From multiple tongues came multiple terms for how water flows, and how it works in the West.
Western Water Words Here is what Joseph Christmas Ives had to say about a tributary of the Colorado River in the Chemehuevi Valley near the Arizona-California border. When he went through there in 1858, his vocabulary overflowed with terms peculiar to the West: “As we approached the valley, I perceived, by carefully scanning its outline, a small dent, and after landing repaired to the spot, and found a very narrow gulley, through which a feeble stream was trickling, and this was all that was left of Bill William’s Fork. … An unusual drought must have prevailed…” – Etching by F.W. Egloffstein from J.C. Ives’ “Report Upon The Colorado River of the West” delivered to Congress in 1861. David Rumsey Historical Map Collection
Water. The word denotes one of life's essentials. In the dry Southwest and the semi-arid stretches of western mountains and sea coasts, water can be in short supply. So the language of the West evolved a distinctive vocabulary around an element that is essential, often missing, and feared when too much of it comes too fast. It is a vocabulary born of and shared with the wetter world, but west of the 100th meridian the meanings the words acquire can be idiosyncratic, if not unique.
What follows is a short exploration of water words now cemented into the western vocabulary. There are words for standing water and flowing water, for the plants that grow in it and for what it does to land. Not to mention words for blocking water, avoiding it, diverting it, using it, controlling it, policing it, and naming where it appears.
The most basic western words for the ways water gathers echo most English-speaking places: river, creek, and lake. But the likelihood of meandering rivers to develop braided sections means the proliferation of more particular words to denote these subdivisions: branch and fork.
One of the key distinctions around the world is whether water is fresh or saline, but in the West, the common word for a bog – slough – changes both its pronunciation and its character. It rhymes with “shoe” not, as the British or New Englanders say, with “ow.” While the Baskett Slough in Oregon and the Warm Slough in Idaho resemble slow-moving freshwater sloughs like parts of Florida’s Everglades, sloughs like California’s Elkhorn Slough, flowing into Monterey Bay, or Oregon’s South Slough, touching Coos Bay, are salty estuarine paradises for birds.
Another common word that changes meaning in California is “island.” For residents of the lowlands west of Sacramento, it might have made more sense to adopt, as some did, the Dutch word polder to describe sunken quadrants, surrounded by levees, which define the topography of California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin delta. The local word for these depressions is islands – for outsiders, a brain-twisting use of the word.
Few words are so identifiably western are those overlapping words naming the landforms carved in dry hills by the knife-edge of powerfully but intermittently flowing water: wash, gulch, canyon, gulley, and coulee – although a coulee, a word of the northwestern U.S. and Canada, can be shaped by flowing lava as well. In Spanish, an arroyo is a small stream. In California, arroyos are dry more often than not – the town “Arroyo Seco,” leaves no ambiguity on this point.
All cultures have their own words for the vegetation of water-soaked landscapes – the Bible made bulrushes famous for concealing the baby Moses. In Mexico and California, the equivalent is tule. It arrived via Spanish from the word tollin in Nahuatl – the Aztec language once as common in Mesoamerica as Latin was in Europe. Tule gave its name not just the now-dry Lake Tulare, but to tule fog, the swampy haze that can eliminate visibility on Interstate 5 in California’s Central Valley.
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As a graduate student in geography at the University of Oregon in 2011, Derek Watkins became interested how regions across the United States use different place names (“toponyms”) to describe geographic features. He was particularly interested in “generic” toponyms, the part of a place name that categorizes the feature – for example, “river,” “valley,” or “forest.” Using the U.S. Geological Service’s database of water bodies, Watkins created a map of streams and rivers in the lower 48 states, color-coded by the term applied to each stream:
Noting the strong regional pattern in the map, Watkins surmised that both cultural and geophysical factors were at play:
– GEOFF McGHEE
English words for diverting water or keeping it in place all took hold as English-speakers moved West. There are plenty of dams and sluices, dykes, canals, ditches and aqueducts. But the cultural and legal structures for managing irrigation evolved in unique ways.
In northern New Mexico, the Spanish-speaking immigrants imported a communal concept once brought to Spain from North Africa – the acequia. The word – from Arabic for “to irrigate” – doesn’t just mean the ditch through which gravity-driven water flows to farmers. It means the entire system of managing communal water deliveries and the volunteer labor needed to keep the main ditch – the acequia madre – clean. Acequias and acequia disagreements persist in places like Taos.
The Anglo-American legal tradition toward ensuring access to water split in two around the time of the Gold Rush. In some western states, the European riparian system of rights based on owning riverfront land, survives. Far more common in the West is prior appropriation, with antecedents in western mining law – if you were earlier to claim a stake and use it, your rights are senior to others’. As some of the major economic users of water in the 19th century were miners, using industrial quantities of water to flush out gold. Surviving terms reflect that period. One metric for quantifying water is the miner’s inch. The current common metric reflects the fact that agriculture has long been water's economic sphere: the acre-foot.
Current water law looks to its mining precedents when it gives us terms like beneficial use and senior rights. And when water deliveries need to be policed, the people called on are ditch riders who are out to thwart water rustling. In any system of management, someone needs to be the boss – in New Mexican acequias, it is a mayordomo; in federal law, it is a water master, often a judge or lawyer immersed in the legal lore. Adjudication has become a western water word, describing the decades-long process of parceling out water rights in a given basin.
The meaning of western water words changes with society’s aims. The knowledge that water is scarce and likely to get scarcer has energized irrigation engineers in farming, producing devices like the center pivot sprinkling system. Conservation, at the time the Hoover Dam was built to block the Colorado River, meant storing water for future use. Today, it means using water as frugally as possible.
Local water weaves into place names around the world, but even as western communities are part of this universal reality, their names can reflect water’s power. Near the end of the Columbia River, the flow has gouged through cliffs now several thousand feet tall, and bitten into the land beneath. One part of the resulting cataracts is called the Dalles, from the French word dalle; it came to mean rapids in a gorge.
In a bone-dry landscape like the Navajo reservation at the corner of Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico, water names proliferated. Places like Tohatchi and Toadlena, New Mexico or Tonolea, and Tolani Lakes, Arizona, begin with tó, the Navajo word for water.
The word “water” is central to all the languages of the West’s deserts. The nomadic Apache, who ended up in New Mexico, say tú. The Hopi, whose Arizona reservation is surrounded by Navajo land, call it paahú. Along the Rio Grande’s northern reach in New Mexico, two words are used: In pueblos like Acoma and Santo Domingo the Keres word is ts’itsi; in Tewa-speaking pueblos like San Idelfonso and Nambé, it is p’o. The cliff-dwelling Zuni call it k’yawe. In Nahuatl, it was atl.
Then came the Europeans. For the Spanish, agua. For the French, who first explored Idaho and Montana, eau. The late-coming English-speakers had their own word: water.
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