In this column for the Idaho Mountain Express newspaper, we discusses the limits of the West’s most precious natural resource.

The summer view from atop Bald Mountain tells the story about the West’s most valuable natural resource. Ribbons of verdant cottonwood trees weave along the valley floor, surrounded by grids of homes and ornamental vegetation pockets and parks. The green valley provides a sharp contrast to the surrounding brown hillsides—a disparity that is the story of water in the West.

“Desert, semi-desert, call it what you will. The point is that despite heroic efforts and many billions of dollars, all we have managed to do in the arid West is turn a Missouri-size section green—and that conversion has been wrought mainly with nonrenewable groundwater,” writes Marc Reisner in his landmark examination of Western water use, Cadillac Desert—The American West and Its Disappearing Water.

Idaho’s streams and rivers are veins and arteries that pump through a parched landscape and give life to its people and creatures. Half of Idaho’s resident birds use rivers for nesting, and riparian areas are home to 70 percent of all plants and animals in arid parts of the state like the Wood River Valley. But water is as crucial to Idaho’s people as it is to its prodigious natural landscape.