Like the Red Queen in Alice's Wonderland, Robert Gottlieb asks us to believe any number of impossible things as he guides us through the no less peculiar world of Western water politics. "A Life of Its Own" is barely under way before he's already proposing to outrage the conventional wisdom with suggestions such as these:

- Water developers in California can no longer sell a new water project to the voters on the well-worn old claim that Southern California needs more water;- Ecological castle-wrecker James Watt probably did more to stop dam building in the West than Jimmy Carter and a whole shudder of environmentalists ever could, simply by insisting that the people who promote these projects should be required to put up some of the money for them;

- Many environmental groups today, led by the Environmental Defense Fund, have abandoned their historic stance in defense of nature and are instead seeking new ways to accommodate economic development.

Any of those notions would clearly upset the unwavering conviction of all the countless journalists and commentators who persist in believing that the good guys always wear green and all California water issues can be defined by the imagined differences between the northern and southern ends of the state. But what's really important about these ideas is that they're all old hat within the shuttered community of Western water interests, many are commonly accepted in those precincts, and a few are even demonstrably true. Gottlieb should know - he's been behind a lot of those closed doors, and now he's come back to tell the tale.

"A Life of Its Own" marks a distinct departure from Gottlieb's earlier work. In "Thinking Big" he showed his skills as a meticulous and resourceful researcher. In "Empires of the Sun" he demonstrated the ability to marshal facts in support of an overarching hypothesis. But this new book isn't interpretive analysis so much as a report from the front lines, vivid, impressionistic and truthful in ways that can't be nailed down with citations and bar graphs. It's not advancing some grand conception of the future of Western water issues because that's still forming; in a sense, Gottlieb can't write the last chapter to this book because he and the rest of us haven't finished living it yet.

Gottlieb's central message is that these issues are currently in a state of transition. Many of the essential principles that have guided the course of water development in the Western states throughout most of this century no longer apply. The intricate web of relationships that has knit together academics, engineers, industrialists and government bureaucrats in a common understanding of the importance of water to economic and social progress is being torn apart in some places, disintegrating in others and reforming in new and unpredictable patterns all over the West.