The end of welfare water and the drying of the West
This essay was originally published on TomDispatch and is republished here with Tom’s kind permission.
Pink snow is turning red in Colorado. Here on the Great American Desert — specifically Utah’s slickrock portion of it where I live — hot ‘n’ dry means dust. When frequent high winds sweep across our increasingly arid landscape, redrock powder is lifted up and carried hundreds of miles eastward until it settles on the broad shoulders of Colorado’s majestic mountains, giving the snowpack there a pink hue.
Some call it watermelon snow. Friends who ski into the backcountry of the San Juan and La Plata mountain ranges in western Colorado tell me that the pink-snow phenomenon has lately been giving way to redder hues, so thick and frequent are the dust storms that roll in these days. A cross-section of a typical Colorado snowbank last winter revealed alternating dirt and snow layers that looked like a weird wilderness version of our flag, red and white stripes alternating against the sky’s blue field.
The Forecast: Dust Followed by Mud
Here in the lowlands, we, too, are experiencing the drying of the West in new dusty ways. Our landscapes are often covered with what we jokingly refer to as “adobe rain” — when rain falls through dust, spattering windows or laundry hung out to dry with brown stains. After a dust “event” this past spring, I wandered through the lot of a car dealership in Grand Junction, Colorado, where the only color seemingly available was light tan. All those previously shiny, brightly painted cars had turned drab. I had to squint to read price stickers under opaque windows.
All of this is more than a mere smudge on our postcard-pretty scenery: Colorado’s red snow is a warning that the climatological dynamic in the arid West is changing dramatically. Think of it as a harbinger — and of more than simply a continuing version of the epic drought we’ve been experiencing these past several years.
The West is as dry as the East is wet, a vast and arid landscape of high plains and deserts broken by abrupt mountain ranges and deep canyons. Unlike eastern and midwestern America, where there are myriad rivers, streams, lakes, and giant underground lakes, or aquifers, to draw on, we depend on snowpack for about 90 percent of our fresh water. The Colorado River, running from its headwaters in the snow-loaded mountains of Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming, is the principal water source for those states, and downstream for Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and southern California as well.
While being developed into a crucial water resource, the Colorado became the most dammed, piped, legislated, and litigated river in America. Its development spawned a major federal bureaucracy, the Bureau of Reclamation, as well as a hundred state agencies, water districts, and private contractors to keep it plumbed and distributed. Taken altogether, this complex infrastructure of dams, pipelines, and reservoirs proved to be the most expensive and ambitious public works project in the nation’s history, but it enabled the Southwest states and southern California to boom and bloom.
The downside is that we are now dangerously close to the limits of what the Colorado River can provide, even in the very best of weather scenarios, and the weather is being neither so friendly nor cooperative these days. If Portland soon becomes as warm as Los Angeles and Seattle as warm as Sacramento, as some forecasters now predict, expect Las Vegas and Phoenix to be more like Death Valley.
If the Colorado River shut down tomorrow, there might be two, at most three, years of stored water in its massive reservoirs to keep Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and dozens of other cities that depend on it alive. That margin for survival gets thinner with each passing year and with each rise in the average temperature. Imagine a day in the not so distant future when the water finally runs out in one of those cities — a kind of slow-motion Katrina in reverse, a city not flooded but parched, baked, blistered, and abandoned. If the Colorado River system failed to deliver, the impact on the nation’s agriculture and economy would be comparable to an asteroid strike.
Too Much Too Soon, Then Too Little Too Late
Hot and dry is bad enough; chaotic weather only adds to our problems. As we practice it today, agriculture depends on cheap energy, a stable climate, and abundant water. Those last two are intimately mixed. Water has to be not just abundant, but predictable and reliable in its flow. And the words “predictable,” “reliable,” and “water” go together ever less comfortably in our neck of the woods.
Here’s the problem. Despite the existence of the Colorado River’s famous monster-dams like Hoover in Nevada and Glen Canyon in Utah and the mega-reservoirs — Lake Mead and Lake Powell — that gather behind them, we really count on the vast snowfields that store fresh water in our mountains to melt and trickle down to us slowly enough that our water lasts from the first spring runoff until the end of the fall growing season. Dust-covered snowpack, however, absorbs more heat, melts sooner, and often runs down into streams and rivers before our farmers can use it. In addition, as the temperature rises, spring storms that once brought storable snow are now more likely to come to us as rain, which only makes the situation worse.
