Since Christmas, an almost continuous stream of Pacific moisture has raced over Colorado and much of the West, dumping rain in the valleys and heavy snows in the mountains. The sun and crystalline blue skies I brag about to my non-Western friends and relatives have made only rare appearances in the narrow seams between storms.
Frankly, it’s been a little
depressing. But water-watchers in the West are almost giddy with
delight: Every week, our local papers run stories with cheerful
quotes from forecasters, proclaiming that the drought that has
gripped the region for the past five years may soon be broken.
"Every string of fantastic years has to start with one,"
Tom Pagano, a water-supply forecaster for the U.S. Department of
Agriculture, recently told The Associated Press, "and we can only
hope this is it."
Early January surveys of snowpack show
that the Colorado River system, which gathers runoff from Wyoming
to Southern California, is likely to receive 98 percent of "normal"
precipitation this year. If the rest of the winter meets historic
averages, Lake Mead and Lake Powell — which have shrunk over
the past five years to 56 percent and 36 percent of capacity,
respectively — will soon rise.
But I wouldn’t
bet on the reservoirs overflowing just yet. As the scientists
featured in this week’s cover story so ably articulate,
drought is a regular visitor to the West, sometimes lasting many
The basic aridity of the region is something
that explorer John Wesley Powell (whose name graces the massive
reservoir on the Utah-Arizona border) warned the nation about more
than 100 years ago. Powell’s 1878 report to Congress —
reprinted recently as The Arid Lands by the
University of Nebraska Press — is "a sober and foresighted
warning about the consequences of trying to impose on a dry country
the habits that have been formed in a wet one," as Wallace Stegner
wrote in the introduction to the book.
Powell and Stegner
knew that droughts would ultimately define the development of the
West. What they couldn’t know was that our rapid combustion
of the planet’s fossil fuels could actually make the dry
periods more lengthy and intense.
Over the past couple of
years — years of warm temperatures, drought and wildfire
— a new sobriety has fallen over the region. The realization
is sinking in that the great system of dams and reservoirs built by
the federal government might not see us through a major drought,
especially not one amplified by global warming.
the West is once again on the cusp of confronting its basic
aridity. Another dry year or two, and we might actually change our
behavior. I hope it stops raining and snowing soon.