Kevin Maher: Getting To Know Your Watershed

Never have I been so reliant on a landscape for sustenance than this past month spent exploring southeastern Utah. Though we carried our food, where and how we made camp were entirely influenced by the availability of water. Often times, the memories of our instructors served us well in locating small creeks or plunge pools, although the desert has proven to be more dynamic than any of us would have imagined. Monsoon storms and flash floods carve and sculpt the terrain, while the high heat and desert thirst absorb every drop of water. It was not uncommon for an alcove or dry wash to be found bone dry upon our arrival, where once it had been a reliable source. After a day of hiking, a warm meal and a cup of water is all a backpacker could ask for. However when the reality settles in that there won’t be a meal unless a water source is found, you quickly realize how dependent you are on your environment.

I grew up in an atmosphere that rarely valued or appreciated the abundance of resources available to us, especially water. I’m not suggesting my family wasn’t grateful for what we had, we certainly were, rather the general mentality of my generation and my parents generation was one that took for granted the resource security our environment provided. Anytime I turned my faucet, I never questioned where the water came from or how it got there, just as long as it was there. This mentality and lifestyle, makes it easy to forget or ignore how vital water is in our lives.

Living so closely with this arid land has solidified the importance of cultivating an intimacy and connection with a place. Even if your stay is ephemeral, you are always dependent on the environment for food and water. I think the best way to begin cultivating this connection is by getting to know your watershed. A watershed is essentially the drainage to which all water flows: from small creeks, to streams, to large rivers, to lakes and wetlands. Wherever you are, whether in a city or the desert, you are always part of some watershed.
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Watersheds sustain us in many vital ways. They provide the water for our crops, the water that fuels and cools our industries, and the water we drink. But they are also the breath of life for the ecosystems they support, the arteries and veins that supply the natural world with essential minerals for growth. Watersheds are interconnected networks that encompass the land, the water, and all life that depends on them, including us. They make up the eco-social system that supports our way of life. My time spent with this land has opened my eyes to the power and importance of watersheds. They deserve our gratitude, our respect, and if not anything else our stewardship.

The year is 2012, and I can feel the creeping, hair-standing issue of water shortage in the near future, particularly in the west. Spending time in Utah has made it clear that water is everything in the west. It determines the livelihood of farmers and ranchers, the continued production of energy, and the sustenance that allows for places like Las Angeles, Phoenix, and Las Vegas to survive. Past the 100th meridian where our ancestors flexed their muscles of “ingenuity” and displayed their courage, the desert now grows with unnatural strength. Crops of all types can be grown nearly year round, and incredible populations can be sustained. However, in the wake of our eagerness to develop the last frontier, we have left the rivers contorted and broken. Indeed, the manipulation of rivers by damming and diversions has altered their vital functions and natural forms essential to the land they support. Our consumptive nature and practices surpasses river regeneration, and still our demands are unsatisfied. Ground and river water are pumped so heavily that rivers are now referred to as “deficit” rivers, unable to support the incredible demands from countless users. Even in the mid-west and east where water is abundant, rivers and lakes are polluted and mistreated by point and non-point sources. Our consumption and abuse has been belligerent and foolish, blindly fouling the very source the keeps all things alive.

Alas, the control for water will be fought for by every individual and organization that seeks to make any kind of living in the west, while watersheds in the east will continue to go on unrecognized. Though, with great power comes great responsibility, to use Uncle Ben’s promising advice. Our power is obvious and has been wildly utilized, and our responsibility has an act for showing up late or not at all. My hope is that by getting to know a watershed one can cultivate an intimate personal connection to the local bioregion. Then, apply this knowledge on a community level to develop social, political, and economic structures that reflect the responsibility and stewardship we owe our watersheds.

This epic of a desert odyssey has allowed me to develop this connection with the watershed that has supported me this past month, the Colorado River Basin and all of its tributaries. As this trip moves forward and eventually comes to an end, I hope to take with me a watershed consciousness wherever I go. While perhaps leaving behind a token of gratitude for the things I have learned from the desert about water, the last place I would have expected to learn them.

“We owe rivers the respect due to any source of information that helps us to understand our history, and so to understand ourselves. The condition of our rivers, more than any other natural resource, reflects our attitudes toward the world around us, and ultimately our attitudes toward ourselves.”      – Ellen Wohl

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