The water in the mountains has decided that enough is enough: It’s time to come down. And down it has come, in a swell of white, tumbling magnificence the likes of which I haven’t seen around here in my 28 years in the West. It’s an all-or-nothing kind of flood that is washing through our town of Lander, Wyo. In the river where I usually drop flies for listless fish that seem tired of looking for water, the raging current has disguised all life in its frothy embrace.
Every day this week, we have gathered on the banks to watch. Our thirsty minds think: water! water! We lick our lips, remembering how long it’s been since we’ve had this much, remembering just how parched our lives have felt in past years.
We’ve rationed our lawn watering — or some of us have — squelched our campfires in the backcountry, and driven past Smokey Bear’s warning sign in town that shouted day after hot day in red lettering: "Wildfire Danger: High."
After all these summers of thirst, there’s something about this water that makes us, well, just a little crazy. Some of my more water-starved friends have decided to try Wyoming surfing. They’ve rigged a rope to a tree that now stands amidst a tumbling rapid. Jumping in the glacial melt with a piece of flat wood, they grab the rope and hop on board. It may not be the big waves of Hawaii, but we’ll take it. The water has brought everybody out of hiding. We dip our white feet in its chill, we watch in awe as trees bend under the pressure. Parents hold their children tight.
Similar spring floods are rumbling through other Western states. In Utah and Colorado, the snow runoff began with heavy rainfall and then hot days to bring swift and debris-choked flooding. Rain-soaked foothills are sliding, rock falls are tumbling onto roads, dead trees and other debris are forcing water above banks, making people not only anxious but some exhausted from shoving sandbags into place.
The residents of one southwestern Colorado neighborhood had to scramble through fast-moving water to rescue their belongings -- all this drama along creeks and streams that have only been a lethargic trickle in recent years.
In the midst of this transformation, I’ve been dreaming of water. I dream that people I love are being swept below its surface, that I reach out for them but can’t grab hold. I think more than anything the water has swept anxiety into my dreams. It won’t last: We all know that this chocolate water will soon be gone just as quickly as it raged into our lives. We will stand on empty banks wondering if maybe we’d imagined it all along.
We know that even after a wet winter, all this water won’t be enough to offset one of the worst droughts in recent history. And we know that we share this water with others downstream. Millions of people depend on the snowmelt that descends from our mountains in the West, even in years when there’s just a trickle. So in the back of our minds, there’s always the thought: What if there’s not enough? It’s here now, but will it come back?
Today, there’s too much. Flood warnings are bleeping at us on the radio, and some folks in town are bringing out the sandbags. Floating the river is too dangerous.
This water will replenish us and wash things clean for a little while. And then, as fast as it came, the floods will subside. And our stories will be all that remain in the shallow creeks and rivers.