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Book review: 'River Notes' takes one on a beautiful, sobering journey

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 31 2012 4:09 p.m. MDT

"RIVER NOTES: A Natural and Human History of the Colorado," by Wade Davis, Island Press, $22.95, 176 pages (nf)

Discouraging words.

"River Notes: A Natural and Human History of the Colorado" by Wade Davis is full of them.

Not that we shouldn't be warned about what's happened and continues to happen to this majestic and glorious river, but it's hard to know what to do about the situation.

Davis tracks the history of the river from the building of dams to the grab for the river's water by ever-hungry big cities.

He lists the mistakes made and adds up the cost.

He includes the Mormon pioneers and settlers in his cast of thousands who have visited and used the river. (He refers to the founder of the faith as a "conflicted yet inspired visionary" and to the beliefs of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as provocative and unsettling. He discusses the Mountain Meadows massacre as well, though it's unclear as to how it relates to the Colorado River.)

He refers to the Prophet Brigham Young as one who "inspired by the angels, elected to settle in the most barren landscape imaginable." That required water and irrigation systems.

He goes on to suggest that the appointment of then-general authority and later LDS Church President Ezra Taft Benson pushed ahead the efforts to harness Western water.

Some huge decisions were made about the river, damming it up and dividing up the available water without taking into account natural evaporation and drought cycles.

Davis lines out the results and consequences with a somewhat chilling dispatch, noting the Hoover Dam was almost immediately beset with problems that set in motion a chain reaction of more construction.

"Today Glen Canyon Dam remains an object of disdain," he claims, held together with hundreds of 75-foot bolts.

He wrings his literary hands over the losses that came about with the creation of Lake Powell.

As he examines the questionable legacy left by man and the beauty of this natural resource, it's hard not to become angry and feel hopeless.

He blames ranchers, farmers, and greedy water-users throughout in his attempt to sound the alarm.

Toward the end he sums up the situation thusly: "Indeed, the entire water crisis in the American West essentially comes down to cows eating alfalfa in a landscape where neither really belongs."

He asks that we as a society "let the river flow."

The question is how, as readers, do we do that?

Sharon Haddock is a professional writer with 35 years experience, 17 at the Deseret News. Her personal blog is at sharonhaddock.blogspot.com.

Email: haddoc@desnews.com

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