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A (small) glimpse into what the students have been learning…

As instructors, we have lots of hope as a semester begins. We set out with high expectations of what students can learn from their environment – and we carefully craft a holistic curriculum and itinerary that allow for students to engage deeply with place. Ultimately though, the students have all the choice. How they participate, what questions they ask, how much they are willing to challenge opinions of others and of themselves – is totally up to each one of them. After 10 weeks moving through the Colorado river basin, it is clear to see that the students have decided individually, and collectively to engage deeply with place. We sat down last night and shared our learnings from the semester in the realms of Land, Food, and the mighty Colorado River itself. Below are just some of the thoughts shared by students:

Land!

“All of our public lands decisions have been made by the electorate. Through the majority of U.S. history, that electorate was white middle and upper class people. Those people voted with their wallets, not from any sort of long-term partnership with the land or spiritual connection to the land.”

We’ve learned so much about deserts and have come to love deserts. Deserts are beautiful and provide so much if you know how to look.

Food!

“This soil is like gold that we stand upon, and it’s being destroyed by industrial agricultural practices. Every organic farmer we’ve talked with has said that any sustainable agricultural system starts with the soil.”

Lack of diversity and lack of topsoil are the biggest problems with our nation’s agricultural system.

Putting money into systems that are good for the earth, no matter how little, will help those systems to grow.

Even in an urban space, if people in the community are willing to pay for and support organic agriculture, it’s going to benefit everybody. Supporting those people is something we need to work with in our economic structure.

Growing and eating what is proven to have worked in a locality will help our ecosystems, supporting tradition and requiring less input.

If you remove the diversity in an ecosystem or agricultural system, you can’t get it back. If we run out of all the seeds that can grow in the desert, what will we do if climate change warms a region by 10 degrees?

It’s important to know what nature has given us. These are living embryos that have proven to survive through natural and human selection.

Our huge stockpile of chemicals from World War II were introduced into the agricultural system during the green revolution.

Hybrid seeds were not introduced for human or soil health.

Constant system of washing away topsoil and losing soil health. There’s really no way to come back from that, and it leads to a need for constant and increased chemical application.

Our huge surplus of grain is what’s driving the feedlots. Each piece of the system pours into each other.

The term “food desert” is just making white people more comfortable. When we heard the term “food apartheid”, it made a lot more sense, given the history and intention in the U.S. government and developing those systems.

The farmworkers who are growing food in the Yuma area aren’t seeing any of that healthy food in their diet. They’re not eating as many fresh vegetables. Not that that food is even healthy. I don’t know what’s in that lettuce.

Solutions to food apartheid overlap. Many of the systems we talk about apply to a middle or upper class audience. Those trendy organic systems aren’t culturally relevant to people experiencing food apartheid anyways. Community involvement in food is essential. If they’re being sold something organic that’s not relevant to their community or culture, they’re not going to buy it.

A lot of solutions are about changing your role from consumer to producer. That takes some privilege economically. Planting a garden in some places is a privilege: it takes time and money. One of the biggest solutions in my mind is to start with seeds. Plants start with seeds.

We’ve lost 90% of seed varieties in the past 50 years. The seeds that have made it to this point are the best and strongest ones. We threw away 90% of the seeds that proved their worth in terms of nutrition and being able to grow in hostile environments. We threw that away. How do you change the food movement to involve seeds and agricultural diversity? It needs to be grassroots. It can’t be industrial. Big ag grows a single variety because it makes money. Diversity doesn’t make money. Protecting the genetic diversity is up to all of us, because it’s never going to become centralized.

We don’t know how our world is changing, but we need to have all the tools that can help us adjust. Also, those varieties are more delicious. And more diverse systems will help maintain our topsoil. If there’s anything we’ve learned, we’ve got to maintain our topsoil.

Being connected to the land means being connected to what the land produces. We can escape from the city into the city and see that’s it’s beautiful. But it doesn’t create a connection to the land.

It’s tough going through the Navajo Nation and seeing people with limited access to food. These people are the ones who made the food! Their ancestors picked the seeds and created the food! To make that a part of culture again, I can’t go into a space and tell people to just do it. A cultural shift is what we need. And that’s what we come to with all these problems.

All Americans need money and most Americans care about money. We need to make it so our systems benefit financially farmers who are trying to make a difference. We need to support those voices who know what’s good for communities.

Water

Once white settlers came looking for gold, they developed.

As long as I can say I can use if for a “beneficial use,” I can take that water and use it.

The entire system of water in the west is very extractive—the system is one that incentivizes using it all.

With the Central Arizona Project, we see Arizona competing super hard with California to make sure they could use all the water first. There’s tons of infighting between states, then we have all the states banding together to fight against Mexico.

With water, we’re talking from a settler point of view. Indigenous people were here long before and were putting that water to beneficial use too. Their use wasn’t extractive though, so it’s not protected or recognized by the current legal system. Our standards of how we should use the water are European standards. Native communities were supporting themselves with the water long before Europeans were here.

When we look at a river, what we do upstream affects everything downstream. We saw that when we got to the end of the river at the Mexican border, and it looked entirely different than what we saw at the headwaters. There’s a lot of minerals and agricultural runoff and salinity that go into the water upstream.

Who ends up with a dry riverbed in the end and who ends up with a flowing national park?

We know that there’s more water allotted to extract than actually flows in the river. That’s a structural deficit from the year when there was a record flow. They allotted 17 million acre-feet, when we actually only see 13 million. There’s a lot of miscalculation for evaporative loss in the desert as well.

Big cities are growing a lot and demanding a lot of water. But they’re also demanding food grown with that water. Cities are ultimately the ones consuming all the water. Early in the course, we thought a good solution would be for farms to use less water. But cities depend on that. Everything flows towards power in the urban areas.

Lake Powell is at 43% of capacity.

The system could be made more efficient. Another early misconception we had was that we could solve problems by blowing up the dams. But with more perspective, we’ve come to see other solutions like draining Lake Powell into Lake Mead.

The story we tell about dams and the damage they cause to the landscape does not include indigenous voices and indigenous preference. As an example, dams were sometimes built to flood and shrink reservation land. It’s so complex: we rely on dams so much, but they cause so much damage. Even our time on the river depended on dams. The San Juan River didn’t used to flow year round, and it might not have been flowing in October historically. We were there because of dams.

Can we be settled on desert land that can only take so much? Dams are what allow for permanent settlement and cities.

Water supply and storage companies were buying land from farmers so they could have the water rights. Local farmers are the ones who are organic farmers, sustaining local communities. Their land is at risk of being taken away for water rights to be sold to big ag for monocrops, taking away resources from small farmers. I didn’t even think about that connection until I looked back at my notes from our 4th week.

We give water rights to some wilderness places like the Grand Canyon and take it away from other places. The river doesn’t even reach its delta now.

It’s really easy to say “I want the Colorado River to run free”. But at the same time, these cities wouldn’t be possible without that water. The communities that lived along the San Juan did migrate. They were somewhat nomadic.

It’s not possible to support cities in the desert like Phoenix where millions of people have their livelihoods. It’s really ideal to say the rivers to run free, but we need that infrastructure to sustain the society we’ve built.