Does a River care if it doesn’t get to the Ocean?

 Published in the Mountain Gazette, May 2008

            These are thoughts that have been bouncing around in my head ever since the first time I looked down the East River valley from the ridge between Crested Butte Mountain and Snodgrass Hill, forty years ago this summer. I’d ridden my bicycle up from town, one June afternoon after getting the newspaper out.

            There I found myself looking five hundred feet down a steep slope to a watercourse that I could only see at first as “lost.” A lost river wandering around in loops and bends on a flat, brushy, marshy valley floor, often almost doubling back to where it had just been, a lost river trying to find its way downhill.

            It was so beautiful that I thought maybe it wasn’t really lost at all. It was just dawdling – yes, the river was dawdling, loafing, goofing around – acting like maybe it just didn’t want to leave. And who could blame it, on such a day?

            But that moment was where the question slipped into my mind: what is this water doing?

            We all know that water flows downhill, obeying gravity like all of us, because it’s the law. But what kind of a flow is a river? Ditches, storm sewers and the plumbing in your house are all flows of water too; how are they different from rivers? From an engineering perspective, a river could just be considered a natural storm sewer: more water falls on the land than the land can absorb, and the river carries off the excess.

            But do rivers demonstrate the kind of efficiency that engineers design into effective storm sewers or other forms of plumbing? Look closely at a river at work, and you see a very different behavior.

            When too much water falls too fast for all of it to sink in, or when the land is really steep, the water has no choice but to run off downhill, and here in the mountains there often seems to be a kind of tearing rage to the water. But looked at another way, water running off of steep land does exactly what a human falling out of control on a steep slope would do: it grabs at everything it can to slow and stop its descent. It pulls at dirt, sand, pebbles, twigs and leaves, rocks, trees – and everything that can’t help the water by holding it back is torn loose and carried along with the water.

            But the water only carries its load of debris until the gradient changes enough for it to start dropping the debris in its own path, forcing itself to slow down and find its way through or around its own debris. If the shape and slope of the land don’t allow water to stay with the land, then the water – working as a river, not a storm sewer – gradually rearranges the land until it can, through strategies like the beautiful floodplain I found myself looking down on that day on the road, through which the East River meanders with such consummate grace and beauty.

            It occurred to me that a river allowed to seek its own course will do what it can to alter geography in ways that deter water from leaving the land. All rivers might flow into the sea, as the Biblical philosopher claimed, but there’s evidence in the way they work, that they are in no hurry to do so, and maybe would even rather not.

            But building a floodplain to meander through is a relatively simple strategy for water thwarting gravity and staying with the land. Water’s most complex strategy for staying with the land is life itself. From an elemental perspective, all land-based biological life could be defined as a highly diversified joint strategy between water and earth, to keep water on or in the land. Life, from this elemental perspective, is just a stacking up and connecting of minute water vessels, each filled with a soup of water and dissolved earth-elements; without the water, those vessels are without life; add water and stir, and life stirs.

            So all biological life, in this sense, is a way for water to push back against the pull of gravity – through plants, water actually thrusts itself up directly against gravity, to heights of as much as three hundred feet in the greatest trees. And through us animals, water moves all around the landscape, uphill as well as down, or just stubbornly staying in place. Beavers build dams to back up shallow ponds that gradually fill in with sediment and plant decay, creating rich soggy meadows marrying water and land.

            We humans are products of this marriage of water and mineral earth that have figured out how to stand up and look around, think and dream. A Gunnison Basin rancher told me his dream was to turn his “watershed” into a “catchment basin” – a place where all the water that came into it would stay forever.

That’s unrealistic of course, and even unfair to everyone downstream – but we’ve certainly gone far beyond the beavers in figuring out how to slow the water’s passage from the land, spreading it out over the land to hide out in more plants, pooling it up behind dams far larger than the beavers’ work.

            But there’s also evidence that water doesn’t like to end up in a reservoir behind a dam any more than it wants to get to the ocean – witness the way a river patiently goes to work filling in a reservoir till eventually it can turn the dam into a waterfall. A riverine action that’s similar to what a river does just before it disappears into the ocean, pushing a delta cone out into the ocean as if it were taking on the impossible task of filling the ocean too. Reservoirs and oceans – they’re just big salty waiting rooms, places where water waits till the sun again sucks it up into the great wheeling currents of the sky’s rivers, and carries it out over the land where, again, it creates a river doing whatever it can to dawdle through the land, always moving but as slowly as possible, watering as much as possible, putting off its disappearance into the ocean as long as possible.  

           Something in our own nature makes us think (once we’ve come to take for granted the work its water does for us) that the river would rather run free than be pooled behind a dam. Certainly the aquatic and riparian life systems that grow up in and around moving water would rather see the water moving, and those systems get supplanted by other life systems when it doesn’t; but what of the river itself?

            Water does become something else when a river disappears into the “holding action” of a lake or a reservoir or the oceans. It continues to move around restlessly – the great oceanic currents dwarf even the largest of land rivers – but everything from the way it moves, what drives its movement, and the life it nurtures is different, a different world, and I’ll leave that exploration to Jacques Cousteau or whoever wants it.

            Suffice it to say, for present purposes, rivers disappear in the oceans, and in reservoirs too – die there, in a way; even though water comes out through the dam below the reservoir, it is no longer the same river. For water that has been part of a river, reservoirs and oceans must be like consignment to a waiting room, with the only escape via the sun – being sucked out of the still water and carried out over land to fall again to begin the long process of trying not to go downhill too fast.

            I think of that when, for example, people repeat this truism about the Colorado River: “It’s so heavily used that most years its water never reaches the ocean.” So? Watch the river flow through the land, watch the water at work on its own, and you’ll find no real reason to think that’s a bad thing from the water’s perspective: what’s so great about going into the sea? A big salty waiting room where water waits for the chance to rise up cleansed and pure and again move out onto the land.

            On the other hand, it’s too bad the Colorado River no longer reaches its own delta, just before the sea, with any volume – that beautiful lush oasis of fecundity and diversity Aldo Leopold described for us a century ago, now mostly gone. That was the river’s last hurrah – a delta it kept growing and growing in its unconstrained days, as if it wanted to carry all the land above water down to fill up the whole sea with its land-based freshwater life. And up against the beautiful diversity and intensity of that delta, it is hard to view with a similar joy the extensive but less diverse “delta” over which the river is spread today, from the Phoenix-Tucson area on the east, through the monocultures of western Arizona and the Imperial Valley, to the Los Angeles area on the west. It may be the world’s largest spreading-out of a river’s end, but things may be getting spread a little too thinly there for quality as well as quantity in the life the river waters in that manmade delta.

            That’s a long run in the imagination, from looking down on the East River, high in the Colorado River’s headwaters that sunny soggy spring afternoon forty years ago this summer, to the distant delta of the Colorado – a river that now dies a number of deaths by dam en route, but will someday have resurrected itself, overtopped and removed the dams and recommenced the construction of a delta built from the removal of the Colorado Plateau, and eventually the Rockies. Meanwhile, as water organized to think and dream, I recommend more riparian loafing by moving waters trying not to move through too fast.