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  • Mythical River: Chasing the Mirage of New Water in the American Southwest by Melissa A. Sevigny
  • Hal Crimmel
Melissa A. Sevigny, Mythical River: Chasing the Mirage of New Water in the American Southwest. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 2016. 272 pp. Paper, $27.50.

Mythical River received the 2015 Ellen Meloy Desert Writers Award, "devoted to creative nonfiction work about the desert," as the award website indicates. Sevigny is in good company here; previous recipients include the highly acclaimed writers Craig Childs and Amy Irvine. Well-deserving of the award, Sevigny's book offers an appealing blend of personal narrative, environmental ethics, scientific research, and environmental history, all crafted into a volume Meloy herself would have been proud to have written. Mythical River explores the water issues facing the Colorado Basin while celebrating nature and culture, much as Meloy did so memorably over the course of a career that included such gems as The Anthropology of Turquoise (2002), a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

Sevigny structures Mythical River around the illusion of water, as manifested in the idea of the Río de San Buenaventura—a river eighteenth-century Spanish explorers believed flowed from the edge of the Rocky Mountains, from what is now the western edge of Dinosaur National Monument, west across the Great Basin to the Pacific Ocean. As the author notes, by the 1840s "the false promise of the Buenaventura had now marred maps of the American Southwest for nearly seven decades" (191). In Sevigny's estimation, contemporary society clings to similar delusions about water, belief continuing to trump fact. She notes two "great myths Americans have built up around water: we can create it if we need it, and we are always running out," which she characterizes as our "chronic water illusion" (xvi).

Although she doesn't hesitate to criticize outdated policies and beliefs detrimental to solving western American water issues, Sevigny simultaneously seeks to provide hope. She writes of projects, policies, and individuals who have implemented or are seeking to implement positive changes. Indeed, Sevigny accurately perceives that "we are hungry for hope" and want to find ways to restore rivers and all the forms of life they support through enlightened water policies (220). She encourages us to hope that the nation, and particularly [End Page 237] the Southwest, is able to embrace a new water ethic, one that considers the rights of nature in equal measure with the rights of people.

One hopeful chapter is "The Rights of Rivers," which discusses the challenge of restoring water to rivers. In addition to new legal strategies, such as applying the notion of beneficial use to instream flow—that is, simply keeping water in a river for the sake of the ecosystem—which is at odds with western water law in most states, Sevigny discusses the idea of local water and a local water ethic. Similar to the local food movement, the local water movement advocates shifting the sourcing of water from distant watersheds—requiring expensive capital-intensive projects such as dams, pipelines, pumping stations, and canals—to local sources: rainwater harvesting, native landscaping, conservation, more efficient irrigation equipment and household appliances, and tiered water pricing that disincentivizes waste. Such strategies have great potential in states that have not already adopted such measures.

There are also delightful and well-researched chapters on cloud seeding, dams, wetlands, and, perhaps my favorite, one on saltcedar (tamarisk), which includes up-to-date information about the actual water consumption of the plant and the latest on the defoliating efforts of Diorahadba, known colloquially as the tamarisk beetle. Imported by the USDA from Asia, the beetle was set loose in 2001 and quickly went to work eating the leaves of tamarisks that have colonized riverbanks throughout the Southwest. Sevigny's account of the science and politics of saltcedar control makes for fascinating reading, especially for those who have wondered why entire stretches of rivers in the Colorado Basin are lined in summer by dense thickets of leafless trees.

In sum, there are numerous books about water scarcity in the Colorado Basin, including Marc Reisner's classic Cadillac Desert (1986), James Lawrence Powell's Dead Pool: Lake Powell, Global Warming...


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