Soap and Water

All of my book Soap and Water: the story of civil war in a near-future American West, echoing our decade-long occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. Think a literary version of DMZ meets Cadillac Desert. I’m making it available here as an ebook download for free for a limited time, and the only donation I ask in return is that you go to Red Lemonade and leave me a comment about it. Enjoy! @joshuamalbin

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Here’s an excerpt from later in the book.

Apart from the outrage of it, Cutt had found something almost comical in the way the Feds went about their great water grab.  The President at the time liked to preen in ranch clothes, but really he was a rich Northeasterner who knew very little about the West.  He wasn’t bright or knowledgeable, and he’d surrounded himself with similar mediocrities, men and women who believed their own bromides, along with a sprinkling of sharp opportunists.  In his first speech on the subject in the aftermath of Alva B. Adams, he declared that the federal government needed to take over the operations of all major Western dams and put their employees through rigorous background checks.  The only problem with that was the federal government already ran every major dam in the West.  It had built them.

To cover the mistake, in his next speech he claimed he’d meant the federal government would administer all the West’s water.  He’d said it a couple of times, actually, and so was trapped when the media finally, a few more days later, realized what a huge job that was, replacing hundreds of local conservancy districts with some kind of federal oversight.  In Colorado alone there were forty-five water boards, along with special courts devoted entirely to water rights adjudication.

There was a kind of sour fun in watching Easterners on TV discovering these things.  They put up maps of what they called the West’s “plumbing” and showed how extensive and counterintuitive it all was.  They had experts in studio to talk about how the President’s plan was likely to fare in Congress, and marveled at the enormous new bureaucracy he was about to create.

The President must have gotten another PowerPoint briefing, because another two weeks later he was back on TV announcing a new Dam Defense Initiative, starting with the Hoover Dam.  Highway 93 was closed; all overflights were banned, including helicopter tours; boats were turned back a mile up Lake Mead; and a light antiaircraft battery was installed.  As far as Cutt could tell, though, the Double-D-Eye was never extended beyond Hoover, and it soon became a regionwide joke.

A year passed.  Cutt got a job in the garden-supply department of a big-box home store.  On his way home one day he heard on the radio that Glen Canyon Dam had sprung a leak.  “Dam officials are very concerned,” said the pleasant female voice.  “It is not known if the breach is the result of a terrorist attack.”  At home he turned on the TV and learned that Glen Canyon Dam, upstream from Hoover and just on the Arizona side of the Utah line, sat in porous sandstone, and that the water now gushing between the dam and its western abutment was eating away that rock quickly.  After Hoover this was the second biggest dam in the country and Lake Powell, behind it, was the second largest manmade lake after Lake Mead.  Everyone downstream was advised to evacuate, all the way to Baja California, though engineers were “hard at work to divert the flow through the spillways and get control of the situation.”

A smart-looking young woman interviewed a middle-aged couple on the street in Needles, California.  “We’ll pack an overnight bag and drive on up to Palm Springs for the night,” said the man, “but we looked on the map and Glen Canyon is hundreds of miles away, so we’re not too worried.  I’m sure they’re just being careful.”

In the morning Cutt watched the news as he made coffee.  The dam had failed.  A wave five hundred feet high was scouring down the Grand Canyon.  That same young woman reported from the middle of an empty street, an unnerving scene because there was nothing overtly wrong: no storm winds buffeted her; no smoke from a catastrophic fire drifted by; there were no explosions, gunshots, or jittery camerawork to reveal a crew running for their lives.  It was a bright, sunny day in Needles, a generic small-town business strip, and the reporter was calm as she explained that she too was about to leave.

The next shot, an aerial look at the advancing wave, was similarly undramatic.  The river did look swollen, but five hundred feet was still small compared to the five thousand of the canyon walls.  It was a fat brown ribbon down the center of the Grand Canyon, a silent image of course, except for the muted whine of a helicopter engine that the anchor talked over.  It wasn’t even particularly impressive when they put up a split-screen image from before the flood wave, showing a narrow brown ribbon.

