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Where the Water Goes: Life and Death Along the Colorado River

3.93  ·  Rating details ·  2,044 ratings  ·  346 reviews
A brilliant, eye-opening account of where our water comes from and where it all goes

The Colorado River is a crucial resource for a surprisingly large part of the United States, and every gallon that flows down it is owned or claimed by someone. David Owen traces all that water from the Colorado's headwaters to its parched terminus, once a verdant wetland but now a millio
Hardcover, 288 pages
Published April 11th 2017 by Riverhead Books
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Average rating 3.93  · 
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 ·  2,044 ratings  ·  346 reviews

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Max Carmichael
Jun 29, 2017 rated it did not like it
As a rural Westerner who writes about his home and stomping grounds, and who shares his writing for free on his blog, I always find it disheartening that the East Coast-based publishing industry habitually elevates Eastern urban writers as experts on rural Western subjects.

Momentarily forgetting this, I picked up Owen's book at the local library, only to encounter, in the first few pages, characters from Harvard, Yale, and a dazzling array of national organizations based in Washington, DC, from
May 19, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2017-reads
So interesting. The sort of book I have always wanted to read about the Colorado River and the West's water situation. Like a supplement and update to Marc Reisner's Cadillac Desert. ...more
A fascinating and sobering look at the Colorado River's flow, starting in Colorado, and ending at the former (now non-existant) delta in Mexico. Owen travels through time and space, spending less ink on the geology of the river's formation over millions of years, and much more on the engineering and the legal battles that has dramatically changed the region within the last 100 years.

The book is structured as a report, and there is very little literary interjection, aside from a few descriptions
Mar 10, 2018 rated it liked it
Generic and pedestrian overview of the Colorado River and the Law of the River by a journalist/book writer who writes on a variety of topics. It’s a good introduction to someone with little to no knowledge. I’ve studied water law and policy a crap ton, have read all the classics, worked in that field, and written an academic paper on it, so I’m not the audience for this book. I will say I did like the updates on the topic, as I haven’t kept my knowledge super current.

Even if you are new to this
Dec 30, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: science

The Colorado River—which used to be known as the Grand River, hence the name of the city of Grand Junction (the Colorado River intersects the Gunnison River)—is kind of like the “American Nile,” as the author puts it. Its basin covers a huge portion of the American West.

Still, you might think that if you don’t live in Colorado—or one of the surrounding states that fall within the Colorado River Basin, like Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, California
Peter Tillman
This book would have been of more interest had I not known quite a lot about the topic. Since I did, and his retelling was just OK, I quit & returned it. He's a visitor to the area, and his knowledge (and writing) seemed pretty shallow. Definitely not my pick for a Colorado River book. Try CADILLAC DESERT instead. ...more
Sep 03, 2019 rated it really liked it
A valiant and ultimately successful attempt to make sense of an issue that makes no sense: Water law in the American West.
Mar 25, 2020 rated it it was ok
Shelves: non-fiction
This was nonfiction and it covers exactly what the title says. So given that, I'm not sure what I was expecting with this one, but it turned out to be just okay. It was kind of bland. I live in the area covered in this book and I benefit from the this water so I thought I would be really into this....but I wasn't. There was an important message here so I appreciated that but I was so glad that it was a short book. So 2 stars. ...more
Sep 07, 2022 rated it liked it
Shelves: listen
By the time I realized I rented the wrong audiobook at the library, I was three hours in and it was too late. This book exacerbated my environmental anxiety as it was basically a personalized tour of all the cities I have lived in running out of water - Carlsbad, Sacramento, and Denver - but apart from that, it was fine and waters nice.
Jun 20, 2018 rated it really liked it
If you enjoy the high-caliber writing of The New Yorker, then you may enjoy this book, with its stretched-out and leisurely pace from the headwaters to its mouth. Although I enjoy The New Yorker, this book drags through too many side trips and personal anecdotes, reading like a travelogue with facts, figures and information along the way. This book began as an article for The New Yorker.

A hundred years ago, the Colorado River, north of its confluence with the Green in Eastern Utah, was called t
Aug 01, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This is such a fascinating look at the strength and fragility of the Colorado river and how it's used as it flows from the mountains to Mexico. I learned so much, and have had most of my basic assumptions about water conservation turned upside down.

A few things I would like to have learned more about:

-the impact of oil and gas on our western water supply. It's mentioned briefly in passing, but not much information. Maybe this should be another book.

-I would have liked to have learned more about
Sep 08, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
A fun travelogue and discussion of the history of water regulation and water rights along the Colorado River Basin. While it identifies key concerns about future water security, the book is at times superficial, especially about river science, and lacks helpful visuals and endnotes/citations.
Mar 31, 2018 rated it liked it
I revere the Colorado River as a god, and the Colorado Plateau and its accompanying geologic wonders as its temples, so this was the opposite of the kind of book I would love, but still interesting if you care about water in the West, and I do. I knew, moving here, that I was stressing out an arid, sere environment that is wholly dependent on snow pack and abundant precipitation, but it is home now. My nomad heart found its home, and I hope I can give back to my now home. I do miss the lush gree ...more
Sibel  Rac
Sep 24, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Wish more people would read this!
Denver Public Library
The Colorado River, originally known as the Grand River (hence the names "Grand Canyon" and "Grand Junction"!), is an important water source for a large part of the United States. In Where the Water Goes, Owen discusses water shortage problems stemming from the river and how they are not as simple as turning off outdoors fountains, stopping selling hay, banning golf, or cutting down trees. Digging into the water laws of Colorado and the surrounding states, and analyzing the history around those ...more
Kerri Anne
This book starts strong enough, with sobering lines like: "Eighty percent of Colorado’s precipitation falls on the western half of the state, yet eighty-five percent of the population lives to the east, in the mountains’ 'rain shadow.' If transporting water from one side to the other were impossible, most of the people who live and farm on the eastern side of the mountains would have to move."

