CLAY JENKINSON: In Search Of America — Water, Stubble And The Enlightenment

No internet last night, which is mostly good. But it is amazing how wired in we are and “helpless” when we are off that grid. Starbucks in Silverthorne, Colo. I thought of staying two nights at the Blue River campsite, but part of this experiment is trying a variety of experiences. I am even determined to do time in a KOA Campground, if only for nostalgia’s sake. It rained a bit last night. The rig settled and groaned just as it did the first night. I am not sleeping terribly well, not yet. But I never sleep terribly well.

The Blue River runs just 65 miles between its source and the Colorado River at Kremmling. It’s a beautiful river. I camped within 200 feet of its bank. This far from Southern California it is hard to believe that Los Angeles takes as much of the waters of the Colorado as law and politics will (grudgingly) permit. Not only did L.A. steal most of the water from the Owens River Basin on the east slope of the Sierra, but it takes far more than its share of the flow of the Colorado. And keep this in mind: California contributes no water to the Colorado.

The Colorado passes along the southeastern border of California, dividing it from Arizona, and perhaps picks up a few cubic feet in the rare event of a rain in that desert. The argument could be made that a state that contributes nothing to the Colorado should not have the right to draw the single most significant amount of its flow — for Kentucky bluegrass, swimming pools, golf courses, industrial and municipal use, but as we all know, water flows uphill toward money. If L.A. had to live on the water that accumulates in its own basin, it might be able to support a population of half a million.

The Blue runs into the Colorado, but not before it has been several times dammed and diverted. It’s part of the Big Thompson Water Project, begun during the Great Depression in 1937, which delivers water from the western slope of the front range of the Rocky Mountains to the eastern plains. This massive project involves 10 reservoirs, 18 dams and dikes and the Alva B. Adams Tunnel. The tunnel bores 13 miles through the mass of the Front Range. It’s a technological work of wonder, paid for by our tax dollars. Among other things it has made possible a large irrigation district near Greeley, Colo. My first night was at Willow Reservoir, which stores water for that diversion, and last night, on the Blue River, I watched the flow roll north to fill those storage reservoirs before it makes its way through the mountain.

Here’s the rub. Massive water diversion projects pick winners and losers. Winner: Los Angeles. Loser: the ranchers and citizens of Owens Valley. Winner: Denver, Longmont, Greeley, Fort Collins. Loser: the western slope. Still, it has to be admitted that not much was happening on the western slope of Colorado when the project was conceived.

Here’s the second rub. Trans-basin diversions are always problematic. Nature kept the waters of the Colorado separate from the waters of the Platte-Missouri-Mississippi. When you mingle them, you invariably mingle biota, and that can disturb the environmental integrity of the receiving basin. My hero, John Wesley Powell, who brought me to Colorado on this little adventure, did not quite understand the environmental issue, but he intuited it, and he certainly understood that a massive, government-funded diversion project raised serious problems about Jeffersonian democracy.

It would be satisfying to say that, now that we know so much more about the hydrology and the environmental fragility of river basins, such trans-basin diversions would no longer be conceived or permitted. But alas. In my own beloved North Dakota, the water engineers are gearing up to pipe Missouri River water, of which there is a superabundance, into the Sheyenne-Red Basin (Fargo, Grand Forks), where water is sometimes scarce.

The people of North Dakota have not been well-informed about the potential dangers of this project. In fact, it must be said that they really don’t seem to care. Fargo needs water. Lake Sakakawea has that resource in abundance. And as a state water engineer told me in a debate once, last time he checked, North Dakota had only one area code: 701. His point: all for one, one for all, we’re a unified community and we share our resources without qualms. The audience nodded at this as if it were just plain obvious that no true North Dakotan would oppose the diversion. My words about distributive justice, Los Angeles, Big Thompson, trans-basin diversions and the problem of biota seemed to translate as “yadda yadda yadda, radical environmentalist.”

This is what I love about desultory travel. I did not come to Granby, Kremmling and now Silverthorne to investigate Colorado’s industrialization of its eponymous river, but once you see such a phenomenon, you cannot help but try to make sense of it.

In 1878, John Wesley Powell issued his revolutionary “Arid Lands Report,” which argued that the lands beyond the 100th meridian (Bismarck to Pierre, S.D., to North Platte, Neb., all the way down) were routinely too dry for dryland agriculture. That meant that irrigation would be necessary if you wanted to put farmers on those western lands (40 percent of continental USA), and that mean storage facilities. He tried to provide a template for responsible, Jeffersonian development of the arid and semi-arid lands, but nobody was listening. And as Shakespeare says, “Hark what discord followed.”

Mostly I spent yesterday reading about James Boswell and Dr. Samuel Johnson. It’s a rare occasion when I get to read a whole book in a couple of days. You might think I’d be reading “Walden” or “Desert Solitaire” on a western adventure like this rather than a study of the Literary Club of the British Enlightenment, but the reading heart knows what the reading heart wants.

Today I have to work on the page proofs of a book I co-edited with Char Miller of Pomona College about Theodore Roosevelt the Naturalist. And I’m writing an essay about what Meriwether Lewis learned during the Pittsburgh to Cairo (the Ohio River) phase of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

My beard is stubbly and icky. I will try to shave before I venture forth. I bathed in the Blue River yesterday afternoon: bracing in the best possible way. All day yesterday, I got up from another chapter of “The Club,” stretched, and said out loud, “This is perfect. This is so great.” I cooked a small beef steak and friend potatoes for dinner. The lone man at the next camp slot had a beautiful REI stove and connecting pot. He made some modest, minimalist dinner at his picnic table in about 10 minutes. I could tell that he regarded me as unenlightened. He brushed his teeth with the environmentalist’s hauteur.

Huge snow-capped mountains dominate the windows of this coffee shop to the west. They are still covered in snow. Silverthorne is one of those intentional Colorado communities where the storefronts are required to be tasteful. Every fifth building hosts an outfitter store and every fourth restaurant is a “bistro.” Most men have beards. Many have man buns. People here are fitter than people in my part of the world. Couples come in to get specialty coffees before returning to their kayaks. The sportswear is stylish. There is a “dispensary” in nearly every block of the main streets of larger Colorado towns. People at tables talk “weed” as people elsewhere talk sports or current events.

I’m wearing an improbable white button down cotton shirt, so everyone naturally stays away from me, not knowing whether I am a proselytizing Mormon or a proselytizing Jehovah’s Witness.

Next steps? Gas, of course, and a couple of small items I forgot to obtain earlier. I’m going to head south toward Fairplay, Colo., still in search of the Platonic Ideal campsite. Last night was great, but you could hear traffic on the nearby highway and one’s neighbors are often annoying even when they don’t try to be. The river was great, though my joy was diminished when I realized that the water wizards regard it as merely instrumental to something they seek to do elsewhere.

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