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Rebecca Solnit Reviews Dead Pool, by James Lawrence Powell

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The battle over the damming of Glen Canyon is one of the great epics of 20th-century America, and out of it came two classics. One was Eliot Porter's elegiac photographic book The Place No One Knew: Glen Canyon on the Colorado, a book that helped create the genre of colour nature photography. The other was by John McPhee, the New Yorker's science writer. Encounters with the Archdruid recounts what transpired when McPhee managed to get the dam's chief advocate, Floyd Dominy, and its bitterest opponent, Porter's publisher and the Sierra Club's executive director, David Brower, to float together down the Grand Canyon below the dam, arguing all the way. Neither of them imagined the fate the dam now faces. But others hoped. Two classics, or maybe three. The insurrectionary environmental writer Edward Abbey's 1975 novel The Monkey Wrench Gang coined the verb "monkey-wrenching' for a certain kind of ecological sabotage: its four central characters plot to float a houseboat full of explosives to the dam. The book helped prompt the formation of the radical environmental group Earth First!, which announced its arrival on the scene in 1981, when some of its founders unfurled a vast line of black plastic resembling a crack down the 700-foot-high face of Glen Canyon Dam. "Surely no man-made structure in modern American history has been so hated for so long by so many with such good reason,' said Abbey, speaking to a crowd in a parking lot with a good view of the dam and the prank. It was Earth First! that came up with the optimistic bumper sticker about all this: Nature Bats Last. But Bechtel keeps the profits.

The docks and ramps at both reservoirs have had to be relocated and rebuilt in pursuit of the fleeing waterline, and one simply closed. One ramp at Lake Powell grew to 1300 feet long, another to more than 1500 feet, new additions to the collection of landscape follies across the American West. Phoenix and Vegas seem fated, Powell argues, to become dusty ruins, for the water to sustain them is already vanishing (though Vegas has a murderous scheme to drain much of the rest of Nevada for its golf courses and casino fountains, to the detriment of rural communities and wildlife). If the lack of water doesn't get them, climate change might: Powell predicts that summer temperatures in the 120s (above 48C) will be routine in Phoenix. Aridity, he proposes, could well kill off much of the agriculture and two of the biggest cities of the South-West by the middle of this century. (In California, my local paper reports that a severe drought, now into its third year, is forcing state and federal water agencies to cut water deliveries to farmers in the Central Valley, perhaps the world's single richest agricultural region, by "85 to 100 per cent'. A 100 per cent cut would be a death sentence in this Mediterranean climate without rain between May and October.)

"When all the rivers are used, when all the creeks in the ravines, when all the brooks, when all the springs are used, when all the reservoirs along the streams are used, when all the canyon waters are taken up, when all the artesian waters are taken up, when all the wells are sunk or dug that can be dug in all this arid region, there is still not sufficient water to irrigate all this arid region,' Powell the prophet told an audience gathered in support of large-scale irrigation in Los Angeles in 1893. Booed and shouted down, Powell retorted: "I tell you, gentlemen, you are piling up a heritage of conflict and litigation over water rights, for there is not sufficient water to supply these lands.' The day he spoke, Las Vegas did not yet exist; Los Angeles had 50,000 residents and Phoenix a tenth of that. The other Powell, the author of Dead Pool, confirms that the Earth First! bumper sticker is correct. The waters that are insufficient for this desert civilisation will continue to flow anyway. The river that carved a canyon a mile deep will eventually remove all the concrete in its way and scour out the massive piles of silt built up behind both megadams. The process will be catastrophic at some point, but in geological time it will mean restoration of the live, continuous river. Long before then, Phoenix will be like Jericho or Ur of the Chaldees, with the shrivelled relics of golf courses and the dusty hulls of swimming pools added on. The snake may break up into dead pools in this century, but unlike Phoenix it will rise again.


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I have a law degree (Stanford, 66') but have never practiced. Instead, from 1967 through 1977, I tried to contribute to the revolution in America. As unsuccessful as everyone else over that decade, in 1978 I went to work for the U.S. Forest (more...)

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