Primer 4: Water


If you want a glimpse of the unpredictable nature of water in the arid West, pick up a Utah newspaper from late fall or winter of 1983. Almost every story was about flooding. Floods that menaced Interstate 80 and the Southern Pacific Railroad with the waters of the Great Salt Lake. Floods that threatened to drown the runways at the Salt Lake City Airport. Floods that coursed down the city’s main street and inundated the Great Salt Lake wetlands that wildlife depend on.


By 1983, the Bureau of Reclamation had stopped building dams in the West, so Mother Nature made one of her own: An immense landslide that dammed Utah’s Spanish Fork River with a 200-foot high, 1,000-foot-long wall of dirt. The backed-up water covered Thistle, Utah, and cut eastern Utah off from the populous Front Range. Mines in the Price area could no longer ship coal west.


Downstream of Utah, Arizonans and Californians who had built their homes or farmed fields near the Colorado River were flooded. Six people were killed; property damage was immense. Some blamed the homeowners and farmers. But why shouldn’t they have built and farmed close to the Colorado? After all, they were protected by 24 major dams upstream whose function was, in part, flood control.


Of course, those dams were almost full going into the flood season. Westerners fear shortages, not flooding. Westerners would do anything rather than waste water.


In particular, Glen Canyon Dam was near its 25 million-acre-foot capacity when spring 1983 runoff began. That greed for water almost killed the 600-foot-high structure. Snowmelt and rain roaring off the Rockies into Lake Powell had to be sent through the dam’s spillway tunnels for week after week. And week after week, that water ate into the soft sandstone. It came close to creating what engineers call an “uncontrolled connection” between Lake Powell and the Grand Canyon. Had that happened, Glen Canyon would have been gutted and 25 million acre-feet of water would have smashed into Hoover Dam, ripping it apart. We would today be living in a very different world.


But we live in a very different world anyway. Lake Powell and Lake Mead have more water in them than if they had been breached, but they’re still half empty. We have spent recent years thinking drought, higher temperatures, and more evaporation. Habitat that was being drowned in the early 1980s is being baked today.


Back in the mid-1980s, Utah invested in two huge diesel pumps to keep down the Great Salt Lake’s water level. They were never turned on. What should we have learned from this?


There is only one take-away: Humility.


Those who choose to live in the West must accept its unpredictability. We cannot control this ever on-the-edge, unstable land, or its weather, or its climate. We can only try to live with what they deliver.


Below, we’ve listed some of the many stories about water from the archives of High Country News.


The author is the former publisher of High Country News.
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