I Spend A Lot Of Time Thinking About Water

There’s an interesting piece about water rights in the March 2016 issue of The Atlantic that’s worth your time, especially if you live in the Southwest, which I did and the majority of my tiny readership (most likely) still does. Short version: it might be time to adopt a free market approach to how water rights are managed in the American Southwest. The whole thing is worth a read, but here are a few highlights that I found particularly compelling:

America consumes more water per capita than just about any other country—more than three times as much as China, and 12 times as much as Denmark. People in the driest states use the most: Residents of Arizona each use 147 gallons a day (not counting agricultural water or water used to generate power), compared with just 51 gallons in Wisconsin, largely by filling swimming pools and watering lawns year-round in the desert. This extravagant use continues despite scarcity because water is kept artificially cheap. The water bills that Americans pay cover a mere sliver of the cost of the infrastructure that delivers water to them. Some city users pay $1 for 1,000 gallons. On farms, water is even cheaper. One thousand gallons of agricultural water in western states can cost as little as a few pennies.

Have you read Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water by Marc Reisner? It’s a good read, although you’ll learn more about dams than you ever thought you could possibly wish, but what’s most striking about it is how prescient Reisner was; he wrote about this in 1986, when climate change was still “the greenhouse effect” and acid rain was a really, really big deal. And here we are in 2016 and it’s all going pretty much the way he predicted, which isn’t good.

Back to the article; can the power of the free market fix the water rights problem in the Southwest? Well, I’m not one to argue for “the power of the free market” to fix all of society’s ills, but honestly, I also can’t see how a free market solution could be any worse than what we’re doing now. Give it a shot, I’d say. Let’s see what happens. The environmentalist finds common cause with the libertarian on this issue.

One more excerpt from The Atlantic piece, because I’m a vegetarian and this is my blog and I can tout stuff like this if I wish:

And, of course, growing more food requires more water. In theory, Americans could simply eat less meat: A vast majority of the West’s water is used to produce feed for cattle, and data from Water Footprint Network, a Dutch NGO, show that if Americans gave up meat one day a week, they would save an amount of water equivalent to the entire flow of the Colorado River each year. But that cultural shift might prove even more difficult than reallocating water rights.

The entire flow of the Colorado River each year. Just something to think about.

Where I’ve Been

It’s been quiet on the blog for the past few days. There is a reason for this silence. This past weekend, I went backpacking in the Rincon Mountains with a couple of friends. Now, I’m a pretty experienced backpacker (in my opinion, at least), if not an avid backpacker, since I usually only make it out a couple of times each year. This is important background information.

I’ve been the Rincon Mountains once before and it wasn’t the best experience. At the time, I chalked it up to relative inexperience. I hadn’t been backpacking for several years and during those previous trips, I was always a follower. Everybody I went with had the necessary equipment. All that was really expected of me was that I show up and be able to carry my gear.

My first backpacking trip to the Rincons was difficult for a couple of reasons. First, I lacked some very important gear and second, I grossly miscalculated the water situation and ended up taking three gallons with me for the trip. You can Google the weight of that much water if you didn’t do the math in your head. Now add that number to the weight of a typical pack and you can see why this first venture was doomed before it even started. Perhaps doomed is the wrong word; we did survive the trip, after all.

It’s been a few years since that first effort and I’d completed many more backpacking trips since. I was familiar with my equipment and my needs. I felt comfortable trying out new bits of gear to see what worked. And since I’d been to the Rincons before, I knew the area and what to expect. These were all factors that I felt would guarantee a good trip and if we’re willing to redefine what makes a “good trip,” I suppose I could call it that.

There are two kinds of backpacking trips, in my experience. There are the ones that resemble a nature walk. Your mileage isn’t terribly high or the terrain isn’t terribly rough or both. You don’t really have to push yourself; it’s more about you and nature than any feat of physical endurance.

Then there are the other backpacking trips. The one that seems to be uphill the entire way. The one that burns your leg muscles until they feel like corded steel for days afterwards. The ones that aren’t as comfortable or relaxing as the nature walks, but they’re also the ones that, when it’s over, you can look back on your trip and say, “damn, I really achieved something there.”

This return trip to the Rincons was an achievement trip.

It started out well enough. We got an early start and the weather seemed cool enough. The problems didn’t develop until we were well underway.

1st problem: half my water supply leaked out in the first few hours.

I’d planned on bringing 6 liters of water for that day, with a resupply at the camp site. So imagine my surprise when I found that my 3 liter Osprey was already empty after only a few hours. Maybe I’d been drinking more than I realized? It wasn’t until I saw the puddle collecting in the bottom of my pack that I realized I had a major leak. That was bad. Now, instead of having six liters of water with me, I had three. Not good.

2nd problem: the “mountain spring” did not live up to its name.

This is a mountain spring.

This is not a mountain spring.

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Care to guess which one we drank from?

Fortunately, my water filter did its job well enough and prevented horrible giardia infections. Still, it was pretty gross to expect the flowing stream that I’d encountered on my previous hike and be confronted with a stagnant puddle that challenged me to relive all the best Survivorman episodes I’d ever watched. Even when I resupplied our water, I was still down to 50% of my intended carrying capacity, which meant I was running on empty almost immediately on the second day.

Anyway, this all added up to the fact that water was a huge issue for me during the entire trip and as a result, I was rocking a pretty good case of heat exhaustion and dehydration by the end of the trip, which contributed to my overall bleak mood. I’m glad that we toughed out the trip and I did have a good time. But it was more a result from what I achieved and was subjected to, rather than the aforementioned nature walk.

I’d be willing to tackle the Rincons again; I’ve yet to make it beyond the first camp and I want to see what else is out there. I have a feeling that there’s some pretty beautiful scenery hidden beyond its craggy borders. But for the meantime, I think the next trip will be something nice and restorative at good old Aravaipa Canyon.