And: "'Even people who describe themselves as worried environmentalists usually have no idea where their
Richard Thompson
Apr 26, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: general-science
This book is a complicated combination of general science, ecology, law and sociology. I learned a lot about how the water of the Colorado River is used, reused, diverted and abused. It's not a simple story of good and evil. Somtimes it turns out that waste causes unexpected ancillary benefits or that seemingly greedy uses cause little damage as they return most of their water back to the system. Generally good practices have good results, so you can't use the anecdotal stories about good coming ...more
Kayla Rakita
Jan 18, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I live in Phoenix, and though I’ve come into contact with the Colorado River at many different points along its flow, I knew embarrassingly little about the status of the river (spoiler: its over-allocated) and the journey it takes, even though I use water from it every day. I’ve driven through the Hoover Dam dozens of times and never cared, and after reading this book, I can’t wait to drive to Las Vegas again so I can take a tour of it. I learned so much reading this. It was a brilliant idea fo ...more
An interesting look at water issues, particularly as they relate to the Colorado River and the Southwest US. Most of the book feels like more of a travelogue than an in-depth look at the environment, science, or cultural history. And all those elements are combined with Owen's travels and stories of the people he met or places he saw while researching the book, although it sometimes felt a little tedious to me. The strongest part is probably the final chapter, "What is to be done?", where he loo ...more
Aug 15, 2019 rated it really liked it
As a resident of Arizona for 25 years now I have often heard "well you people in Az. are using all of our water from the Colorado River to water your lawns and fill your pools."

Well I read the book and I am here to say it AIN'T so!
In 1922 an agreement was made by the powers to be that the water from the Colorado Rivers flow should be allotted to the seven states it flowed through. The Upper Basin states were Wyo. Colorado, Utah and New Mexico getting the larger portions; the Lower Basin states w
Kristy Miller
The Colorado River feeds the ground and economy of much of the western United States. And more than every ounce of it is spoken for. The use of the river is based on an almost 100 year old document, The Colorado River Compact. This compact allocates use among 7 states in the Colorado River Basin, and is based on what we now know to be unusually high water and rainfall levels. Add to that the booming population of the western United States in the last 100 years and we find ourselves on the verge ...more
Jul 21, 2020 rated it liked it
Mostly for the novice interested rivers. A bit shallow, pardon the pun. We who live in Colorado harbor a secret distaste for all those water grabbing states to our west. I want to yell: "get your own water." ...more
Jul 01, 2022 rated it really liked it
Fantastic discussion of the baffling and fascinating issues surrounding the Colorado River. I thought much of this would be a review for me, but was pleased to learn a lot of new facts and tidbits throughout. I'm definitely going to be returning to this in the future when I discuss the Colorado River in my intro to environmental science course. ...more
Sep 09, 2022 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A well written, sobering story of The Colorado River and it’s importance of water in the West. Even though our water status is much dire now than when this book was written,
it explains water laws that make no sense and the history of water diversion in the West.
Sydney Doidge
Aug 11, 2021 rated it really liked it
I really enjoyed that I felt I was exposed to all types of perspectives, every pitfall to "easy" or "straightforward" solutions and what the future of water on the Colorado might look like. ...more
Jun 03, 2018 rated it liked it
It was an engaging read about the Colorado River and managed not to be too apocalyptic. I didn't love the book's tone. The author wrote with an almost safari-like attitude, as if he was trekking down the Colorado out of bravado. There was excessive nostalgia for the days of American pioneerism and a weird macho undertone (bragging about swimming the Rio Grande and backpacking the Rockies in his younger days) that I found off-putting. But I learned a fair amount about the Colorado so overall it w ...more
Arjun Boddu
May 17, 2022 rated it really liked it
I know where the water goes
Aug 06, 2018 rated it really liked it
I found this to be one of the better environmental books I've read over the past few years. Water law is seemingly esoteric, but of course every single person in the world depends on water. I'm grateful to turn on my tap and get water whenever I want, but I know that is a luxury not even afforded everyone in my state (CA).

David Owen does his research and presents it in a readable way (with not a few so-crazy-they-can-only-be-true facts regarding water allocation), bringing us on a journey from b
Matt Bender
This book is sort of an ethnography of the Colorado River and it’s watershed. Owens follows the geography and the history of development along the River. The book covers some interesting topics like The Law of the River, pollution and some adventure stories (a few of them fictionalized well in Tea Obreht’s novel Inland like the Sonoran camels), and a lot of industry, property rights, state politics and Infrastructure development. I enjoyed the chapters on constructing the Hoover Dam (in a way Ow ...more
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“Water problems in the western United States, when viewed from afar, can seem tantalizingly easy to solve: all we need to do is turn off the fountains at the Bellagio, stop selling hay to China, ban golf, cut down the almond trees, and kill all the lawyers.” 1 likes
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