Jana Richman One Woman's Meat: Notes from Escalante

The Ways of Western Water

Written by Jana Richman on . Posted in Las Vegas, Nevada, Spring Valley, The Place, Utah, West Desert

The Bellagio Fountains in Las Vegas

A little more than six years ago, Pat Mulroy, general manager for Southern Nevada Water Authority announced a plan to build a 300-mile pipeline to pump water out of the eastern Nevada valleys in the basin and range land north of Las Vegas and carry it to the thirsty city. Because the intricate designs of water aquifers under our feet don’t abide by the rules of statehood, property rights, and water rights—no matter how much we want them to—the plan also includes pulling water out from under the folks living in Utah’s west desert communities, farms, ranches, and Goshute Indian reservation lands.

A life-giving spring for the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute.

When I heard the announcement, I thought surely that such an idea based almost entirely on arrogance and power would be immediately shot down by the relatively sane among us, forcing those in charge to abandon the idea. Those in charge are claiming, of course, that they can take water without doing damage to the areas they plan to drain, and those about to lose their water, of course, believe their land, their cattle, their crops, their animals, their communities, and maybe even their lives will be threatened. The truth is in there somewhere and it is this: No one knows for certain the extent of the devastation that will be suffered by those on the losing end—the sucking end—of the pipeline. If we were to use logic and common sense, something we seldom rely on anymore, one would think that draining water out from under land in the most arid state in the nation would certainly have an impact. But expecting decisions made with logic and reason in these days of scarcity and fear is almost quaint—much easier to focus on our small lives, work like hell to keep what little we have, and let those with money and power make the big decisions. So, we come to this in the west: whoever can build the biggest pipeline wins. Apparently that approach makes sense to some. In fact, it makes sense to many. It’s not that those relying on logic and reason haven’t been fighting tirelessly—they have—but they are greatly outnumbered.

For the most part, we humans are proud of our hubris and proud of our pride and so on and so forth. We puff up with our “can do” attitudes while we yank nature around like a toy on a string—building dams, clearing land, diverting rivers, installing levees, poisoning topsoil, soiling the air, and sucking water out of the ground many times faster than it can be naturally replaced. (Case in point, in fewer than 100 years we have depleted the Ogallala aquifer, one of the nations largest underground water sources, which took nature more than 10,000 years to fill during the Ice Age.) Even when nature roars back to put us in our place with droughts, dead crops, toxic food, dust storms, melting glaciers, dried up aquifers, beetle-eaten dead trees, forest fires, broken levees, and flooded cities, we refuse to go. We will not be pushed around by nature. We stand our ground. Rebuild. Find new chemicals to kill new pests. Genetically modify our food. Put air filters in our homes and stay inside. Dig up more land and build more dams to secure more energy sources to run more air filters because it’s too dangerous to go outside. We’ve pitted ourselves against the very thing that keeps us alive—nature. And most of us seem to be placing our bets on humans. You have to love that sort of egotism or blind faith or pure stupidity or desperation or denial or delusion—whatever it is that keeps us building pipelines. It’s like placing a bet on the Detroit Tigers in the bottom of the ninth with two outs when San Francisco is up eight runs.

During the recent presidential debates, some of us were concerned that neither candidate spoke about caring for or attempting to reverse the damage we’ve done to the earth and our environment. Instead we heard “energy independence,” two hollow words proclaimed with either delusion or deceit or a combination of both.

On a Facebook page in response to a lament that the environment is not part of the political discussion, someone posted this comment: “It’s hard to care about the environment when the economy is bad and people don’t have jobs.” In other words, we have more pressing problems. But the truth is, we do not have more pressing problems. That comment was written as if the environment and human suffering were two separate issues. They are not. Every day, through our transgressions against the earth, we add to the suffering and destruction of humans not to mention many other species. We cause cancers with a chemical approach to mass food production. We destroy clean water supplies fracking our way to “energy independence.” We cause oceans to rise, which destroy homes and kill people with every big storm. We add to hunger, homelessness, and joblessness by clear cutting forests and building dams, displacing people who have survived from the land and the waterways for generations. “The environment” is not a peripheral issue, it is not a separate topic that sits “over there.”  It is the one single thing that does the most to either create or relieve human suffering, depending upon our actions. The destruction of the earth is an end game. As E.O. Wilson puts it, “one earth, one experiment.”

