The lines and shapes we draw on the land reflect the lines and shapes we carry inside our own heads, and we cannot understand either without understanding both at the same time. ~ William Cronin, Nature’s Metropolis
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The water that irrigated my great-grandpa’s farm in Altonah, Utah, flowed through these waterbodies:
Lake Fork River.
Delta. Estuary. Pacific.
The water that irrigates my grandpa’s farm in Altonah, Utah, now flows to these waterbodies (say them aloud and feel the changing river on your tongue):
Moon Lake Reservoir. Moon Lake Dam. Lake Fork River.
Canal. Ditch. Canal. Ditch.
Duchesne River. Green River. Desolation Canyon. Colorado River. Cataract Canyon. Lake Powell—reservoir. Dam.
Lake Mead—reservoir. Dam. Lake Mojave—reservoir. Dam.
Lake Havasu—reservoir. Dam. Moovalya Lake—reservoir. Dam.
Palo Verde Diversion—dam. Imperial Reservoir. Dam. Laguna Diversion—dam. Border.
Whenever I float the silty brown San Rafael River, looking up at towering layered red and white rock walls, I remember my forebears’ experience of a river undammed. I see the strata of ancient limestone graveyards filled with the bodies of my calcic marine ancestors. Floating along and re-imagining this wild river nourishing ocean bodies, I re-member the saline blood that pumps through me, the saline ocean that provides a stable climate to live in, and the saline prehistoric water that was home to the earliest forms of life on this earth. I re-imagine lines drawn on the map between states and nations that might reshape the concrete structures that we have built to block the flow of water.
The heart, for the human body, serves as a pump that sends oxygen, nutrients, and hydration to every part of the whole. Sending oxygenated blood out in arteries and pulling the deoxygenated blood back in veins, it maintains pressure and is able to overcome gravity and weight to pull blood up from the toes and push it into the head. Likewise, the ocean and its weather systems pump water through the atmosphere into the dry reaches of the continents and, using gravity, pull nutrients and oxygenated water back via rivers. When water is removed, diverted, and dammed for human use, the delicate balance is ruined. Like a body that loses too much blood or suffers from a clogged artery, the vital systems lose the delicate pressure they need to keep pumping.
The ocean sends desert-dwellers rain and snow that makes life possible in arid places. We take the gift, slurry it with coal sludge and fracking chemicals, douse it with salt, and keep some for ourselves and send a little downstream for California. The gift is not reciprocated because of the blockage by dams of nutrient loads and freshwater that flow into the Pacific. The river carries critical minerals and base elements necessary for life to grow and be sustained. If the San Rafael waterbody were a human body, it would die from trying to hold its pee, its kidneys failing as the water got recycled again and again in increasingly toxic form, even as it drank more and more fresh water.
Situated within our own waterbodies, we possess an embodied knowledge of the basic parameters required for healthy operation. So, too, do we understand the severity of the illnesses that could occur in the larger waterbodies we are a part of if water is stagnated and dammed for much longer. Thick stone dams that function like stubborn kidney stones block water flows from exiting at their own pace. If they are not moved in time, vital organs could fail as toxic shock takes over the whole body. In geologic time, the concrete structures have only blocked the flow of this ancient river for a few short minutes, but similar to a kidney stone-sufferer, these are excruciatingly painful and possibly toxic. Though it is difficult and perhaps even painful to imagine giving up our current system, it may be necessary if we are to take steps toward resiliency as our climate warms and the west dries.
Member comes from Latin membrum, which is a limb. Member is a “constituent piece of a complex structure,” a “part or organ of the body, especially a limb,” and “a person, animal, or plant belonging to a particular group.” The act of re-membering produces useful questions. Is it possible to re-member those who used to be part of the waterbody that passed through my great-grandpa’s farm and travelled all the way through Mexico to the ocean? What happens when we re-member other beings who have been fragmented or separated from the water body of the Colorado River Basin? Does it help to re-member that in 2014 the University of Utah (an institution of which I am currently a member) consumed 543,036,856 gallons of water, while Tesoro, Chevron, and Utah Power consumed a combined 928,927,736 gallons? As a member of the University, a resident of the Wasatch Front, a user of coal-fired power, and the driver of a vehicle, I recognize that I too am leaching life-water from the Colorado River Basin. How does one change a system that is built not only in concrete but also in our social norms and ways of being, evolving together with our very bodies?
~ Charity Jessop (Spring 2018)
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For further reading:
Banker, Roxanne. “Salinity in the Colorado River Basin: Ask Not What Salt Can Do for You, but What You Can Do for Salt (in the Colorado River) | Education at the Center for Watershed Sciences.” February 21, 2016. watershed.ucdavis.edu.
deBuys, William, and Joan Myers. Salt Dreams: Land and Water in Low-Down California. Reprint edition. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2001.
Durrant, Jeffrey O. Struggle Over Utah’s San Rafael Swell: Wilderness, National Conservation Areas, and National Monuments. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 2007.
Neimanis, Astrida. “Bodies of water, human rights and the hydrocommons.” TOPIA: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies 21 (2009): 161-182.
Wood, Benjamin. “Who’s Using the Most Water in Salt Lake City?” The Salt Lake Tribune. July 13, 2015. sltrib.com.