Being Green in the West

There is a house on 1300 East in Salt Lake City that has a powerful draw for me. It has large expanses of green lawn, both in front and stretching back behind it to what looks like beautiful green gardens and shrubbery. It feels like home, even as I drive by and catch just a tiny glimpse of it.

But as an environmentalist in the West, being drawn to that beautiful green place, even coveting it for my own, is truly a dichotomy. After all, as Patty Limerick said at this week’s Stegner Symposium, the environmental movement in the west should not so much be called green, as brown.

There are many colors that make up the palette of Mother Nature in the West. Green has a minor role, and is usually quite pale and pastel. Much more prominent are tones of red, gold, brown, gray, and blue. The colors of the spectacular vistas of the west have little room for green.

Water is such an intrinsic part of who we are, and perhaps we must surround ourselves with its byproducts, namely lush green lawns and bushes, and even water features such as ponds and fountains, so that we can feel secure in an otherwise hostile and waterless environment.

We evolved in the lush green jungles of the world, thrived and grew as a civilization in the green expanses of Africa, Europe, and Asia. We staked our places on the banks of lakes, rivers and oceans and the lush green countrysides bountifully watered by the skies. Only much more recently have we begun to find our places in the desert, where storms are sporadic, brief, and powerful, and evaporation extreme.

It would seem that living in such a hostile environment would breed an appreciation for water…even a religious fervor for it. But somehow, we in the west have managed to ignore the precarious nature of what little water we have.

With so many environmental issues pressing on our minds, it is hard to prioritize where our focus should lie. But if I learned anything at the Stegner Symposium these past few days, it is that every issue in the West, and indeed worldwide, that we can imagine either affects or is affected by water. Climate change will affect water. Power production is affected by water. What we do each day in our showers and with our lawns affects our neighbors both upstream and down. It is not an issue that can easily be overlooked…indeed, it is a life and death issue in the arid West.

I was also privileged to hear a speech from Pat Mulroy, the controversial head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which has proposed various water projects and has many people up in arms around the west. The conservation methods that have been undertaken both in Las Vegas and other major cities in the West, such as Phoenix, are inspiring. But it is not enough for just a few cities, or even just for the major urban centers, to conserve water. It is essential that all people in the west rid their minds of the idea that water is abundant and theirs for the taking, and begin conserving everywhere from the banks of the Colorado to the edges of the Great Basin, to the small towns of backcountry Wyoming. We must take a larger view of the water supply in the west, no matter where we live or how many people surround us.

We must change our hearts and minds when it comes to green. In a land of so many colors, we must let go of our ancestral affinity to the color that is most harmful in the West. We must embrace brown, gold, gray, red, orange, and blue.

We must change the message of environmentalism in the West. Through our water conservation actions, through the rethinking of water systems in the west, through innovative ideas and approaches to water use and conservation, we must fight together for the browning of the west, and the embracing of a new life in the desert.

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