But our politicians know us well. They know that in spite of our compassionate rhetoric about the jobless and the uninsured, we care less about human suffering in general—especially if it resides outside of our daily observation in other towns, states, and preferably countries—than we do about alleviating our individual fears and protecting our own individual comfort levels—no matter how large or small either of those things might be. That’s what this presidential campaign is about—provoking our fears while promising to alleviate them. But it soon won’t matter at all if anyone has a job, or if someone has to pay inheritance tax, or if most of us are uninsured. None of us are insured against unbreathable air, lack of water, and toxic food. More pressing problems? The storm that just hit the east coast should tell us otherwise. The dead crops in the Midwest should tell us otherwise. The number of people dying around the world—including here at home—from tainted water and food-borne illnesses should tell us otherwise. And the very conversation of a 300-mile, multi-billion dollar water pipeline should tell us otherwise.

* * *

When I heard the pipeline announcement, I “got involved,” “became active,” wrote lots of letters, met with people, wrote an editorial for the paper—the grind that we grind through on every issue that nudges us closer to the finish line of the human vs. nature race. I love those tireless activists on the ground, on the front lines, but I’m not one of them. I bring up the rear. I’m the support unit. I burn out quickly and trundle home to write, having been shown once again that the page is my only access to activism.

Three questions kept popping up in my mind on this issue: Who builds a city of excess like Las Vegas in the middle of a desert that demands restraint? Who sets up a water-dependent agricultural operation in the driest state in the nation? And once both of those things are definitively established involving real people living real lives in the only way they know how, what happens when the water runs out, worlds collide, and things screech to a halt? So I began to write.

In the meantime, back when I was working on my MFA at the University of Arizona, three fictional characters introduced themselves to me and started rattling around in my head, spilling tea, and having conversations among themselves. They were three generations of women from the same family—twenty something, forty something, and seventy something—all wanting to have their say from the perspective of their age and gender. But they lacked a story and a place so for years they’ve been hanging around in my brain as if in a doctor’s waiting room, looking at their watches and kicking up a fuss now and again about how long they’ve been waiting.

When Pat Mulroy announced the plan to build the Las Vegas water pipeline, she offered those three patient women a backdrop to their story. I offered them a place—the sparse and beautiful Spring Valley, Nevada, nestled between the Snake and Schell Creek Mountains—and set them loose on the page. They took what was offered and ran with it, all of them anxious to be heard: Nell, 76, a Spring Valley rancher; Kate, 46, Nell’s daughter and the deputy water resource manager at the Nevada Water Authority; and Cassie, 21, Kate’s daughter, a student at UNLV.

The three of them began talking in earnest and often over the top of one another, but before long, because she couldn’t trust Nell to tell it like it is, Nell’s sister-in-law, Leona, insisted on adding her voice from the older generation. As Leona says about Nell, “Darn near every story that comes outta her mouth has some sorta bend to it that don’t belong there.”

I was curious to hear their stories, curious to know how Kate, who grew up on the ranch in Spring Valley, ended up in her position at the NWA touting a plan that she knew would devastate her mother’s life. What had happened between them? What path led her to a position diametrically opposed to her family and upbringing?

The story that the four women told about family secrets, family lies, family tragedies, and many flawed human decisions that spread and trickled through the place and the people like the water aquifers under their feet, surprised me.

The result is The Ordinary Truth, out in bookstores this month. My intent in writing about ideas such as the pending Las Vegas pipeline, which is still on the table and still moving forward, is not to tell readers how to view it or how to think about it, but simply to get readers to think about it. In other words, I want to bring up questions, not offer answers. I realized in writing this book that the issue of the Las Vegas water pipeline—like most of the environmental urgencies we now face—is extremely complex. It’s not a question of good versus evil, right versus wrong. There are good, sincere people trying to do the right thing on all sides of this issue, and there are no easy answers. The truth—the ordinary truth—is that there may be no answers at all.

