John Wesley Powell's 1890 map of the western United States depicts political boundaries drawn around watersheds. Courtesy of the U.S. Geographical and Geological Survey.

Watershed elders in conversation

Roger Brown was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1935. He grew up in the town of Swampscott, attended Dartmouth College and moved west shortly after graduation. He has lived in Eagle County, Colorado since then. (Diazepam) His adventure and environmental documentaries have won numerous awards both nationally and internationally. He has four Emmy Awards to his credit and is the author of “Requiem for the West”.

In the 1970s, Roger led a coalition of public outrage against the Denver Water Board’s plans to dry up the Vail Valley in order to grow more eastern slope cities. A Denver Water Board bond issue was defeated and President Jerry Ford signed the Eagles Nest Wilderness Bill that included the larger, rather than the smaller, boundaries. However, in spite of dozens of studies and cleanup efforts, Roger concludes the Eagle River is dying as a result of overdevelopment.

William Evans was born in Colorado in 1941 and was gifted a childhood in nature with lakes, rivers, forests and ridges. In his early 20s he experienced the consequences of unnecessary violence. He was trained as a medical doctor and also trained by indigenous nations who believe it is their responsibility to maintain balance.

In 1975 he had a pivotal conversation with Jonas Salk who awakened in him an appreciation of the importance of balance with the words: “We will continue to look for disease to treat when some of our disease is our ignorance of how to evoke and maintain a healthy balance.”

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Roger Brown: The town where I live now is handing out subdivision permits and building permits all over the place and there ain’t no water.

Will Evans: Are they also handing out well permits?

RB: The whole water thing is a farce – water quality in the Eagle River isn’t what it used to be and the quantity of water is insufficient to dilute the toxins.

I was listening as you explained that people who cooperate are more likely to survive.

Let me tell you what happened in our valley. I have a strong connection with nature and, in 1970, I became upset with the Denver Water Board and its plans to dry up the Vail Valley. Lots of folks were already upset with transmountain diversions, they were just sold on the idea that the Denver Water Board (DWB) command structure was too big and powerful to fight. To me this was a moral issue, not a legal one, and I pushed ahead with a campaign of public outrage. The DWB was operating on antiquated law. Former governor Dick Lamm agreed with me and became a partner in the effort. So we had consensus all the way to the top in Colorado and eventually Washington. I was not part of any command structure, I was just willing to speak out and the press picked up on it. Cooperatively, we stopped this transmountain diversion. It seemed our minds were one. What I failed to realize was that local developers didn’t see the issue as a fight to save the Eagle River, they saw it as a fight to save water for development and for snowmaking – which was becoming increasingly important. I watched developers urbanize the upper Eagle Valley beyond what any of us could ever imagine. They went nuts with development here. They didn’t see the big picture, they were caught in tunnel vision. Clearly, we need a healthy, common-mind relationship aligned with Source and a healthy consciousness about nature’s and our right to clean, fresh water.

WE: Indeed, we are at a pivotal moment and the West is about to pay the price of ignoring John Wesley Powell’s warning to America in 1890.

RB: Tell me more about that.

WE: John Wesley Powell, a Civil War veteran, was a foundational figure in American geology, a scientist, explorer and environmentalist. He was director of the United States Geological Survey and head of the Bureau of Ethnology for The Smithsonian. In 1890, he explained to the Senate and House committees on irrigation that the lands west of the hundredth meridian receive far less precipitation than lands in the wetter East. Powell advised growing commonwealths around watersheds and using water only in that district on appropriate land and nowhere else. Based on his experience and travels in the Western United States, he brought with him a map depicting a perspective of potential watershed democracies. Powell understood about balance and the consequences of not respecting the limitations of water in the West. Today he would be appalled at the diversions in the “Arid Regions of the United States” feeding enormous, out of balance growth in urban centers far exceeding the local water source carrying capacity. Powell knew diverting from a watershed violates Nature’s law of balance. No one listened to him.

RB: Today, we are at a tipping point. Not only with water but with our climate, and I fear for my children and grandchildren. Again, almost no one is listening, except it seems children are figuring it out. Streams and rivers give us visible currents to follow in a life full of mostly invisible currents.

WE: Yes, paddling into a convergence of complex currents can be a learning experience.

RB: I entered a tepee in Montana and am only now beginning to comprehend what was happening in there.

WE: Well, John Wesley Powell left us a complex legacy. He used mapmaking as a form of knowledge and a form of power, however, his motivation and intentions were in contrast with the circular current you experienced in the tepee. Author Evan Pritchard tells us the Mi’kmaq people on the East Coast say, “Wisdom is power, not a power to create or destroy, but only to sustain. Still, it is a great power, the only one that doesn’t corrupt. If you have it, you can avoid complications.”

RB: We certainly need a massive dose of wisdom now, because our power to sustain is failing – no wonder Greta Thunberg and the kids are angry.

WE: I’ve noticed a pattern over the years, people controlling water in the West do not seem to be responsible stewards of the Source they appropriate. I’ve always known water is life, what has taken me time to learn is how for many thousands of years indigenous people sustained themselves. How they achieve the unity of a common mind. If we enter our watershed with the power to sustain, we may see the potential for healing rather than being caught in a fight. If I am focused on looking for enemies, I tend to keep seeing one after another. Foremost will be enough balance for our minds to see Source as one – each of us holding a unique view of the big picture.

RB: It was helpful for me when you explained how America fell from a land of abundance where you could drink the water virtually everywhere into a story of scarcity and toxicity. I remember, over two weeks in 1975, watching you learn to kayak big water in the Grand Canyon on the Colorado River – you were learning how to regain your balance by rolling back up and also learning how much is enough. With similar attentiveness, I have been listening as you explain how indigenous people cultivated enough cooperation to pass a balance with water to their children and grandchildren – these people sustained a living world story here for ten thousand years.

