Friday, August 2, 2013
Gila: the Life and Death of an American River
It's easy to get the wrong impression about rivers in Arizona, even if you've lived here for many years. As a desert dweller, you cross so many dry river beds on the highway that you think every river in Arizona, except for the Colorado, is dry most of the time. Sometimes it takes a geography class to teach you that the story of Arizona rivers is more complicated. That's where I first heard of the Gila River. So when I found this book, my curiosity was piqued.
One thing you can't doubt, no matter where you live, is that water is highly political. This will become increasingly obvious to everyone as the 21st Century progresses, and groundwater disappears. This process is well documented in Gila, The Life and Death of an American River, by Gregory McNamee. You may choose to see it as the diatribe of a conservationist about the destruction of one desert river, but the proof of his arguments can be found in the ruins and canals of ancient tribes in Arizona. Like us, these people suffered from too much success. They irrigated fields with river water, which led to the concentration of mineral salts in their soil, until they had to abandon those fields.
The story of a river is also the story of the people, plants, and animals that live alongside it – and this book does an admirable job of telling it, from the formation of the Gila River, to its discovery by various tribes and immigrants, to its mismanagement and destruction by modern men, and finally to the current signs of hope for its recovery. In these pages you'll find out why the slaughter of beavers may have been one of the two most damaging things ever done to Arizona rivers (the other thing being the construction of large dams, behind which tons of sediment are currently piling).
It may seem that the story of one desert river is irrelevant to anyone but the people who live alongside it, but reading this book may change your opinion about that. All over the world, people are beginning to realize that the way we manage our water resources must change, drastically. Reading this book will inform you in that argument, and possibly give you some ideas about what can and should be done. At 232 pages, it's a well-paced and punchy read, and makes my yearly list of top ten recommended books. We've got it at the Heard Museum Book Store, so come in and see us. You will be dazzled.