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  • Gregory Zeigler

This theme is deep (as in Grand Canyon deep) by Gregory Zeigler

As she is wont to do, Free Range Writer partner Pamela got me thinking about plots and themes in my novels. Let's look at my first, That Straw That Broke. The plot is about murder and abduction, and corrupt businessmen and politicians, and all that juicy material from which good mysteries and trillers are made. (Not to mention the news.)

As much fun as it is to create that classic stuff, it can be difficult to vary much from formula. But with a theme (or themes), especially in our Free Range Writers genre of environmental mysteries, one can go just about anywhere one's passion takes one. (Unless you're working with a co-author in which case it can take two, not one. Insert smiley face.)

My major theme in The Straw That Broke is that the Colorado River system is over dammed, overtaxed and endangered.

The danger when a theme reflects a passionate concern of the writer is that the theme will dominate. The plot must first entertain the reader and keep his/her attention while the theme quietly educates.

“At the innermost center of an environmentalist hell stands a dam,” John McPhee.

Please enjoy my essay expressing my passion for this theme.

The Future Looks Drier for the Colorado River Basin

By Gregory Zeigler

“Nearly every climate change model puts a red bulls-eye on the Colorado River Basin, suggesting profound temperature increases over the coming decades. It’s going to get much hotter and drier. The future of water – and life – in the West will be very different from anything we’ve come to expect.”

National Geographic News Watch “What Does Climate Change Mean for Water in the Colorado River Basin?” By Jennifer Pitt of the Environmental Defense Fund.

John Wesley Powell, the one-armed civil war veteran who first explored the length of the Grand Canyon in 1869, presaged the view quoted above. Powell, an advocate of conservation and land preservation, cautioned the attendees at an irrigation conference in 1883, “Gentlemen, you are piling up a heritage of conflict and litigation over water rights, for there is not sufficient water to supply the land.”

In my opinion Powell was a prophet. He would deny that, stating that he was simply a scientist reacting to scientific observation and data.

But inaccurate data is where we first got into trouble with the Colorado River. The Colorado River Compact of 1922—an agreement among the states and regions touched by the basin’s waters—divided up the river’s flow between an upper basin, a lower basin, and Mexico. The total allotment of the Colorado River Compact was based on the Reclamation Service’s estimated flow of 17.5 million acre feet per year. After six years of negotiation (and some pressure from Congress), resulting, for instance, in California being granted much more water than either Arizona or Nevada, the compact was ratified and all seemed settled. As Marc Reisner reported in Cadillac Desert, “And it did settle things, temporarily at least, except for one small matter: the average annual flow of the Colorado River was nowhere near 17.5 million acre feet.”

After many dry years, the Colorado River is experiencing the worst drought and the lowest flows in twelve centuries. Lake Mead is reaching forty-five percent capacity. Rationing is eminent. For the first time, in 2014, federal authorities reduced the flow from Lake Powell to Lake Mead. According to the New York Times, “A 100-foot drop (in Lake Powell) would shut down generators that supply enough electricity to power 350,000 homes.” A 100-foot drop in Lake Mead will put the surface below Las Vegas’s highest intake tunnel or “straw.”

The American Rivers Organization recently named the Colorado River the most endangered river in America because of mismanagement. Forty million people rely on the Colorado for their livelihoods. Current demands on the Colorado are not sustainable. Conflict among communities and between states—the sort John Wesley Powell augured—is inevitable.

The Colorado is one of the most dammed and diverted rivers on the planet and yet more dams are planned. And according to the Bureau of Reclamation’s Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study (December 2012) there is not enough water in the Colorado River to meet the basin’s current water demands, let alone to support future demand increases from growing populations in an era of climate change. As is, the mighty Colorado is reduced to a trickle by the time it reaches the Gulf of California in Mexico.

There are two encouraging developments on the lower Colorado. Although there is money available to dam and divert an upper section of the Gila River in New Mexico (the Gila joins the Colorado near Yuma, Arizona) studies are showing that watershed restoration, conservation, agricultural conservation and effluvia treatment can realize as much water as a destructive and invasive dam.

Also conservationists recently worked with farmers and ranchers to insure that a flush of water reached the gulf. In some cases it was the first time in decades inhabitants of towns named for the river had seen water flowing.

Those two powerful examples of conservation and restoration are a beginning—a trickle. Now the drier (and dire) situation on the Colorado River demands a torrent of enlightened management and realistic allocation.

The grandest canyon of all.

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