society drove dam-mongers to block the river canyons of North America. For the first fifty years of the twentieth century, dam builders' conquest of the land and waters was unstoppable, and people's faith in the conquering power of technology was also without limit. This worldview metastasized like a cancer from Bureau of Reclamation engineers to the minds of developers and government officials around the world who pursue mega-dam development projects that impoverish millions.

But even as historians chronicled the endless bonanza of U.S. dams and irrigation projects, the rationale for their construction began to crumble. After the 1960s, the rising cost of building dams outweighed the economic benefits of irrigating new farms on agriculturally marginal land. Coal and nuclear power superseded dams as the main fuel for the electricity grid. And the ecological costs of dams-inconsequential to early dam builders-rose higher and higher as the natural systems whose health depends on untamed rivers began to collapse.

There are many stories underneath the official history. Since the first river was diverted and the first concrete poured, many people have fought against the American dream of endless expansion in order to live within the limits of their lands and water supplies. For every dam and deep well, there is a story of a community that once depended on free-flowing rivers for food and survival, or thrived in lands of little rain.

In the American West, the water wars have not ended. In the late 1980s, a Colorado ranching community went to court and successfully blocked the transfer of the San Luis Valley's water to Albuquerque. As the twenty-first century opened, the Winnemem Wintu Tribe-who saw most of their original reservation disappear under Lake Shasta's waters-began fighting a Bureau of Reclamation plan to raise Shasta Dam as many as two hundred feet, thereby drowning remaining sacred sites and lands. In the West and around the world, communities continue to fight against dams and work to bring them down.

In search of the history of life in the age of dams, I have hitchhiked down the tributaries of Northern California rivers, scaled cliffs to see the trickle emerging from the bottom of a dam, driven back roads through the Central Valley's laser-leveled fields, and walked alongside spawning salmon up redwood-cloaked streams. I've talked to farmers, ranchers, fishers, and river restorers. Here follows what I have discovered. By learning how and why dams were built, we gain the tools to bring them down.

Drought Follows the Plow

Rain follows the plow -the pseudoscientific and ultimately suicidal mantra of Manifest Destiny

East of the desert and the Rocky Mountains, seemingly endless fields of wheat, corn, soybeans, and sunflowers grow along roads that stretch out straight to the horizon. Seen from above, the fields are a mosaic of circles formed by sprinklers connected to the vast Oglalla aquifer and squares determined by the range of the irrigation ditch. This territory evokes the frontier ideal, where anyone could get 160 acres of land and make a farm. Here, men and women plowed up the prairie to create the "breadbasket of America." Today, with massive injections of water, fertilizer, pesticides, and farm subsidies, this region produces grain to feed the cows that feed the nation.

Here, too, people once lived in balance with the land. The Great Plains once supported 80 million buffalo and a million indigenous people. For millennia, the Mississippi and Missouri rivers' yearly floods deposited rich silt on the cornfields of powerful mound-building peoples. Other tribes roamed the plains, burning the grasses to encourage new growth. They hunted the buffalo that followed the green grass and tilled the land with their stampeding hooves. Buffalo fed, clothed, and housed the people. When drought struck, as it continues to do to this day, the buffalo and the tribes moved to wetter areas to allow the grass to recover.

Today, scientists and anthropologists acknowledge that these practices were finely attuned to preserving the maximum productivity and diversity of the prairie. But the Eurocentric U.S. politicians of the nineteenth century were convinced that the indigenous people were primitive and inferior. It wasn't just Senate speeches or government policy. The language of manifest destiny was taken up by railroad barons and land speculators, who profited from the increasing waves of restless frontiersmen and immigrants eager to seek their fortunes. The rousing pronouncements of journalists resembled televangelism: "Nothing must interfere with the fulfillment of our Manifest Destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions," John L. Sullivan wrote in 1845. Enticed by gold, land, freedom from persecution, and such rhetoric, European settlers came west to the prairie in the mid-nineteenth century. Instead of farming the river bottoms like the indigenous people they drove out, settlers plowed up the prairie sod and grew bumper crops of wheat and corn on the deep, loamy soils. Their cattle did not roam, following the green grass as the buffalo did, but bit the stems down to the ground. Drought struck in the 1880s, continuing its predictable thirty- to fifty- year cycle. Crops failed and thousands of cattle died. Without prairie plants for protection, the soil blew away in the wind.

In the aftermath of this catastrophe, many settlers went back East, but economic conditions sent a flood of new settlers to replace them. In rainy years, settlers pushed further west and plowed up dry shortgrass prairies. Drought struck again in the 1930s, turning millions of marginal acres into the Dust Bowl. Many farmers, especially poor sharecroppers, lost their livelihoods and headed to the Central Valley of California to work as migrant farmworkers.

Some Great Plains farmers developed strategies to conserve the soil on their lands. But government subsidy programs favored large landowners. The innovations promoted by the Soil Conservation Service during the New Deal were lost when large landholding corporations bought small farmers out. By the end of the drought, these corporations had amassed vast tracts of farmland, which cleared the way for the rise of agribusiness and the so-called Green Revolution after World War II.

Wells That Pump Sand

As the Dust Bowl's topsoil blew away, farmers remained unaware that a vast underground lake lay just out of reach of shallow windmill wells. The Oglalla aquifer-the largest in the world-lies under the Great Plains. In the 1940s, new centrifugal pumps let farmers draw this water up from hundreds of feet below ground; they thought they would never see blowing dust again. This water carried them through the droughts of the 1950s and the 1980s. It turned the parched plains of West Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Colorado into wheat fields and cattle range. By 1975, Texas alone pumped eleven billion gallons of groundwater per day.

The Oglalla's estimated 3.5 billion acre-feet of water had percolated into the porous granite aquifer over hundreds of millions of years. In the 1940s, the Great Plains states, alarmed at the rate the aquifer was dropping decided on a "useful lifetime" of just thirty to fifty years for its remaining water. In Cadillac Desert, Marc Reisner remarks, "Today, the Oglalla region supports not so much a farming industry as a mining industry." Mining water, that is. This industry turns fossil fuel-derived fertilizers and fossil water into crops. Every year more wells on the edge of the shrinking aquifer begin pumping sand.

With the Oglalla aquifer tapped, rain could be turned on with the flip of a pump switch. There was no longer any need to grow drought-adapted crops. New hybrid varieties yielded more under irrigation. Cheap water produced surpluses that drove prices down, so if farmers didn't add water, they couldn't compete. Even before wells started to dry up, farmers and politicians began looking toward dams.


Excerpted from Dam Nation Copyright © 2007 by Soft Skull Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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