Monday, March 14, 2011

How much do you know about the West and its unquenchable thirst for water?

If you think the story of water in the American West is dry and boring, you haven’t read Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert, a meticulously researched narrative told with humor and sarcasm. The book opens with Reisner describing a flight back to California. Looking out the window of a commercial jet traveling over western Colorado and eastern Utah—here’s what he saw:

“Emptiness. There was nothing down there on the earth—no towns, no light, no signs of civilization at all. Barren mountains rose from the desert floor, isolated mesas and buttes . . . . You couldn’t see much in the moonlight, but obviously there were no forests, no pastures, no lakes, no rivers, there was no fruited plain.

“I counted the minutes between clusters of lights. Six, eight, nine, eleven—going nine miles a minute, that was a lot of uninhabited distance in a crowded century, a lot of emptiness amid a civilization whose success was achieved on the pretension that natural obstacles do not exist.

“Then the landscape heaved upward. We were crossing a high thin cordillera of mountains, their tops covered with snow. The Wasatch Range. As suddenly as the mountains appeared, they fell away, and a vast gridiron of lights appeared out of nowhere . . . Salt Lake City, Orem, Draper, Provo . . . most of the population of Utah.”

Reisner describes the arrival of Brigham Young and the Mormons in 1847 and how they unwittingly began building the modern West when they immediately began irrigating the Salt Lake Valley to grow food.

The West as we know it is a land that is an engineering marvel based primarily on the movement of water from a few rivers to irrigate the desert and supply western cities and industry. The desert civilization created by Americans in the western United States is a civilization of unparalleled prosperity, and the manipulation of water made it possible. Understanding what we’ve done is a first step toward finding a way to sustain the civilization we’ve created.

Reisner’s description of arriving over Salt Lake City from above 30,000 feet could apply to most western cities—sprawling urban metropolises surrounded by a lot of empty space. These cities are beachheads of civilization—beachheads that many of us love and call home.

Read Cadillac Desert, a fun and informative read, to fully appreciate the predicament of the West and our water—something that has been hitting home more than ever in recent years here in California.

Who’s ready to STAND FOR LESS water wasted?

Jim Breitinger

This post originally appeared at STAND FOR LESS.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

My trip to Patagonia, November 2010--Part one.

Southern Chile, the end of the earth:

Glaciated Lake at Torres del Paine National Park, Chile. This is one of Chile's most visited national parks with 80% of the visitors being foreigners--mostly Europeans it seemed.

At Puerto Natales, Chilean Patagonia.

Abandoned buildings at a sheep estancia (sheep station or sheep farm)--Tierra del Fuego, Chile.

We were hours from anything when our fuel filter was knocked off by gravel from the road. With pluck and luck we were back on our way in about 30 minutes.

Repairing the Chevy Aveo--on a road it never should have been on.

My trip to Patagonia--Part two.

The sheep outnumber people by over a thousand to one on Tierra del Fuego.

Crossing Rio Grande in Chilean Tierra del Fuego, not far from the Argentine border. This was near the end of a long, and in retrospect a magical and mystical drive where we ended up somewhere we never expected to be going (more on that in another post).

After selling my Dodge truck earlier in the year, I felt an affinity for this one at an abandoned Chilean lumber camp on Tierra del Fuego.

Tom being goofy with the southernmost mountain range in the America's behind him--the Darwin Range. This was also the southernmost point of our trip. Cape Horn is about 30 miles to the south, but hard to get to as this was the end of the road.

In the center of Santiago, Pedro GutiƩrrez de Valdivia--Spanish conquistador. We had 12 hour layovers in Santiago at the beginning and ending of the trip.

Patagonia, one of the last great frontiers.

With geographic features including remote and stunning rivers, lakes, glaciers, mountains, bays, inlets and two oceans, Patagonia is a magnet for ecotourists hoping to see a part of the planet with a low population density and breathtaking beauty.

But Patagonia is threatened by humans and our need for more and more and more. Non-native beavers and minks are wreaking havoc to native flora and fauna. Large Chilean salmon farms are being devastated by disease due to unsanitary and overcrowded conditions (at the same time the salmon farms have been overtaking formerly untouched fjords). Proposed new dams, with associated hydro-electricity projects, threaten to flood vast areas of streams and lakes that are among the most pristine in the world.

The need to STAND FOR LESS is often most obvious along human frontiers. The lands of Patagonia have already been altered by man, but Patagonia retains much of the wildness of the pre-modern era. Preserving and protecting natural ecosystems is vital for the survival of our species. (Read more about the importance of biodiversity.)

The Patagonia Times
is an English-language online publication covering issues affecting one of the final frontiers of the Americas. We recommend that you add this excellent online resource to your reading list. It’s important to be well-versed in issues affecting our planet beyond our own backyards.

Jim Breitinger

Chile's Cuernos del Paine is one of the many iconic landmarks of Patagonia:

I wrote this post for STAND FOR LESS where it originally appeared on November 24, 2009.