Unraveling the Future of Water Policy in the West on the Green River
Author Heather Hansman reflects on the inspiration for her latest book, Downriver: Into the Future of Water in the West
The Middle Fork of Montana’s Flathead River is glacial and hard to reach. When a fly fishing guide and friend invited me to raft it, I jumped at the opportunity to float a river I’d never seen before. Her boss had invited a friend, too. He was an older gentleman named George Wendt, who had recently lost his wife, and who her boss thought might appreciate some time on the river.
Turns out, George knew a bit about rafting rivers. He was the founder of OARS, one of the oldest and most respected rafting outfitters in the U.S., but he wouldn’t tell you that unless you asked. After we probed him, he told us about an early trip down the Colorado River through Glen Canyon which sparked his love of rivers, and his explorations of many other untouched rivers across the world, humbly downplaying his accomplishments as an early rafting industry pioneer. As both a river guide, and as a writer, stories are your currency and your connection point, and George was a master of letting them out slowly and leaving us hanging on his words about the early days of western paddling.
Three years later, after another trip on a wild, free-flowing river—Colorado’s Yampa—I started dreaming up a book about water, and the ways it’s used and abused across the western U.S. I wanted to use rafting, which had been my impetus for caring about rivers, as a way to explain the messy knot of water policy.
I called George, who had stayed in touch after the Flathead trip. He’d been curious about my work as a journalist and had regularly fed me story ideas about threatened rivers he cared deeply about. I wanted to talk to him about my book idea, and see if I could pump him for information about the tangled threads of water use and what he’d seen in his career as a conservationist and a business owner.
I told him I was going to try to paddle the length of the Green River, to dig into all the ways people along that river use water and what they fight about, especially as things get hotter, drier, and more crowded. He was one of the only people I could find who had paddled some of its lonelier, wilder sections. He had seen firsthand how rivers had changed people’s lives, and because of this, he went out of his way to help me tell my story. He told me everything he could to help me prepare, connecting me to the web of people who love rivers, the Green in particular.
The Green and Yampa Rivers, in a lot of ways, were at the heart of the conservation movement. In 1952, the same year he became the Sierra Club’s first executive director, David Brower took a trip down the Yampa and vowed to protect it. Shortly after, when a pair of dams were proposed on the Green River—a big one at Echo Park and a smaller one at Split Mountain—that would have inundated the heart of Dinosaur National Monument and flooded both the Green and its tributary, the Yampa, he kept his word. Bower and a fierce group of activists fought tirelessly to defeat the projects. This victory became a pivotal point in the signing of the Wilderness Act. He fought to keep it safe, because he had tangible proof of how much the river had changed him. For a similar reason, it felt important to me to be able to tell the Green River’s story.
George, who passed away in 2016, had a saying he often referenced about why he thought it was important to get people on the river: “We save what we love, and we love what we know.” He believed that people needed to see and experience our rivers and wild places first-hand to fully understand their importance and why they’re worth protecting.
I thought about that every day on the Green, as I paddled though stretches of river I’d never seen before, some buggy, flat and unloved. As I floated through them, moving at the speed of water, I connected with the river and had a concrete sense of what was at stake.
Heather Hansman’s book, Downriver Into the Future of Water in the West, was released in April 2019.
Photos: Yampa River rafting trip – Jim Block; Echo Park – Josh Miller