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Dam Nation: How Water Shaped the West and Will Determine Its Future Hardcover – June 5, 2012

4.5 out of 5 stars 32 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Review

Kirkus Reviews

A concerned, observant “citizen of the West” spins tales of our chronic mismanagement of the only natural resource for which there’s no alternative: water.

The American West’s relentless aridity doomed civilizations for centuries. Nevertheless, thanks to gold fever, Manifest Destiny and the railroads, the Great American Desert began filling up with people, entirely, it seems, without regard for limits to expansion imposed by the lack of precipitation. Today, we know better than to think “rain follows the plow,” but we don’t appear even close to developing a water sustainability program to keep cities like Las Vegas, Denver and Phoenix from drying up. Claiming no special expertise—indeed, the West’s water story cuts across too many disciplines for even specialists to wholly absorb—Grace (Shanghai: Life, Love and Infrastructure in China's City of the Future, 2010, etc.) has nevertheless traveled widely and read broadly. He effectively, even humorously at times, captures the highlights of the West’s liquid history: the engineering wonders (and unintentional consequences) of New Deal–era dam projects; the tortuous web of law, regulations, treaties and compacts that govern Western water rights; and the political, bureaucratic and industrial power grabs that have accompanied all reclamation projects. The author covers a lot of territory: geologist John Wesley Powell’s prescient observations and recommendations for watershed communities; the hydro-skullduggery that accounts for the city of Los Angeles; the winding tale of the Colorado, “the world’s most heavily litigated river”; the ongoing depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer; the rise and demise of the Bureau of Reclamation; the industrial and agricultural tainting of our water; and our meager efforts to conserve or create more by desalination and cloud seeding. Westerners long accustomed to the region’s water scarcity will discover nothing new here, but Grace’s dispatches will likely strike those east of the 100th meridian as from another country.

Though squarely on the side of environmental prudence, Grace is neither preachy nor accusatory in his descriptions of an impending tragedy and the need for action.

ForeWord Reviews

No one reading this book will ever look at a glass of water the same way again—especially if they live in the West.
 
Water determined how the West was settled and populated and, as the author graphically chronicles, will influence how this massive western third of the United States will be challenged in the future. As the mountain snowpack diminishes, thriving cities and communities must prudently reassess their water needs and practices and control their own supplies, especially those in sun belt states and arid zones.
 
Stephen Grace presents an engaging, easily palatable crash-course in the complex history of water in the West. Many factors are at work—politics, railroads, agriculture, city-building, mining, recreation, and the energy industry—making water rights a complex issue as the rivers flow southward.
--Karl Kunkel

In his most recent book, Dam Nation: How Water Shaped the West and Will Determine its Future, Grace acts as both poet of Western wilderness and a knowledgeable translator of water policy.

High Country News

From the Inside Flap

During the frenzied days of early emigration and expansion in the West, running out of water was rarely a concern, and the dam-building fever that transformed the map of the region in the twentieth century filled empty spaces with cities and farms. Today, metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Denver are desperate with thirst. These cities are growing explosively, but water supplies are dwindling. Scientists agree that the region is heating up and drying out, leading to future water shortages that will expose the startling fragility of civilization in the western United States.
 
Dam Nation looks first to the past, to the stories of explorers venturing into a forbidding wilderness, gold miners and farmers devising arcane laws to govern water use, and pioneers struggling to settle the "Great American Desert." Next, it delves into an era of technological mastery that fulfilled the nation's dream of taming wild rivers, and finally it tackles the on-going legal and moral battles over water in the West. Author Stephen Grace weaves the facts into a compelling narrative that informs, entertains, and tells an important story.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 360 pages
  • Publisher: Globe Pequot (June 5, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0762770651
  • ISBN-13: 978-0762770656
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.3 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (32 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,498,739 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Stephen Grace studied novel writing with Stratis Haviaras, founding editor of Harvard Review, while caretaking a house where the poet T.S. Eliot lived. After his first novel was published, Grace moved to a trailer park in Laramie, Wyoming, in the wake of the Matthew Shepard murder, to work with at-risk youth and research a novel. To publish a book about the historical cartography of Colorado, he collaborated with Library of Congress curators and with Vincent Virga, called "America's foremost picture editor." To research a narrative nonfiction book about China he sought out experiences as diverse as photographing skyscrapers in Shanghai and trail running in Tibet. To write DAM NATION: HOW WATER SHAPED THE WEST AND WILL DETERMINE ITS FUTURE, a Colorado Book Award finalist, he followed rivers west of the 100th meridian and charted currents throughout the region's history. Grace served as a consultant for the film DamNation, and he was an associate producer and the screenwriter for THE GREAT DIVIDE film. He is also the author of THE GREAT DIVIDE, a companion book to the film. While writing GROW: STORIES FROM THE URBAN FOOD MOVEMENT, he worked on a repurposed garbage truck in the alleyways of Denver and volunteered on a farm in Uganda. In his latest book, OIL AND WATER, Grace teams up with an oilman to tell the story of the upper Colorado River, a resource under siege.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
While I was reading the first few chapters of this book, I was really captivated. You wouldn't think that a book on dams, or even on water in the American West, would be of much interest to the general reader, but this book is lyrical, elegant, and quite fascinating. The building of massive dams is described as both works of engineering genius and also as acts of hubris. The American West is an arid land, west of the 100th parallel is basically not suited to agriculture, and yet the west has become the breadbasket of America and the world, due to water works of amazing complexity. And yet, how sustainable is this? What is lost in all this?

