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Mythical River: Chasing the Mirage of New Water in the American Southwest

University of Iowa Press

The Buenaventura is a mythical river that early map makers drew across the Southwest hoping it was actually there. It wasn't. But its legend lured countless explorers to the region in search of abundant water in the desert. That myth is the subject of a new book by KNAU science reporter Melissa Sevigny. In this interview, she tells Arizona Public Radio's Gillian Ferris about the chain reaction caused by the mythical river. 

GF: What is the story of the Buenaventura that you came across?

MS: Yeah, so the Buenaventura River was a mythical river. It never actually existed. But it appeared on maps of the American Southwest for about 75 years. And the “mistake” began in 1776 when an expedition of Spanish explorers started moving into the region that we now call the American Southwest, and they hit the Green River which is the headwaters of the Colorado, and they called it the Buenaventura – which,  of course, even the name implies this idea of good luck and easy journeys. And, they started moving westward and they hit another smaller river, and on the map they created they connected those two rivers together. And they sort of drew a dotted line going off into the void of the West. So, when Americans got ahold of this map it was an incredibly compelling idea that there was a river flowing westward across the region we now know is, in fact, a desert and there are no rivers there. So, it stayed on the maps even though many, many, many explorers went into the Great Basin and found no Buenaventura and they came back and reported that. It still stayed on the maps. It was such a compelling idea that there was water there and an easy way to get to California.

GF: And it wasn’t there…

MS: It wasn’t there.

GF: This is sort of like creative map making. It sounds like it drew a lot of people to the Southwest under sort of a false pretense. Do you think it caused migration to this part of the country?

MS: I do. I call it in the book “a terrible hope”. These maps were being given to immigrants who were coming west and really being told that the West was the nation’s destiny. And, the idea of the river was so strong that they were actually told they should bring boat-building materials. And when they got the edge of the region we now know is where the Great Salt Lake is, they could build a boat and float all the way to California and it would just be an easy way to get to California. Of course, when they got there, there was no river and they had to abandon their boat-building materials, and those journeys were really quite terrible and frightening. But I do think there was kind of this false idea that the West was a region of abundance, that it was the land of promise. That legend erased the fact of the desert.

GF: So, how do you think this mythology has altered or directed the way we use water in the Southwest?

MS: Yeah. So, the Southwest is defined by a lack of water. And I kind of write about that in the book as sort of a beautiful thing. That’s what gives us our towering saguaros and our beautiful canyons. This landscape is shaped by aridity. That’s something I think westerners need to learn to embrace. And what we’ve done is really erase it. So, when I first ran across the story of the Buenaventura River I thought of it as a metaphor for the way we handle water in the West. We essentially erase the fact that there is a desert here: we build dams, we build canals, we’re starting to talk about desalination and cloud seeding. We have all of these ways of bringing water into the desert. And what we really need to be doing is acknowledging that this is, in fact, a desert and finding a way to live ethically here.

GF: In your research for this book you did come across a lot of ways in a lot of areas that people are – as you say – giving back to the river. Not giving to ourselves more resources, but giving back to the river its own resource.

MS: Yeah. I wanted it to be a book with hope in it, and so I went looking for, on one hand those stories of how we’re reshaping the desert and erasing the desert, but on the other hand stories of people who are doing the opposite, who are giving water back to the environment. There are so many wonderful stories of that: for example the dam that came down at Fossil Creek, the restoration of beavers to the San Pedro River. You know, a lot of people say the Colorado is too big to ever go dry, and I think that’s somewhat missing the point. It already doesn’t reach the sea which is a kind of “going dry”. And it certainly could reach a point in which the infrastructure we have built for the Colorado doesn’t work very well anymore. I think, again, we’re just living in this world where we think somebody’s going to save us; water is going to continually be pulled in the West, so we say, well, we’re going to do cloud seeding, we’re going to do desalination. Eventually, we’re going to have to come face to face with the fact that we have built enormous cities in a desert.  

Melissa Sevigny is KNAU's science reporter and the author of the newly released book, Mythical River: Chasing the Mirage of New Water in the American Southwest. She has a book signing at Barefoot Cowgirl Books in Flagstaff, Saturday, June 11th, from 1-3pm.