I moved from New Mexico to Missoula and can't believe the water waste


I am fairly new to Montana, and I now walk the streets of Missoula with an uncanny feeling that I’m a messenger from the future.

No, I’m not a nut job claiming to hail from Mars or another galaxy. But I do come from a place that has become a mutated version of itself in the past 15 years. Comparing it to another planet is not all that far-fetched.

I arrive here from the high mountain desert of northern New Mexico, from a place drought-deep in wildfires that outsize the Montana’s Lolo Creek Complex fire by hundreds of thousands of acres. I come from a place where the annual precipitation in 2012 was eight inches.

I’m from the tiny town of Las Vegas, where two manmade lakes have dried up, one of them the city’s back-up water supply. The main water supply? A stream that we call a river, which is actually the size of Missoula’s neighborhood creek. That river supplies 15,000 residents and commercial buildings, hospitals, school, hotels, and three colleges. How? It seems nothing short of a miracle.

To be sure, there are significant water restrictions in Las Vegas. No outside watering is allowed, ever. Laundromats and car washes are open only a few days a week. The three landscaping options locals in my city avail themselves of are native plants (yucca, cacti, red-hot poker plants, and anything else tough enough to survive without water), bleached Astroturf, and just plain dirt.

The lush green lawns of Missoula seem luxurious by contrast and are certainly pleasing to the eye. But as I walk around my neighborhood, I am perpetually traumatized by sprinklers. I resist the impulse to drag hoses away from sidewalks when I see concrete being watered. I harbor secret longings to sidle into side yards and turn faucets off. Perhaps the reflexive impulse to disconnect hoses seems melodramatic. But I trail my previous home behind me, its charred trees feathering in my wake.

I’ve heard about the abundance of the Missoula aquifer. Missoula’s privately owned Mountain Water Company describes the aquifer on its website as a “seemingly endless source of clean, fresh water.” That word “seemingly” sets off warning bells. How things “seem to be” sounds like the start of a story that could take on epic proportions. A rough trap to fall into -- like one of those pyramid schemes. Untenable.

The Mountain Water Company’s site explains that annual rain and snow “recharge” the aquifer via the area’s many streams and rivers. You’d need an endless and healthy water cycle for perpetual recharging, but precipitation is declining here just as it is throughout the entire West. In 1998, Missoula received roughly 21 inches of precipitation. The average yearly precipitation it receives now is closer to 13 inches. In 15 more years, what will the number be?

Southwestern droughts are moving north. Colorado, once a green haven for New Mexicans like me, is drying up. Endless stands of trees have been killed by the pine beetles -- beetles that can survive through the now-mild winters -- and whole forests have been transformed into tinderboxes. Snow that once lingered on 12,000-foot peaks well into July is now gone by the end of June, and rivers in Colorado drop lower than anyone has ever seen. And I don’t need to mention the gory details of last year’s two suburban Colorado Springs fires.

I’m not advocating bucket baths. What I am saying is that water conservation is vital. Being mindful about how and why we use our limited drinking water could make all the difference in how Missoula fares when full-fledged drought arrives. I cannot see into Montana’s future to predict when this will be, but in August of last year, the Montana State website showed that Madison County -- not far south of Missoula -- was experiencing “Severe Drought.” And if you’re worried about cash flow, Missoula’s already higher water rates, double what residents of Las Vegas, New Mexico, currently pay, will only increase as the aquifer shrinks.

Las Vegas, New Mexico, sported green lawns on every street only 15 years ago. People washed their cars weekly, took 20-minute showers, and didn't worry when the plumber took three weeks to fix the leaking faucet.  Hindsight is 20/20 now that farmers downriver no longer have enough water to irrigate their crops and have packed up and moved away. What good is a lawn or a clean car when you can’t grow food and don’t have enough clean drinking water to go around?

Emily Withnall is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. She lives in Missoula, Montana.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.

Jeremy Greene
Jeremy Greene Subscriber
Aug 07, 2014 04:04 PM
I agree, I have the same impulses. Like humans and the natural resources we depend on, we will wait to enforce restrictions when we are in the last hour. How can start now, how can any town in the west let folks water there lush lawns at 3pm and 12% humidity? I'm dumbstruck watching just yesterday a guy with a garden hose clean his drive way for almost an hour!?? Get a broom!! I'd be interested in participating in water awareness. Can anyone help me in that avenue? Before my blood pressure matches those in the sprinkler heads of missoula. thanks, jeremy
Christy Kuhlman
Christy Kuhlman
Aug 12, 2014 02:41 PM
I moved to New Mexico over a year ago, and I have already noticed myself having these same impulses when I travel! Thanks for a great article.
Wes Horner
Wes Horner Subscriber
Aug 12, 2014 04:29 PM
Ever notice in the parking lot or on the street how many people leave their cars running when the weather is cold or hot so they can get back into their comfortable nest when done shopping? Same kind of mentality; they don't care.
David Morris
David Morris Subscriber
Aug 23, 2014 11:38 AM
I appreciate your concern rooted in the trauma of your past hometown. However, you seem to be transferring worries rooted in the conditions in Las Vegas to Missoula. It actually is different here, and there are a few things you should know about your new home.
First, the Missoula aquifer actually is different from many water sources in the West. It is directly connected to the rivers and creeks above it, and it flows downhill in a similar fashion - though much more slowly (30-100 feet per day) as it wends through buried post-glacial gravels and boulders. According to Tom Patten, a geologist for the State Groundwater Information Center, “Unless there is a shortage to the point where the [Clark Fork River] isn't flowing, we don’t have to worry about the aquifer running dry.” There is actual information backing up the impressions of watershed plenty that so unnerve you, check it out!
Moreover, the water used by humans in the area that does not evaporate or get carried out of the basin another way actually goes back into the ground, and thence back to the aquifer. That’s both good and bad, as it recharges the aquifer but also carries contaminants. What we Missoulians need to be concerned about is polluting the aquifer that provides ALL of our drinking water. Keeping groundwater clean is a much better point on which to raise civic awareness around here. Sprinkling water on concrete is definitely not ideal or efficient, but it’s not quite the horror it may seem.
You are also quite apocalyptic about rainfall trends in Missoula, but your conclusion is based on highly skewed data. Yes, there was a year of high rainfall in 1998 – locals skiers still rhapsodize about the massive winter storms that year – but 21 inches was an anomaly. The 30-year average is 13.82 inches, quite close to last year’s total. Your implication that rainfall amounts are plummeting toward zero in 30 years is wildly inaccurate, and exactly the kind of alarmism that gives climate change deniers a big fat target to discredit. There ARE highly worrisome trends in precipitation and temperature here, but overstating them does not help.
Finally, you mention pine beetle impacts as turning the west into a giant tinderbox. The actual effects of beetle-killed trees are much more complex than that. Turns out that both living and dead trees burn very well in hot and dry weather. But once the needles fall off the dead trees, wildfires don’t spread as catastrophically through the crowns…but when the tree trunks fall they build up heavier fuels that can sterilize soils when they do burn. Complicated! Layer on that different forest types, and the fact that our local forests have been primed for death (and maybe renewal) by beetles and fire by decades of fire suppression and historical harvest patterns as well as recent climate changes. Missoula is a center of expertise and research on fires and forest dynamics, with the Fire Sciences Laboratory out near the airport.
My point is that things are not as they may seem on first look around here. We Missoulians welcome ideas and experiences from other places – sharing this information is critical to creating a resilient culture in the era of climate change. It’s just good to be well-informed on the history and science of a place before you get too worked up!