Running on Empty: The Value of a Natural River?

by Blue Evening Star

The stimulating refreshment of a mountain stream and the beauty of a wilderness lake remind us of the value of water. Another value of water is in its natural flows and cycles. People around the world are realizing the value of an unhindered hydrologic cycle, yet policies that benefit special groups continue to wreak havoc on watersheds worldwide.

In his book Water Follies, Groundwater Pumping and the Fate of America’s Fresh Waters, Robert Glennon explains that throughout United States history, our water laws have consistently changed to favor economic development. This pattern is being followed throughout the entire developing world. In this country, we chose to ignore the essentially sustainable water ethics of the people who greeted our arrival. Instead, early settlers in the 18th century imported the English law of riparian rights, in which land owners were guaranteed the "natural flow without dim-inution or alteration" of the lakes, rivers, or streams on their land. This natural flow doctrine soon gave way to the "rule of priority" legislation. This encouraged economic development by utilizing the power of rivers for mills, giving secure water rights for those entrepreneurs who wanted more than a rural homestead.

Next, with the advent of the industrial revolution came "reasonable use" legislation, so that small gristmill operations would cease to be obstacles for textile manufacturers who needed the power of dams. "In other words" states Robert Glennon, "the economic benefit of a textile factory outweighed the prior interests of the gristmill owner."

The "first-in-time, first-in-right" legislation, that underlies the archaic hodgepodge of Arizona water law, is a direct carryover from frontier "justice" hammered out during the California gold rush days. This "prior appropriation" doctrine tends to be especially damaging to the natural cycles of flowing water because it encourages water users to use as much water as possible in order to maintain their "claim" on that amount of water for the years to come.

These "special interest groups" types of laws are in need of revisioning—with the goal of restoring and maintaining natural cycles for rivers, lake, and wetlands, for the common good of all concerned. Humankind should be a custodian of the earth, not a demolition team with short-term economic goals being the prime motivator for decisions that can have catastrophic results. Unfortunately, just the opposite is currently happening. On January 10, 2003 the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced a dramatic reinterpretation of The Clean Water Act that will accelerate destruction of wetlands and small streams nationwide.

The hydrologic cycle encompasses water evaporating from the seas into moisture- laden air, then raining and misting down to the land and infiltrating into rivers of water above and below the ground which then flow back into the sea so the cycle can be repeated once again. This cycle is being compromised and disrupted at nearly every stage in many places around the world. Many of the world’s major rivers barely reach the sea in dry seasons anymore due to increasing amounts of water being diverted up-stream for agricultural, industrial and urban purposes. Since such a small percentage of the planet’s water is fresh water, every drop of it needs to be kept in healthy circulation.

Like a well-ordered society built upon the foundation of healthy family units, our planet’s hydrologic cycle is one large, integrated whole made up of all the various parts. At any point in the cycle when pollutants are introduced they ride the water cycle merry-go-round continuously spreading harm to all they touch.

Another way in which the water cycle is disrupted is when rainwater gets unnaturally diverted by the multitudes of sprawl developments on the human landscape. "Healthy watersheds capture and store water for human and natural needs," says American Rivers President Rebecca Wodder, "but sprawl developments create landscapes that shed water like a raincoat. Water rushing down storm drains when it rains is water that will not come up from your well when it is sunny.”

Dams contribute enormously to the disruption of the hydrologic cycle. According to the National Geographic report on water in the September 2002 issue, the world’s 45,000 major dams catch 14% of all precipitation run-off, at an enormous cost to the environment and to the millions of people whose homes have been submerged by dam projects.

A watershed is an area of land in which a stream or river system collects all surface water run-off from snow and rain. In Northern Arizona, we are a part of the Pacific Ocean drainage system. Water run-off flowing west of the Continental Divide is taken by streams and rivers into the Pacific Ocean. Most of Arizona’s surface water is derived from the run-off in a relatively small area, determined by the topography of the region. Immediately surrounding the Sedona area are the watersheds of the Colorado River, the Little Colorado River, the Verde River, the Bill Williams River, and the Agua Fria River.

When large amounts of water are diverted into agricultural, commercial, or domestic uses, the cycle is disrupted. When precipitation is lessened by drought, the cycle is further disrupted and everyone has to go to the groundwater reserves because the surface water is no longer available. When surface water is taken by canals or pipelines to arid metropolitan areas, this also robs the watersheds of the water available for local use and for the replenishment of the groundwater reserves. As Robert Glennon puts it: "We literally move water uphill to wealth and power.”

A vicious cycle is playing out in many areas of the globe where surface and ground waters are being overtaxed with little or no replenishment. This causes raised costs for providing water and lower quality of the water provided as we go deeper and deeper into the aquifers and bring up water laden with naturally occurring harmful elements such as arsenic, fluoride, and radon.

In the Sedona area, well drillers report that wells are down to 25% in some areas, with precipitation at a 37% deficit over the last five years.

Groundwater pumping has skyrocketed in the U.S. over the past few decades. We pump nearly 30 trillion gallons a year, with the lion’s share of this precious water being used by farmers to irrigate crops (with tremendous unnecessary wastage in the process), and billions of gallons being used (and polluted) to mine copper, coal and gold.

All over the globe, farmers and municipalities are pumping water out of the ground faster than it can be replenished. The water we are pumping from deep under the ground has taken thousands of years to accumulate. If we keep taking the water out, without adequately recharging the aquifers, the water harvest will come to an abrupt end.
The Ogallala aquifer, which underlies the Great Plains, is being overpumped in order to satisfy the voracious thirst of agriculture in seven states ranging from South Dakota to Texas. Pumping has been going on since the 1890s—water which was stored from glaciers 10,000–25,000 years ago in an area with almost no natural recharge.

Our Arizona State Representative Tom O’Halleran says that we will have to quickly develop methods of re-using every drop of water five to seven times before we then recharge it back into the aquifers—in order to quench the thirst of the growing population of Arizona.

There are some who promote the ideas of desalinization of sea water as the answer to the growing signs of water scarcity in the world. But this process is cost prohibitive and requires enormous amounts of energy. "There is a kind of a silver bullet belief about desalinization," said Sandra Postel of the Global Water Policy Project, "But the fact is, water conservation is where the big gains are to be made.”

There are excellent resources and leaders who are prepared to guide society into the changes necessary to create sustainable water for the present generation and those to come. American Rivers ( publishes a yearly report on America’s Most Endangered Rivers which includes the specific threats facing the listed rivers plus recommendations for what must be done now to save these rivers.

Spiritual activism is the key to motivating people and organizations to sustainable practices. As people on the planet develop a collective will towards sustainability, we will make better choices in conservation and legislation to restore and protect the health of our natural water systems.

So the next time you put your feet in a cold creek, I invite you to think about where that water came from, where it is going, and what you are personally doing to help or hinder the flow of water in your watershed.