12 Books on Water Conservation in the West

Recommendations from Downriver Author, Heather Hansman

By Hailey Hirst

Journalist Heather Hansman has spent the past few years down a self-proclaimed “wormhole” of writing on water conservation in the west. Preluding this week’s podcast episode of She Explores, in which Heather is interviewed about her upcoming new book, Downriver: Into the Future of Water in the West, we asked Heather for recommendations of more books about water in the west and beyond.

After the recent record-breaking wildfire years, and long-lasting drought afflicting much of the Western United States, conservation is a topic that’s top of mind. Life-giving water is especially important to protect and conserve. Although it’s sometimes easy to forget as we go about our days starting loads of laundry and filling bathtubs, aquifers can deplete, and rivers can run dry. But as we learn from Heather, the conversation around water in the west is more complicated than simply considering its volume. It’s a delicate balance of ecological preservation and management for various economic uses: energy, agriculture, consumption, and recreation to name a few.

Learning about water in the west can help us better understand water on a global scale, and motivate us to research the unique issues that arise close to home.

Check out the list below for more info on Heather’s book along with recommendations for books on water conservation, landscape, and some amazing journeys:


Downriver: Into the Future of Water in the West by Heather Hansman

“Downriver is part adventure memoir, part investigation into how water in the west is being used and where we might go from here. I was struck by the oft-conflicting themes that arose between environmental and economic stakeholders, but moved by Heather’s quest to better understand everyone’s water needs.” — Gale Straub

Heather Hansmen is a former raft guide and environmental reporter, who took to the Green River itself to better understand its present and future. Heather set out in a one-personal pack raft and paddled from the headwaters in Wyoming to the desert of Utah, where the Green collides into the Colorado—to see what the river could teach her.

Downriver is set to be released on March 19, 2019, and is currently available for pre-order here.

(Psssst: Pre-orders are key to a book’s success and a great way to show your support for an author.)


Raven’s Exile: A Season on the Green River by Ellen Meloy

“One of my favorite books of all time is Ellen Meloy’s Raven’s Exile, which is about her time on the Green [River] with her husband who was a river ranger. It’s so funny and beautiful and smart, and basically everything I think is good about writing.” —Heather Hansman

Naturalist writer Ellen Meloy spent eight seasons in Utah’s Desolation Canyon on the Green River with her federal river manager husband, Mark. Raven’s Exile ranges widely from personal meditation to exploring the history and geology of place, from the perspective of the river and its banks.


The Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Through the Heart of the Grand Canyon by Kevin Fedarko

“The Emerald Mile is my favorite recent book about water.” — Heather Hansman

A vivid and powerfully written story of the 1983 run of the Colorado, that three men survived in a small wooden dory named “The Emerald Mile” during a legendary flood. Fedarko also reports how the crew at Glen Canyon Dam dealt with the surging flood waters, and how civilians were affected by the record flows, looking on both sides of the engineering and environmental divide.


Run River, Run: A Naturalist’s Journey Down One of the Great Rivers of the West and Downcanyon: A Naturalist Explores the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon by Ann Zwinger

Two-for-one: “Ann Zwinger’s Run River Run and Downcanyon are both really interesting natural histories. She was a badass.” — Heather Hansman

Two different books on two different rivers—the Green and the Colorado—from the same unique perspective: a well informed, yet imaginative woman naturalist, combining history, natural history, and personal experience into her narrative. Published in 1984 and 1995, respectively.


Canyon Solitude: A Woman’s Solo River Journey Through the Grand Canyon by Patricia McCairen

“In terms of adventure stories, Canyon Solitude is a good look at the Grand Canyon.” — Heather Hansman

Patricia McCairen is a veteran rafter who sets off on a 25-day solo adventure on the Colorado. She reflects heavily on solitude and the complex emotions of her journey, that’s a challenge both a physically and mentally.


Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water by Marc Reisner

“Cadillac Desert is the classic standby about western water. It’s amazing, but it’s dense.” — Heather Hansman

The American West is defined by a relentless quest for water, and this book is called the definitive work on that water crisis. Reisner delves into the complex history and politics surrounding this precious resource.


Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West by Wallace Stegner

“Wallace Stegner’s biography of John Wesley Powell, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, is really good historical perspective.” — Heather Hansman

First published in 1954, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian details John Wesley Powell’s incredible life of exploration, scientific research, and his overall deep concern for the Western US and the issues it would (and did/still does) face—particularly in regards to economic exploitation.


The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water by Charles Fishman

“The Big Thirst is an interesting, easy-to-read book about the global water crisis.” — Heather Hansman

Writing from oceans down to molecular water, and from Saturn’s icy moons to dolphins swimming in the Nevada desert, Charles Fishman explores our strange and complex relationship with water. ultimately, The Big Thirst seeks appreciation, respect, and smart use of our most precious resource.


Water is for Fighting Over: And Other Myths About Water in the West by John fleck and Where The Water Goes: Life and Death Along the Colorado River by David Owen

“There are two newish books about water policy in the west that I think are pretty good (both by old white dudes, but whatevs): David Owen’s Where the Water Goes, and John Fleck’s Water is for Fighting Over.” — Heather Hansman


Voyage of a Summer Sun: Canoeing the Columbia River by Robin Cody

“My suggestion veers onto another watershed: the Columbia. I bought this book at a thrift store, and read it at my cabin in Idaho near one of the Columbia’s far-reaching arms, and totally loved it. ” — Hailey Hirst

Voyage of a Summer Sun is more travelogue than conservation writing, but Cody embarks on his canoe journey of the entire Columbia with the heart of a journalist. He stops along the way to explore the murky tributaries that are the complex issues surrounding the much-dammed, regulated, altered, and hugely important river. He packs the book with well-researched narrative and weaves in his en-route interviews with a trapper, wind-surfer, archaeologist, lock operator, and native woman who grew up riverside.


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What books on water or other conservation topics do you recommend?