WE: Yes, an example comes from the Haudenosaunee, Iroquois or Six Nations, who believe the world cannot be taken for granted. A spiritual communication of acknowledgment and thankfulness must be given to align our hearts and minds with nature. Today “the words spoken before all else”, their Thanksgiving Address, opens and closes all Six Nations ceremonial and government gatherings. They invite us to share in this protocol so that our concentrated attention might help us rediscover balance, respect and oneness with nature.

RB: Your book, “Circulating Source Water”, explores human relationship with source and the current dilemma of disconnection we face not only with water but natural resources in general and with each other.

WE: I think that is the challenge of our time, Roger. We will either heal enough to become a watershed of sanity and health, in a living partnership with nature, or abandon our children to senseless violence. As we learn about balance, some of us will remember how much is enough and see the reality of our watershed’s carrying capacity.

RB: The way we are today ultimately seems totally self-destructive. Are we going to destroy humanity and maybe the rest of nature in the process? It is that simple in my mind.

WE: Indigenous people tell me this is not the first time humanity has faced a calamity. Many of them also tell me they know peaceful ways to create agreement, collective consciousness and a common mind, which allows them to move together toward balance and responsible, healthy ways to keep the salmon and buffalo running.

RB: Yes, I know. That was where I was in Montana, actually sitting in a few of those talking circles.

WE: That is how they did it, how they kept a collective agreement to hold the balance in the Columbia River Basin and over the plains – their minds were one. They didn’t kill everything off – like we have.

RB: So that is what you mean when you contrast the power of cooperation and a common mind versus a command structure?

WE: Yes, one of the elders who taught me this was a Haida who recently died, his name was Kawaan Sungha. He explained, “We have an opportunity to focus all our activities toward a sustainable society.”

Sitting in circles around a central fire, talking, and listening is ancient. Words are powerful medicine. Words can be either healing or wounding. Collectively, our words become our story. Each watershed is a living commons for the biotic community dwelling there. Council is an ancient circular form of communication within a community. This has been the tradition not only of indigenous people, but also held a place of respect in classical Greek culture. Physicist David Bohm suggested that council, or dialogue, is a stream of meaning, flowing among and through the people participating. Celebrating and listening to the living world story of a watershed is healing.

Often people invite me to painful discussions. “Discussion” has the same root as “percussion” and “concussion,” which really means to break things up. Discussion emphasizes analysis, where there may be many points of view and where everybody presents a different one, analyzing and breaking apart the subject. This has its value, but it is limited… You may agree with some and disagree with others, but the objective is to win the game. In a discussion this is frequently the case – win the game.

In a council, however, nobody is trying to win. Everybody wins if anybody wins. When we enter council, a different spirit enters. There is no attempt to gain points, or to make a particular view prevail. Unity is created out of the chaos of everyone’s agenda by keeping alive the values of trust, balance in sharing, helping one another and giving back to source. With respectful listening and speaking in a field, with the intention to inhabit a living world story, we can create a common mind. In a watershed wisdom circle, each new voice adds a tributary to the river of meaning and responsibility.

A watershed wisdom circle is built on gratitude for source water. The central glue that holds it all together is celebrating water with gratefulness – it brings people and their relationships with nature together. Action grows out of celebration. Going into action from celebration empowers us with seeing a bigger picture. This means seeing healthy opportunities in every person and situation, even when we are experiencing what appear to be opposing perspectives at the start. Cooperation grounded in celebration is how we learn to enter a council.

Each watershed is a living community striving for balance. We have the opportunity and power to contribute our stability and stature to the collective balance – that is how a living world story is sustained. We are mostly water, circulating source water is the foundation of our balance – that is the liquid paradox of living water.

RB: Most people are dying – trapped in the singular focus of survival and unable to hold a paradox. Fear holds them captive in tunnel vision.

WE: That is true, but not totally complete – if I view the Crystal River to be a living flow from Source, I accordingly approach it with respect, celebrating the gift we are given. I understand many people approach water in the West as a contest, a fight. I paddle – touching the water respectfully – matching its power. Only rarely is my intention to paddle harder or faster than the current. Blending with water is a dance with a wild, loving partner – a confluence of joy, celebration and danger. Our local watershed wisdom circle affirms our relationship with source water. Water is Life. We share a common acknowledgement and respect for Source.

When people are respectful of circulating source water, they begin experiencing clarity and begin traveling toward balance.

We can celebrate water, making it the best we can – as clean and healthy as we can. We can build a living world story with a viable, ecologically-sound source watershed for those who live here, including the animals, the birds, the fish, plants and pollinators. We can be an example of a living world in this valley.

RB: Yes, it is possible. No one before has ever explained to me how abundance became scarcity in the way you have. Our story of a living world is as meaningful to me as what I learned from Thoreau, Emerson and the joy of watching children awaken in connection with nature.

Circulating Source Water and A Living World Story are active programs of Sustaining Tomorrow Today in collaboration with Sustainable Settings. Donations and support are needed to continue the flow of Source Water Celebrations and Watershed Wisdom Circles. Tax-deductible contributions by check minimize processing fees and can be mailed to Sustainable Settings, 6107 Highway 133, Carbondale, CO 81623. IMPORTANT: Note “Sustaining Tomorrow Today” on the memo line. As an alternative, a tax-deductible credit card contribution can be made by email to or by calling 970 963-6107. (Leave a message if no one answers, this is a working farm). Again, specify your gift is on behalf of “Sustaining Tomorrow Today” and “A Living World Story”.