Supply and Demand

Alumni3 MIN READ

For Heather Hansman, a river tells the story of water and climate

By Stephen Collins ’74
June 9, 2019

As the climate in the Colorado River basin trends hotter and drier in the 21st century, demand for water across southwestern states continues growing.

Heather Hansman ’05
Downriver: Into the Future of Water in the West
University of Chicago Press (2019)

Parched farms, water-intensive oil and gas fields, thirsty cities, river ecology managers and preservationists, and a growing outdoor recreation economy compete for water from the Colorado and its tributaries under an arcane and unrealistically generous system of water rights and permits established in an earlier, wetter era. Inflows to Lake Powell, downstream near the Utah-New Mexico border, were 2 percent of normal in August 2018, and in September that dropped to 1 percent.

It’s as clear as an alpine spring: there isn’t enough to go around.

Heather Hansman ’05—who moved west after Colby to make her living on Colorado rivers and then earned a master’s in journalism with a focus on the environment—recognized the magnitude and complexity of the looming crisis and put her diverse skills to work. For Downriver: Into the Future of Water in the West she immersed herself—literally, paddling more than 600 miles from the source of the Green River to its confluence with the Colorado, and figuratively, diving into water policy debates to seek out disparate voices and opinions along the way.

Building a narrative around her downstream progress, she combines lyrical descriptions of the river running through high deserts and breathtaking canyons with the emotional freight of a woman often traveling alone through cowboy country and remote wilderness.

But the heart of the book is the inevitable conflict over priorities when there’s not enough of a resource to go around. Who will survive? The rancher whose family has for 100 years diverted water to irrigate 2,000 acres to raise cattle? Or endangered native species of fish that are a bellwether for the health of the river ecosystem? What about thirsty cities, including Denver and Salt Lake, where urban growth requires more H2O? Or industries hoping to develop some of the most significant gas fields in the country?

Trying, as a journalist, to ignore her own preconceptions, Hansman found that talking to real people along the way “really confronted my own assumptions about what was good and what was the right thing to do,” she said. “It was trying to be open to the facts, which is really hard, thinking about things that impact everyone’s livelihood.”

Expect no pat answers in Downriver. “Just because someone’s perspective is different than yours, it’s not necessarily wrong,” she said. “These people have these longtail reasons for why they’re doing what they’re doing.”

From skier to outdoors writer: Read the Colby Climate profile of Heather Hansman ’05.