Author speaks of water crisis in Southwest

November 19, 2018
Lexie Alexopoulos

Melissa L. Sevigny speaks to a crowd at Saint Michael’s about her books on the recent water crisis in the Southwest United States.

Melissa L. Sevigny is the author of two nonfiction books, Mythical River: Chasing the mirage of new water in the American Southwest and Under Desert Skies: How Tucson mapped the way to the moon and planets. On November 5, Saint Michael’s College students had the honor of hearing her speak in the Farrell Room about her first novel, Mythical River.

Sevigny’s talk began with a story she heard in 2011 while studying environmental science & policy at the University of Arizona. Before the West was colonized, Spanish explorers stumbled upon the Mythical River, which they believed flowed west. A map of the fictitious river made its way into the hands of Thomas Jefferson and was used as a guide for people who sought “Manifest Destiny” — the 19th-century doctrine or belief that the expansion of the U.S. throughout the American continents was both justified and inevitable. Travelers were told that all they needed when they reached the Great Salt Lake were boat building supplies, and then they could just float all the way to California’s San Francisco Bay. After presenting this wild story to the audience, Sevigny explained that her book sprouted from this tall tale, which she used as a metaphor for how the West deals with water.

Sevigny’s book followed one deeply problematic question: Where are we going to get new water for the West? Through her exploration of this question, Sevigny came to the harsh reality that new water does not work. She explained that “there is no such thing as new water, there is only someone else’s water.” Having grown up in the desert of Tucson, Arizona, Sevigny stated that she “grew up with the idea that water has to come from far away.” In Tucson, water with the help of a coal power plant is pumped 300 miles uphill from the Colorado River. Sevigny didn’t claimed to have the perfect or ideal solutions to the pressing water issues of the West, although, there was one thing she seems to know for sure: Fossil-fuel-powered water transportation is not the answer.

The closest solution to the West’s water crisis, Sevigny explained, was actually inspired by the East Coast. Local wise use of water was the alternative she came up with through her many years of research. She believes that “local water has to work,” and she no longer lives in Arizona because there isn’t enough local water to support the population, she said.

Sevigny closed her talk with the question “why is this important?” — and her answer appeared to shock the audience. She didn’t tell student that her book and research was important because it is helping save the planet — unstead, she explained that “there are water problems in wet and green places too,” and the root is disconnection. “We are disconnected from people and place,” said Sevigny. What she really wants is reconnection, and her last remarks urged the audience to “go out and get to know a river.”

The talk “Mythical River: The Mirage of New Water in the American Southwest” was funded by the Marc and Dana VanderHeyden Foundation Endowment of Fine Arts and hosted by the Environmental Studies and Science and Economic Departments.

Melissa L. Sevigny is now the science & technology field reporter for KNAU (Arizona Public Radio) in Flagstaff, Arizona. Listen to her radio stories here, or follow her on Twitter @MelissaSevigny

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