However, as the book went on, it did become a bit tedious. Once the point is made, the facts of further developments are not all that fascinating.

As an easterner who now lives in Los Angeles, I am part of the problem. I want my landscape to resemble what seems "natural" to me, which means green. Nothing about my home is designed to conserve water--the water heater is outdoors and I must run the water for 5 minutes before the water in the shower is warm, and all that potable water goes down the drain. When it rains, water pours down drains and into the ocean.

I am not pessimistic, however. I can see many ways that water can be used more efficiently, if the need is felt (if the price demands it!) Long before we build desalination plants, we can reuse grey water in every home and re-imagine our lawns and gardens.

In any case, this is a well-written book and worth the time and attention of anyone who lives west of the 100th meridian (the Oklahoma/Texas panhandle border.
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Format: Hardcover
I have to admit that I was water illiterate before reading this book. The author did something truly amazing by taking a very complex topic and turned it into something very digestible to the common person. Anyone who lives in the western U.S. should read this book. Water truly is our most precious resource and I'll never look at a glass of water the same way after reading Dam Nation. I live close to Boulder, CO and Steve Grace is becoming my favorite local author.
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Format: Hardcover
Stephen Grace covers a lot of ground with Dam Nation written for the laymen in an engaging style, though perhaps a bit florid on occasion (nothing too intolerable). He discusses the surprisingly complex irrigation efforts of early Indian civilizations in Arizona and those of the pioneers, the Law of the River and its emphasis on priority to early users, and then the more complex dam building and water projects built by the Bureau of Reclamation, Corps of Engineers, and various cities, notably Los Angeles.

The author's overriding theme is that the west is mostly dry, that it could not support the farms or urban populations it does today without the massive federal expenditure on water projects (in a land of rugged individualists), and that continued population growth in the west will mean less water for agriculture and more for cities, but that too will play out resulting in disaster.

All this may be true. Mr. Grace is quite critical of the go-go view of many western states and cities and their emphasis on growth and development. He advocates that states should not be allowed to grow beyond what their water resources can accommodate. It brought to my mind a question not addressed in the book. Certainly many western states sought to attract industry and population (often with lower taxes and less regulation) in an effort to create jobs. Why else would a semiconductor company locate a water intensive plant in New Mexico rather than Wisconsin or Minnesota? A blue state/red state thing.

This goes on today. That begs an interesting question. Should environmentalists in the west argue that northern and eastern states should implement policies (lower taxes and less regulation) that would keep industry from wanting to leave their home bases, thus lessening the number of people who are migrating from the wetter north to the drier west?

I'm a bit stingy with stars, but Dam Nation is a worthwhile read. Plenty to think about.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is so good I sent one to my college student grandson who is interested in history and I have already received a positive comment from him - and I have purchased two more for sharing! My copy will be protected with my life!

I spent a period of my life when I was fighting the "water wars" in a small town of Arizona where they were doing land trades and developing way beyond their water supply, so I know how important this book is!

I also grew up in a small town in Oregon that, when I was a child, had floods every winter that prevented us from getting anywhere except our neighbors house. This problem was solved later when they put a dam on the McKenzie River, so I know personally how dams can be a good thing when used properly.

This book should be required reading in every school, and "my mind is made up" adults should be encouraged to read it as well.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Fascinating account of the history of water in the west. Interestingly told, Holds your interest to the very last page. Stephen Grace's prediction of the water supply for parts of the west, should be taken seriously by those who live in those states, There just isn't going be any water.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I'm in Seattle, it's August, and it's pouring rain outside as I type. I wish we could channel this to the arid regions that this book focuses on! (Not really. After reading this book, I understand that it's this kind of thinking that got us into the mess we're in.)

Who would've thought a 360 page book about water could be so good? Even before I bought Dam Nation, I figured I'd read about half of it before tiring of the message. But Grace keeps it entertaining throughout with many tales of the wasteful mismanagement of our country's water supply in the desert regions. We're in quite a mess. The central character of the book is the Colorado River, and all the hands that fight over the rights to suck it dry. I remember reading Jon Krakauer's "Into the Wild" several years ago, and thinking that the guy in that book was a complete idiot because he couldn't manage to follow a river to the ocean without losing the river first. Now I understand. There's no river left by the time it gets there. It's truly amazing how humans have altered the water landscape of the West, pumping water over the continental divide, creating and removing very large lakes, changing the course of major rivers. This book lays it all out in plain, entertaining fashion. Highly recommended.
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