In its starred review, Booklist says, “With tough women and sensitive men, desert-dry humor, hot-springs sensuality, heartbreaking secrets, escalating suspense, and a 360-degree perspective on the battle over water, Richman’s twenty-first-century western is riveting, wise, and compassionate.

The phrase in that review that thrills me the most is “a 360-degree perspective on the battle over water.” If we ever hope to stop the assault on our life-giving planet and, in doing so, save ourselves, we cannot afford to operate from our morally righteous pedestals, from our positions of certainty, from our place of first demonizing the opposition before we begin a conversation. What I found while researching this book is that the people who will be most affected by any decision made through power and wealth are often those with the quietest voices on all sides of the issues—not only the small time rancher who will not be able to water her crops and the Goshute tribal member who will not be able to water his livestock, but also the low-wage-earning janitor who sweeps cigarette butts off sidewalks in front of the Bellagio dancing fountains in the city of excess. They might indeed hold wildly divergent points of view from one another, but they often still share a love for their families, a love for their geographical place, a love for humanity in general, and a desire for the single necessity in life they’ve always taken for granted—water.

* * *

If you would like to read more of the story behind The Ordinary Truth, you can find a Q&A here and a book excerpt from The Ordinary Truth here.

The Ordinary Truth is available through your local independent bookstore, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble.

For those of you in Salt Lake City, please join us for a book launch reading and celebration at The Kings English on November 14, at 7 p.m. For those of you in Moab, please join us at Back of Beyond Books on November 30, where I’ll be reading with Erica Olsen, author of the short story collection, Recapture.

For those of you in Escalante, big book release celebration coming up soon! I might as well kick off the party season here in Escalante where we celebrate Thanksgiving, Solstice, Hanukkah, and Christmas all the while pretending Escalante is a sleepy little town that shuts down in the winter when the tourists leave.

In the next few months, I’ll be speaking in Kanab, Utah, and possibly Arizona, Colorado, and Nevada. Events will be posted under “News and Reviews” on this website. I’m happy to visit your book group in person, by phone, or by skype. Please contact me by email at janarich@scinternet.net.

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Comments (6)

    • Jana


      Thanks, Carol. Glad you enjoyed it!


  • Jay Banta


    Jana, what a great piece. Makes me want to jump into the ordinary truth even more.

    You are indeed correct that our issue with the environment will outweigh all others. In just one or two generations, they will simply be in amazement that we cared more about tax breaks or what would happen in Iraq more than we did about climate change.

    Las Vegas, is perhaps the poster child for insane water acquisition, but they far from being alone. Our inability to engage in sustainable resource use in communities is a cancer which consumes more and more resources in an increasingly irresponsible manner every day. But all we can to is point it out. Here in the west, with politician like we have highlighted here in Utah, we can’t seem to manage any more. But as Aldo Leopodd wrote, “We shall never achieve harmony with the land, anymore than we shall achieve absolute justice or liberty for people. In these higher aspirations the important thing is not to achieve but to strive.” So we strive, maybe in vain but not without hope.


    • Jana


      Thanks, Jay. And you are so correct that Las Vegas is just the beginning. That’s what makes this proposition so remarkably short-sighted in my view. If Vegas succeeds in building such a pipeline why not Phoenix? And Tucson? L.A. has already done it. Water pipelines and oil pipelines crisscrossing the nation to meet our insatiable desires! How many people are there in Vegas now, Jay? Two million? And the numbers I’ve seen (don’t know if they are accurate) predict that the pipeline (without Snake Valley) would serve about 150,000 households a year.


  • Bill Crum


    A beautiful, powerful piece. Your book is timely and, I hope, destined for grand success. Thanks.


    • Jana


      Thank you, Bill. Thanks, as always, for reading.


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