Book Review: Mythical River by Melissa L. Sevigny

Melissa SevignyMelissa Sevigny will be appearing at the Southwest Festival of the Written Word on Sunday, October 1, 2017, 11:30am to discuss her book Mythical River: Chasing the Mirage of New Water in the American Southwest. In a lyrical mix of natural science, history, and memoir, Melissa L. Sevigny ponders what it means to make a home in the American Southwest at a time when its most essential resource, water, is overexploited and undervalued. She explores a landscape literally remapped by the search for “new” water, where rivers flow uphill, dams and deep wells reshape geography, trees become intolerable competitors for water, and new technologies tap into clouds and oceans. Sevigny shows how recognizing the rights of rivers is a path toward water security.

The following is a review by Sonnie Sussillo of Mythical River: Chasing the Mirage of New Water in the American Southwest, posted with her permission.

In Mythical River: Chasing the Mirage of New Water in the American Southwest author Melissa L. Sevigny has written a scientific survey couched in a memoir wrapped in a parable ending with an ethical challenge.

The el Rio de San Buenaventura is the mythical river of the title. Its history is the parable that Sevigny uses to share her personal history and memories as well as the scientific realities and ethical dilemma of water in the arid Southwest.

The Buenaventura River was imagined by the Spaniards who set out from Santa Fe in 1776, hoping to find an easy route to California. The Spaniards discovered an ephemeral river pouring out of the mountains and assumed that this river would lead them west. They couldn’t imagine the mountain ranges and crippling desert, not yet seen. Through the following decades of the beaver trade, the gold rush, and homesteading, the myth of the Buenaventura persisted in stories, on maps and in national politics.

The author uses the parable of the Buenaventura River throughout her book to illustrate the West’s expectations, romance and illusions about water. Her primary focus is the Colorado River, the huge basin that it drains and the demands on the water that the Colorado has – or in reality, doesn’t have.

Beginning with her childhood at her grandparents’ home on the western outskirts of Tucson, with stories continuing through her youth and into her professional life, Ms. Sevigny shares her love of all things water. From tales of waiting for the arroyos to flush after a monsoonal storm so she could go looking for tadpoles to getting lost in the weeds and brush along a river that no longer bent the way it used to, she says, at one point, “Call it grace: that I could spend a day here, filling my heart with wildness.”

Ms. Sevigny surveys the scientific history and events of the Colorado River and its basin. For example, she reviews the history of the Central Arizona Project and describes what’s required to provide water to the desert cities of Phoenix and Tucson.

“Every acre-foot…consumed 3,140 kilowatt-hours of coal-fired electricity to get to Tucson, twice the energy consumed to deliver CAP water to Phoenix and four times the energy consumed to pump groundwater.”

She discusses the dams that hold back the Colorado into reservoirs, and the impact the lack of natural flow of the river has on the bio-communities downstream. She contrasts the dropping water levels of the river and the reservoirs with the increasing demand for and conflict around the water provided. California vs Arizona? Cities vs agriculture? What are the answers to an ever increasing demand on a diminishing supply?

The myth extends to efforts to make “new” water in the Colorado River basin. Local, state and national government efforts to create additional water are the mirage of the title: everything from pulling vegetation in riparian systems, perceived as “stealing” the water, to expensive yet ineffective desalination plants, to seeding clouds in the hope of causing more rain or snow to fall. She makes the case over and over that there is no “new” water to be made; rather, the only answer lies in conservation.

cover of the book Mythical RiverTo escape the stranglehold that the myth, represented by the parable of the Buenaventura, holds on us, Ms. Sevigny challenges the ethics of water use in the Southwest. Over and over, she comes back to the theme: “A great challenge lies ahead: to learn how to limit ourselves, for no other reason than the sweet inclination of the human species to keep company with other living things.” She prophesizes that “Left unchecked, the Southwest’s water woes will enforce human emigration one day…People have lived in the Southwest for a long time, but that history includes the collapse and dissemination of entire complex civilizations. Our modern society isn’t exempt, for all its technological advancement.” She says that, “Managing for the health of entire ecosystems means stripping away the stereotypes and labels humans have crafted and seeing what’s really there.”

Despite or because of the myth, mirage and miracle of water here in the Southwest, we have an ongoing love affair with the stuff. My own experience in my little high-desert town echoes Ms. Sevigny’s: “It’s an old joke…that you can tell the locals apart from the tourists by watching who goes outside when it rains.”

Melissa L. Sevigny grew up in Tucson, Arizona where she fell in love with the Sonoran Desert’s ecology, geology and dark desert skies. Her lyrical nonfiction and poetry explores the intersections of science, politics, and history, with a focus on the American Southwest. She is the author of two nonfiction books: Under Desert Skies, published by the University of Arizona Press, and Mythical River, published by University of Iowa Press and named a “Nature Book of Uncommon Merit” by the John Burroughs Association. She is currently the science reporter for Arizona Public Radio in Flagstaff, Arizona.


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