You could tell a bit better what was going on when they got a camera to the South Rim, the main tourist viewing area.  The torrent was still a mile down and its surface was mostly smooth, as it was too deep to be disturbed by rocks or even falls, but it did form standing waves on the canyon walls at bends, and the news crew captured one of these in a telephoto shot with a pine tree in the frame.  A tree that far down the Grand Canyon might only have been ten feet tall; in any case the standing wave breaking just below it was twice as big.  While the camera held, the wave climbed until it touched the base of the trunk.  Before it reached the bottom branches the tree flew sideways and disappeared.

A moment later a new smart-looking reporter, a man this time, spoke from an empty parking lot.  Park Police had closed the main access road to the South Rim, but couldn’t totally shut people out.  There were reports up and down the river of curious Arizonans sneaking down back roads to peer into the canyon.  Park officials didn’t have time to chase them out, they were busy trying to find the campers, mule-train packers, and whitewater rafters that might be down below somewhere.  Anyone who’d been in the path of the wave was dead, possibly as many as a hundred people already, but some people might be stranded up side canyons or on the lower slopes, the usual trails home far underwater.

Later, at work, one of the other sales clerks pulled Cutt off the floor and into the break room, where the TV was now playing over and over the same minute and a half of footage, with anchors using their most serious voices over the silent action.  It was another aerial shot, above the Hoover Dam this time, water rushing over the top in a sheet at least ten feet thick.  Suddenly that water leapt forward and dropped, a tongue appearing in the middle of the fall.  The furrow in its center deepened steadily and the tongue pressed forward.  Hoover Dam was failing too.

The next few days, images of the aftermath dominated TV news and the papers.  Quadruple the entire annual flow of the Colorado River had been released in less than a day, drowning Laughlin and Bullhead City, Nevada; Needles and Topock, California; Lake Havasu City and Yuma, Arizona; the entire Imperial Valley; and upper Mexicali, Mexico.  One of the two Winged Figures of the Republic, the thirty-foot, bronze, quasi-Fascist eagle-men that had sat atop Hoover, was found impaled by its wings in an RV halfway to the Salton Sea.  The water spread across the flat Imperial Valley three feet deep, then two feet, then six inches and mud.  There was no place to launch a boat to try rescue operations, and anyway the few boats in the area had all been swept away.  One famous photograph, taken from a small plane, showed three drowned people, bloated, drifting in the water against the side of a hill, dead bodies cooking in shallow water, in the hottest part of the country.

The pictures weren’t just from the flood’s path.  There were also reports from Los Angeles on sudden, drastic water rationing, and from Phoenix on rolling blackouts, as fully 7 percent of the Western grid’s generating capacity had disappeared at once.  There were unending stories from hotels in Las Vegas, where the most refugees had ended up: images of relief workers trying to give directions via bullhorn to shifting queues of exhausted, anxious families trying to let their relatives know they were alive and trying to find out what had happened to their neighbors.  The replica of the Statue of Liberty at New York, New York casino became a spot to tack photographs of missing loved ones and words of hope; Castle Clinton, in New York City’s Battery Park, became the site of a constant sympathy vigil covered almost as avidly by New York–based news operations as the real thing.

And of course the President.  He was in a close race for reelection and staged a prodigious series of photo ops of himself bringing aid and comfort to victims.  In a sun-drenched amphitheater outside Caesar’s Palace he bellowed that while no one could have predicted the attack on Glen Canyon, he would find those responsible and bring them to justice, and he rode the Glen Canyon wave to a narrow victory.

Except some people had predicted it.  Engineers had been warning about the dam for years.  Water leaked through the Glen Canyon abutments constantly and unstoppably, to the point where every year chunks of those walls broke away.  Every few years its engineers responded by driving rock bolts into the sandstone cliffs to hold them together, deeper than the ones they’d driven the time before.  But the cost of creating the WMA had shrunk budgets everywhere else, and the procedure had had to be postponed three times.

The media did explain all of this, but they did not question the President’s assumption—soon the country’s too—that Glen Canyon was the result of a bomb, just like the Adams Tunnel.  It felt to Cutt as if the country had gone insane.  As far as he could tell the whole thing was the Feds’ fault, but everyone outside the West seemed to cheer when the President blamed Westerners for what he’d done to them and swore that the gloves were coming off.  Within weeks Cutt learned from a friend in the Denver PD that he’d been tried in absentia by a military tribunal and convicted of “terrorist conspiracy.”  He’d fled to the mountains right away.

http://www.joshuamalbin.com/media/Soap-and-Water-chapter-41.epub

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