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Killing the Hidden Waters

Killing the Hidden Waters

The costs and limits of using natural resource, demonstrated through a simple example: water.

Series: Environmental Studies Endowment (NEH)

January 1985
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206 pages | 6 x 9 | 36 b&w illus. |

In the quarter-century since his first book, Killing the Hidden Waters, was published in 1977, Charles Bowden has become one of the premier writers on the American environment, rousing a generation of readers to both the wonder and the tragedy of humanity's relationship with the land.

Revisiting his earliest work with a new introduction, "What I Learned Watching the Wells Go Down," Bowden looks back at his first effort to awaken people to the costs and limits of using natural resources through a simple and obvious example—water. He drives home the point that years of droughts, rationing, and even water wars have done nothing to slake the insatiable consumption of water in the American West. Even more timely now than in 1977, Killing the Hidden Waters remains, in Edward Abbey's words, "the best all-around summary I've read yet, anywhere, of how our greed-driven, ever-expanding urban-industrial empire is consuming, wasting, poisoning, and destroying not only the resource basis of its own existence, but also the vital, sustaining basis of life everywhere."

  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction (2003)
  • Part One
    • 1. The lay of the land
      • Yield
      • Place
      • People
    • 2. Stick
      • People
      • Food
      • Way
      • Dreams
    • 3. Shovel
    • 4. Tractor
      • Gila River
      • Papaguería
    • 5. Conquest
      • The last cut
  • Part Two
    • 1. Pump
      • Grass
      • Wind
      • Fossil
      • Plan
  • Part Three
    • 1. Taking Care of Business
      • Concentration and energy cost
      • The debate
      • Look again
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Charles Bowden lives and writes in Tucson, Arizona. His recent books include Down by the River: Drugs, Money, Murder, and Family, Blues for Cannibals: Notes from Underground, Blood Orchid: An Unnatural History of America, and Desierto: Memories of the Future.



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I'll tell you where I went wrong.

The faucet in the kitchen always becomes the reality we believe, and the periodic droughts, one of which for much of the nineties has savaged the West, remain a fantasy. This happens each and every day as the water roars from the faucet and the skies remain dangerously blue. We believe in the immediate moment and decide the future can and will magically take care of itself. When I wrote this book more than a quarter-century ago, I figured it would function as a primer on resources and thought water was the easiest one to understand—easy both for the reader and for myself. Water runs downhill, is delivered by the solar energy of the sun in clouds, is heavy and thus expensive to move around whether it means lifting it from a well or pumping it uphill through a canal or aqueduct. Whatever the technical complications of hydrology, water itself remains simple for human beings to grasp. So I thought if we could grasp something as visible and familiar as water, we could provide ourselves with a mental template for comprehending the costs and limits of other resources, especially more irksomely difficult types to fathom such as fossil fuels, or air, or minerals, or forests, or nitrogen in the dirt under our feet.

Also, I imagined that looking at water would provide a harsh physical lesson in the cost of concentrating and moving materials, that the sheer weight of water, eight pounds to the gallon, would make us stop and think about how precious such resources truly are. I had this hope that this simple lesson would make us appreciate things like petroleum, a fuel concentrated from organic material over a long period of time, as opposed to sunlight, a free-falling energy so dilute that the average person can spend the day under this cascade of energy with no harm. And I thought that this obvious lesson from water would lead to an understanding of the merits of conserving resources.

I must have been smoking devil weed. I did not foresee a world where my own culture, that of the United States, would cheerfully pay the price of a 1977 house simply for a car as the new millennium creaks along. Nor did I foresee a future where an almost exploding population and a growing pressure on oil reserves would father a society where half the new cars on the road would be four-wheel chariots with miserable gas mileage. I failed to anticipate that rising water rates in the western United States—as the largely arid and semi-arid region grew in population—would have absolutely no influence in limiting that population.

In short, I'd failed to take heed of the very core thesis of this little book, and that thesis is that resource problems are almost always cultural problems and not the result of scarcity. Cultures change very slowly—witness our own—and altering their behavior is akin to stopping a supertanker on the ocean, a task that takes over two miles. And I'd failed to pay proper attention to two key notions from the science of ecology. One, Lotka's principle of maximum power from the 1920s, which in a nutshell says that systems expand to devour the maximum power available. In short, a city, for example, grows until it consumes everything it can find to sustain its growth and very existence. The carpet of imperial cities in Southern California is a physical monument to this idea. The second idea I failed to give enough credit to is the ecological idea that systems, such as our American culture for example, are open to energy, meaning in this instance consumption, and yet largely closed to ideas, such as conservation.

Of course, we have made gestures toward conservation—in the water area we have had an epidemic of low-flow toilets, water-miser shower heads, and the like—but none of these efforts have been based on reaching a sustainable rate of consuming water. We have, in many areas, lowered the per capita consumption of water, but due to population increases we have increased the overall consumption of water. We have robbed Peter to pay Paul, stolen from the future to sustain the lusty appetites of the present.

The only time we truly learn something is when we are wrong, and so in the quarter-century since this book was published, I've been treated to a first-class education. But I think over time this small tract will prove accurate, regardless of my own misbegotten hopes in the past. And by this claim I mean that the finite nature of resources will come increasingly into play and limit our ambitions and appetites. Signs of this already appear in the growing western water wars and in the movement of rich speculators to tie up and hold hostage water reserves in the hopes that they can earn a rich ransom from water-starved cities. For example, huge water speculations are now going on in the High Plains of west Texas in the hopes that Dallas, Fort Worth, and other growing cities will eventually pay huge fees for water relief. Just as, increasingly, the United States creeps toward foreign wars in order to ensure a steady supply of petroleum for its fossil-fuel-dependent culture.

So, wrong as I have been in the past, I'll still stick to my guns. When I wrote this book I stated that the reality of resources being finite and expensive to acquire is a handwriting that has always been on the wall. This is still true. But now this message is being written in increasingly larger letters as our global population zooms toward ten billion and as third world economies become increasingly industrial and compete for the dwindling supplies offered by water wells and oil wells and forests and coal beds and fisheries and so forth.

And I still believe that in the end, resource problems are cultural, and that the only real answers must come from within cultures, not simply from finding more resources. Giving some new source of water to a city in the American West, for example, is akin to sending a case of whisky to an alcoholic. It does not solve a problem—it simply puts it off for a spell. In a way, it is like money. The more money a person has, the more money a person is likely to spend, but regardless of the cash flow the fundamental joys and miseries of human existence continue and, as they always tell us, money can't buy us love. Cheap and abundant resources can't solve our problems—they simply allow us to devour things for a spell and then the original problem returns with larger dimensions thanks to increased human numbers.

When I wrote this book, I lived in Tucson, Arizona, and still do. The state in the year of the book's publication had 2,427,000 people. By the year 2001, Arizona held 5,307,331 souls. In the intervening years, the net amount of water in the state declined as people, such as myself, guzzled the waters of the ancient aquifers and made increasing raids on the dying rivers of the region. Other states in the West behaved in exactly the same way. So after a quarter-century of what humans amusingly call progress, there is less water at a higher price and more people dependent on this declining amount of water.

We can ignore these facts. We can pretend these facts do not matter. But in the end, they will slap us in the face and we will have to snap alert. And this slap may come from our kitchen faucet, or from the pump at the gas station, or from the electricity thrumming into our homes, or from the supermarket or from our local lumberyard. But it will come.

The schedule of this moment can never be accurately predicted. But its arrival is as certain as sunrise. Or the bills that tumble toward us each month through the mail.

And these bills grow as our numbers and appetites expand.

Welcome to the future, the place that will make us face the experiences of our past.