Pick of the Issue this week is David Owen’s masterly "Where the River Runs Dry." I say “masterly” because the piece shows a superb journalist at the top of his form, deploying his formidable descriptive and analytical gifts to depict a great river, the Colorado, in crisis. The Colorado, which supplies water to approximately thirty-six million people, irrigates close to six million acres of farmland, and powers the hydroelectric plants at the Hoover and Glen Canyon dams, is over-used, over-allocated, and environmentally degraded. Owen says, “The Colorado’s flow is so altered and controlled that in some ways the river functions more like a fourteen-hundred-mile-long canal.” The piece comprehends hydrology, geography, climate change, agriculture, environmental science, and law. Yet it’s immensely readable, structured as a road trip (“Not long ago, I travelled as much of the Colorado’s length as can be followed in a car. I began near the headwaters, put three thousand miles on three rental cars, and ended, eventually, in northern Mexico, where the Colorado simply runs out”). Along the way, Owen visits farmers, scientists, environmentalists, a manager of a pumping station, an owner of a marina, a lawyer specializing in water law. They talk about the Colorado in terms of “paper water,” “wet water,” “over-allocation,” “beneficial use,” “prior appropriation,” “the Law of the River,” “acre-foot,” “the non-consumed fraction,” “water-banking strategies,” “spreading basins,” “indirect recharge,” “pulse flow” – language that gets at the stark reality of what this once mighty river has become, not really a river at all, but a “dispersed and brachiating resource-distribution system.” “Where the River Runs Dry” is absorbing, memorable, beautifully composed– one of this year's best pieces.
Postscript: This issue is a loaded, layered honeycomb of succulent writing. In addition to Owen’s superb “Where the River Runs Dry,” there’s James Wood’s "All Her Children" (“This is storytelling, with the blood-pulse of lived gossip, that little run-on final sentence bearing witness to its coursing unstoppability”), Peter Schjeldahl’s "Native Soil" (“Her touch delivers the key drama of her art: living in sensuous and suffering flesh”), Anthony Lane’s "High Gear" (“You could tattoo the entirety of Max’s dialogue onto his biceps”), and Ian Frazier’s "Lack of Center" (“London plane trees leaned toward one another over the streets, vying for the light”). Also, check out Ian Allen’s “Goings On About Town” photo of Chastity Belt – it’s a beauty!