Dry to the bone

by Paul Larmer

It was hard to get very excited about global warming this winter. Despite record warm temperatures in the East and a steady diet of dire reports from scientists, here in western Colorado the snow and cold started in October and kept up through February, without so much as a hint of a January thaw. “We haven’t had a winter like this in years” was the comment heard most often at the post office or the hardware store.

But then came March. The winds turned to the southwest, and the snow marched rapidly back up the mountains, leaving behind green fields and a rapidly rising, chocolate-brown river. On March 8, a Say’s phoebe showed up at my house, insistently calling from a fencepost in between acrobatic forays for early-hatched insects. By mid-month, fruit trees began to bloom, weeks earlier than usual. Winter had shrunk.

Water forecasters, who sounded so optimistic just a few weeks ago, are now speaking in subdued tones. Statewide, the water content of the snowpack went from a better-than-average year at the beginning of March to just 76 percent of average by month’s end. Twenty percent of Colorado’s snowpack usually comes in March, but this year not a flake was added, says Mike Gillespie, snow survey supervisor for the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service. Barring a last-minute flurry of April storms, the date for peak snowpack water content may have been March 12, the earliest peak ever recorded, he says.

The news is even worse in the Southwest, which has endured more than a decade of low water years. Researchers in Southern California are fretting about the perfect drought taking shape, with a Sierra snowpack at its lowest point in two decades, little rainfall, and a Colorado River system still mired in a historic drought. That same Colorado River is also the water cushion for the ever-expanding suburban kingdom of Phoenix, the subject of this issue’s cover story. The metropolis’ local water source — the Salt River — is projected to flow at just 45 percent of normal over the next three months; other rivers in the state have been depleted to single-digit percentages of ordinary flows.

In the end, this winter conforms closely with the global warming scenarios for the West predicted by climatologists: less snowpack, early runoff and periods of long-term drought. But how worried should we be? One winter does not, of course, a trend make, and Westerners won’t go thirsty this year; for now, the region’s reservoirs provide more than enough water to get by. But as the region continues to grow, and if winter snowpacks continue to fall short, the water cushion will become ever thinner, raising new doubts about the long-term prospects of our latest settlements.

The archaeologists who, shortly before the bulldozers and cement trucks come, peer beneath the dirt of our cities at the boom-and-bust patterns left by older civilizations know the impact of environmental change in their bones. For them, as writer Craig Childs notes in this issue, the central question is not whether we can outfox Mother Nature, but rather, for how long. What’s more surprising — and heartening — is the candor with which a clear-eyed hydrologist working for the Salt River Project, a major water and electric utility and a local political power, talks about the sustainability of Phoenix. Charlie Ester tells Childs that the plans the city has made to cope with a seven-year drought are inadequate for a drought that could last decades. “There is no civilization without water. If it does not rain every year, and reservoirs go dry, and there is nothing to pump, we’re moving.”

One can only hope that such water realism trickles down to the bankers, developers, politicians and sun-loving retirees who see no end in sight for a desert city that grew as a refuge from winter, but may shrivel entirely if winter continues to shrink.

© High Country News