This shift in the way our water reaches us is crucial in the West. Not only is snowpack shrinking as much as 25 percent in the Cascades of the Northwest and 15 percent in the snowfields of the Rocky Mountains, but it’s arriving in the lowlands as much as a month earlier than usual. Farmers can’t just tell their crops to adjust to the new pattern. Even California’s rich food basket, the Central Valley, fed by one of the most complex and effective irrigation infrastructures in the country, is ultimately dependent on Sierra snowpack and predictable runoff.
We need a new term for what’s happening — perhaps “perturbulence” would describe the new helter-skelter weather pattern. In my Utah backyard, for example, this past May was unusually hot and unusually cold. At one point, we went from freezing to 80 degrees and back again in three short days. Not so long ago, seasonal changes came on here as if controlled by a dimmer switch, the shift from one season to the next being gradual. Now it’s more like a toggle switch being abruptly shut on and off.
To add to the confusion, our summer monsoon season arrived six weeks early this year. A surprisingly wet spring seemed like good news amid the bigger picture of drought, but it turned out to mean that farmers had a hard time getting into their muddy fields to plant. Then when spring showers were so quickly followed by summer storms, some crops were actually suppressed, according to local gardeners and farmers.
The West at Your Doorstep?
Our soggy spring and summer, however, masked an epic drought that has touched almost every corner of the nation west of the Mississippi at one time or another over the past decade. Southern Texas right now is blazingly bone-dry. Seattle had a turn with record-breaking temperatures earlier this summer. In New Mexico, the drought has been less dramatic — more like a steady drumbeat year after year.
A trip to the edge of Lake Powell in the canyon country of southern Utah in June revealed the bigger picture. A ten-story-high “bathtub ring” — the band of white mineral deposits left behind on the reservoir’s walls as the waterline dropped — stretches the almost 200-mile length of the reservoir.
Recreational boat users, hoping against hope that the reservoir will refill, have regularly been issuing predictions about a return to “normal” levels, but it just hasn’t happened. Side canyons, once submerged under 100 feet of water, have now been under the sun long enough to have turned into lush, mature habitats filled with willows and brush, birds and pack rats. A view from a cliff high above the once bustling, now ghostlike Hite Marina on the receding eastern side of Lake Powell shows the futility of chasing the retreating shoreline with cement: the water’s edge and a much-extended boat-launching ramp now have 100 acres of dried mud, grass, and fresh shrubs between them.
After decades of frantic urban development and suburban sprawl across the states that draw water from the Colorado, demand has simply outstripped supply and it’s only getting worse as the heat builds. Not surprisingly, a debate is building over what to do if there isn’t enough water to fill both Lakes Powell and Mead, the principal reservoirs along the Colorado. Should the seven states that depend on the river live with two half-full reservoirs or a single full one, and if only one, which one? River managers have now realized that both massive “lakes” were always giant evaporation ponds in the middle of a desert and only more so as average temperatures climb. There is no sense in having twice as much water surface as necessary, which means twice as much evaporation, too.
Given the stakes, the debate over what to do if there isn’t enough water is playing out like the preview to the all-out water war to come when the reality actually hits. Westerners are well aware that, as always, there will be winners and losers. The constituency for Lake Mead will no doubt prevail because of its proximity to Las Vegas and Phoenix, two cities that grew bloated on cheap but, as it has turned out, temporary water from the dammed Colorado. Already desperate to make up for their lost liquid, they will surely muster all their power and influence to keep the water flowing.
Las Vegas is now aiming to tap into an aquifer under the Snake Valley that straddles eastern Nevada and western Utah. Recently, a rancher friend who ekes out a precarious living there mentioned the obvious to me: the dusty surface of that arid high desert is barely held in place by a thin covering of brush, sage, and grass. Drop the water table even a few more inches and it all dies. The dust storms that would be generated by a future parched landscape like that might make it all the way to the Midwest or even farther. After decades in which Easterners ritualistically visited the American West, the West may be traveling east.
