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.