With the five-year drought worsening in the Colorado River Basin, two Western icons are emerging like sore thumbs aching for attention. One is the casino-hotels of Las Vegas, their resplendent fountains and the waterways on which gondolas float and water spurts in time to music. The other is the graceful arch of Glen Canyon Dam that backs up water in Lake Powell.
Both are distractions from root causes. The casino-hotels
use mostly recycled water. The dam was a compromise that no one
wanted to build in its present location but that everyone —
federal dam builders, conservationists and basin states —
agreed on. We are, despite the Ed Abbeys of the present day, stuck
A wet weather cycle has given way to a prolonged
dry cycle of unknown duration. The string of reservoirs along the
Colorado River and its major tributaries — the Green, San
Juan and Gila rivers — are shrinking to record low levels.
Who really is to blame? The first is erratic Nature. In
the spring of 1983, Lake Powell filled quickly. Boards and steel
plates were used to raise the height of the dam, and the water came
within six-thousandths of an inch of the top. Had the dam failed,
direct ripple effects would have been felt past downstream Hoover
Dam, all the way to the Gulf of California, while the indirect ones
would have reached Los Angeles to Denver, and beyond.
Now, the water level has shrunk to less than half the capacity of
Lake Powell. Lake Mead behind Hoover Dam is also becoming a
bathtub, complete with rings and scum in the bottom. There is talk
of forceful measures imposed by federal fiat, which will only
result in endless litigation and are not long-term solutions.
The second problem is humans. We — you and I
— use water in excessive amounts. We tend to think of the
present as like the distant past. That's what the seven Colorado
River Basin states did when they unrealistically apportioned
Colorado River water in 1922, based on wet years at the start of
the last century.
We react, at best, with temporary
solutions that tend to hurt others but not ourselves, then we
drift, lazily, down the river again. We favor painless cures. My
guess as to what is in the back of some people's minds now is to
take water from agriculture and cut the flows to Mexico. It wasn't
too long ago that a Los Angeles County supervisor suggested towing
icebergs from the Arctic, or was it the Antarctic? I have read
recently of ever more hare-brained schemes.
So what is a
We could start over again with fresh
thinking. Throw out the "Law of the River," that mishmash ranging
from handshakes to international treaties to the 1922 compact. This
myth of false abundance never did — and certainly no longer
— fits the realities of water in the West.
no idea what precisely can be substituted. I have only a few words
of advice to offer: Share intelligently and fairly and with
People will be hurt, economically and
socially. But the eventual price this oasis civilization will pay
should make the prospect of some pain bearable for everyone. No
wasteful civilization that outgrows its water resources ever
survives in a form that even vaguely resembles its former wealth.
All we have to do is look at the fate of the ancient
Indians of the Southwest who disappeared, or the empire of
Mesopotamia in the Middle East, where soldiers are now fighting in
what was once the Garden of Eden.
Twenty-three years ago
I wrote a book titled A River No More: the Colorado River
and the West. It concluded: "Certainly, the region, as
symbolized by the Colorado River and the lands it succors, was
approaching a new era in which the ultimate limits of what has
always been considered a limitless frontier were in sight. Within a
few more years, perhaps 20 or so, there was not going to be enough
water to fulfill everybody's desires. The river was running dry."
Fifteen years later, in 1996, I wrote in the preface to a
new edition of the book: "What occurred during the intervening
years was a microcosm of the historic, long-term cycle of floods
and droughts. The extremes illustrated how fragile the hold was on
the water that sustained the Western states."
There is a
race to see what we deplete first, water or oil. There is no
substitute for water.