Those we pay to look ahead are now jockeying like mad for position in a future water-short West. A new era of ever more pipelines, wells, and dams is being dreamed up by the private contractors and bureaucrats swelling up like so many ticks on the construction and maintenance budgets of the West’s heavily subsidized water-delivery infrastructure. It is unlikely, however, that their dreams will be fully realized. The low-hanging fruit — the river canyons that could easily be dammed — were picked decades ago and, unlike in the good ol’ days when water simply ran towards money, citizens of our western states are now far more aware of the ecological costs of big dams and ever more awake to the unfolding consequences of dependence on unreliable water sources.
Making more water available never led to prudent use. Instead, cheap and easy water led to such foolishness as putting a golf course with expanses of irrigated green in every desert community, not to speak of rice and cotton farming in the Arizona desert.
Rip Your Strip
All of this is now changing. Fast. The airways across the Southwest are loaded these days with public service announcements urging us to conserve our water. “Rip your strip” may be a phrase unknown in much of the country, but everyone here knows exactly what it means: tear out the lawn between your front yard and the street and put in drought-resistant native plants instead.
Everyone is increasingly expected to do their part. In my little town of Torrey, Utah, we voluntarily ration our domestic water on weekends when the tourists are in town, taking long showers and spraying the dust and mud off their tires. Xeriscaping — landscaping with drought-resistant native plants instead of thirsty grasses and ornamental shrubs — is now fashionable as well as necessary, even required, in some western towns, a clear sign that at long last we get it. Yes, we live in a desert.
Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that this sort of thing, useful as it is, will be nearly enough. Our challenge is only marginally to take shorter showers. After all, 80 percent of Utah’s water goes into agriculture, mostly to grow alfalfa to feed beef cows raised by ranchers heavily subsidized by federal grants and tax write-offs. They graze their cows almost for free on public lands and have successfully resisted even modest increases in fees to cover the costs of maintaining the allotments they use.
Utah legislators passed a law last session that gives agriculture precedence when there’s not enough water to go around. Consider that a clear signal that the agricultural interests in the state don’t have any intention of changing their water-profligate ways without a fight.
Sure, everyone agrees that we have to change, but we in the West are fond of focusing blame on personal bad habits that waste water — and they couldn’t be more real — rather than corporate habits that waste so much more. The fact is that we Westerners have never paid anything like what our water truly costs and we lack disincentives to waste water and incentives to conserve it. Behind all that fuss you hear from us about the damn government and how independent-minded we Westerners are, is a long history of massive dam and pipeline projects financed by the American taxpayer, featuring artificially low prices and not a few crony-run boondoggles. Call it welfare water.
The Ruins in Our Future
A visit this summer to the most famous ruins in the West, the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde National Park and hollowed out palaces at Chaco Culture National Historic Park, proved a striking, if grim, reminder that we weren’t the first to pass this way — or to face possibly civilization-challenging aridity problems. The pre-Colombian Anasazi culture flourished between 900 and 1150 A.D., culminating in a city in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, that until the nineteenth century contained the largest buildings in the Americas, now uncovered from centuries of drifting sands. Mesa Verde with its “skyscraper” cliffside dwellings, also flourished in the twelfth century and was similarly abandoned and forgotten for hundreds of years.
The mysteries of these deserted cities — their purpose and the reasons they were abandoned — may never be fully plumbed. This much is undeniable though, as one walks through cobbled plazas and toppled towers, and past sun-blasted walls: cities, dazzling in their day, arose suddenly in the desert, prospered, and then collapsed. Tree-ring data confirm that an epic drought, one lasting at least 50 years, coincided with their demise. Broken and battle-scarred bones unearthed in the charred ruins indicate that warfare followed drought. What the Anasazi experienced — scarcity, the need to leave homes, and a struggle for whatever remained — is getting easier to imagine in a water-short West. Only this time at stake will be Las Vegas and Phoenix.
Archaeologists at Chaco recently uncovered a sophisticated cistern system under the city. Anasazi builders, they now believe, learned how to harvest the runoff from the summer rains that poured down and spilled over the sandstone cliffs behind the ruins. Think of these as the Lake Meads and Powells of their time, capturing the torrential monsoon rains just as those reservoirs do the Colorado River’s flash floods.
The cistern system provided temporary water security, but eventually it clearly proved inadequate. In the long run, Chaco couldn’t be sustained because turbulent, unreliable flows of water are hard to tame. The descendants of those who left it behind settled the mesa-top villages of the Hopis in Arizona and of the Pueblo tribes of New Mexico. They learned to live on a smaller scale, with scant rain, and after many hundreds of years, they (unlike their once living and magnificent cities) remain. There is hope in that. It is no less possible now to understand limits, to practice precaution, and to build resilient communities.
When it comes to the perturbed weather regime we are now entering, it’s not just our agriculture and our sprawling cities that are having trouble adapting. The vitality of whole ecosystems is at stake. Native vegetation suffers, too. When critical moisture arrives before temperatures are warm enough for seeds to germinate, they don’t. The native grasses on my land didn’t thrive despite our cold, wet spring. Invasive cheat grass, however, blooms early, grows quickly, then dies and dries. It ignites easily and burns hot.
When higher temperatures evaporate the moisture in soils, they become drier in late summer and fall. Plants wither and are vulnerable to insect infestations. The vast expanse of mountains I can see out my window may seem like a classic alpine vista to the tourists who flock here every summer. A closer look, however, reveals expanding patches of gray and brown as beetle infestations kill off entire dried-out mountainsides. More than 2.5 million acres of Rocky Mountain woodlands have been destroyed by bark beetles so far. The once deep-green top of Grand Mesa in western Colorado is becoming a gray, grim dead zone, a ghostly forest waiting for lightning or some careless human to ignite it.
Dead forests, of course, are fuel for the dramatic, massive wildfires you now see so regularly on the TV news. We had quite a few of those wildfires this summer in Utah, but — what with southern California burning — they didn’t make the evening news anywhere but here. That statement can be made all over the West. Both the frequency and size of fires are on the rise in our region. Early in the summer of 2008, while more than 2,000 separate wildfires raged across his state, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger made a point that many Western governors might soon be making. He claimed that California’s fire season is now 365 days long. The infernos that licked the edges of the Los Angeles basin this August were at once catastrophic and routine.
Smoke is dust’s inevitable twin in a West beset by climate chaos, and the lousy air quality we suffer when fires are raging is part of the new normal. A few years ago we could check the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website to see when winds might shift and bring relief. This summer, like last, there were so many fires and they were so widely distributed that it hardly mattered which way the wind blew: smoke was in our lungs and eyes one way or the other.
All of this adds up to a kind of habitat holocaust for wild species, from the tiniest micro-organisms in the soil to the largest mammals at the top of the food chain like elk and bears. Nobody makes it in a dead zone, whether it’s a dust bowl or a desiccated forest.
Changes start at the bottom, as is usually true in ecosystems. When soil dries and the microbial dynamic changes, native plants either die or move uphill towards cooler temperatures and more moisture. The creatures that depend on their seeds, nuts, leaves, shade, and shelter follow the plants — if they can. Animals normally adapt to slow change, but an avalanche of challenges is another matter. When species begin living at the precarious edge of their ability to tolerate the stress of it all, you have to expect wildlife populations to shift and dwindle. Then invasive species move in and a far different and diminished landscape emerges.
Human populations in the West will also shift and dwindle, with jarring consequences for all of America, if we do not learn quickly that watersheds have limits, especially within arid and unpredictable climates. The land also needs water. And such problems aren’t just “Western.” Dust storms and smoke won’t just stay here.
There are, of course, enlightened and engaged citizens who are doing their best to address the growing challenge of a heated-up, chaotic climate. Conservation groups like the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance are working hard to protect critical habitat for stressed species and urging government land management agencies to include global warming in their plans and projections. The Glen Canyon Institute has raised the specter of a diminished Colorado River and is challenging water managers to get innovative and adopt policies that reward water conservation and punish waste. Across the West, people are waking up and learning about their own watersheds — where their water comes from and where it goes. This, too, is hopeful. Time, unfortunately, is not on their side.
So, come see the beautiful West, our shining mountains, blue skies, and fabled canyons. It’s all still here right now. Take pictures. Enjoy. But hurry…