The desert in our dreams of empire

Flood and drought have shaped the West, and humans are often unprepared.

 

We knew it was going to be a weird summer when it barely snowed all winter. By the end of May, the last patches of white had vanished from 11,401-foot Mount Lamborn, and the words, “Never seen anything like it,” slipped out of the mouths of even our most ardent climate skeptics. A month later, irrigation ditches stopped flowing, and skies grew murky from wildfires. An oppressive atmosphere settled over our valley, like the aftermath of a presidential tweet storm.

That made it even weirder when, on July 8, a friend spotted what looked like a body floating down turgid Minnesota Creek, just outside of town. A microburst had dumped three-quarters of an inch of rain in less than an hour, swelling the dismal trickle to a full-fledged flood. The man was lucky to survive; he’d been swept into the creek a half-mile upstream while trying to jump across it. Somehow he dragged himself out, muddy and cold as a crawdad.

How quickly and violently the climate tables can turn in the West, and how unprepared for this we generally are. This is the reality contemplated in this issue by longtime HCN contributing editor, Cally Carswell, who wonders whether she and her husband, Colin, can survive in New Mexico. Does it make sense to stay in a place where drought and heat are making water ever more scarce, even as more people pour in?

We’ve never let a little desert get in the way of our dreams of empire. Los Angeles, Phoenix and Las Vegas all rely on distant and diminishing water sources. Yet, as Carswell notes, scarcity is forcing us to live more frugally. In Santa Fe, average per capita daily water use has dropped from 140 gallons to 90 over two decades.

Paul Larmer, executive director and publisher
Brooke Warren/High Country News
That’s good news. But some physical limits can’t be out-plumbed or transcended with dams or low-flow toilets. I realized this on a trip down the Colorado River in late May, from Moab, Utah, through Cataract Canyon to Lake Powell. Though low flows made the rapids less treacherous, we ran more of them, ultimately through piles of silt, thanks to the receding reservoir. A few of them were new to our Colorado Riverkeeper guide, John Weisheit — they weren’t there the year before.

Despite the likely decades of drought ahead, Weisheit said, it’s premature to predict when the reservoir will fully return to river or its silt loads render Glen Canyon Dam utterly useless. He pointed to layers of sediment high up the canyon walls — evidence, he said, of past mega-floods, any of which would easily take out the dam.

With the sun beating down and temperatures in the 90s again today, it’s hard to imagine that. But cars were floating down the street in Santa Fe this week after a deluge dropped more than a fourth of the city’s annual average rainfall — 3.57 inches — in one night. And in the distance, I hear thunder.

High Country News Classifieds
  • DIRECTOR, ENERGY AND LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION
    The National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) seeks a director to lead a nationwide program focused on the protection of U.S. national parks from energy development...
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Crested Butte Land Trust seeks a development director to lead its fundraising efforts. Remote and unspoiled, Crested Butte is located in one of the Rockies...
  • PRICE REDUCED $94,300 - LOT SOUTH OF MONTROSE
    5-Acre Home Site, Great Views with Spectacular Sunsets From a South Facing Home Site. Excellent for Passive Solar Design. Covenants, No HOA. Keller Williams Co....
  • CHARMING HOME/FARM NEAR CLIFF, NM
    3 bed/2 bath, detached strawbale building. 11.7 acres, barn, corrals, fenced. Wells, solar panels, greenhouses. Paved access. 575-535-2568.
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    WildEarth Guardians seeks two public interest-focused staff attorneys with a minimum of 5 years experience to join our legal team. Experience with at least some...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF NEW MEXICO WILDLIFE FEDERATION
    The New Mexico Wildlife Federation is seeking an Executive Director, a visionary leader who is passionate about public lands, dedicated to executing an innovative strategic...
  • ARAVAIPA LAND STEWARD
    The Aravaipa Land Steward coordinates preserve stewardship work and general operations including maintenance and general preserve management. Implements preserve management plans, which may include species...
  • VP OF DEVELOPMENT
    seeks a talented and dynamic development professional, with a passion for protecting our natural environment, to lead our development and fundraising team.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Native American Fish and Wildlife Society seeks an Executive Director in Denver, CO to serve as the Chief Administrator of the national Native American...
  • DEVELOPMENT ASSISTANT
    High Country News seeks a development assistant to assist with fundraising campaigns. HCN is an award-winning, national news magazine. Strong candidates will have experience administering...
  • LAND ACQUISTIONS SPECIALIST - RENEWABLE ENERGY
    Energiekontor US seeks experienced local candidate, must reside in western South Dakota. Send resume and cover letter to: [email protected]
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Seeking passionate full-time Executive to lead the oldest non-profit organization in Idaho. Must have knowledge of environmental issues, excellent organizational, verbal presentation and written skills,...
  • CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Carbondale based public lands advocate, Wilderness Workshop, seeks a Conservation Director to help direct and shape the future of public land conservation on the West...
  • TROUT UNLIMITED BIGHORN RIVER BASIN PROJECT MANAGER
    The Bighorn River Basin Project Manager identifies and implements projects to improve streamflows, restore stream and riparian habitat, improve fish passage and rehabilitate or replace...
  • INTERNET-BASED BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one. 928-380-6570, www.testshop.com. More info at https://bit.ly/2Kgi340.
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...
  • LIGHTWEIGHT FLY ROD CASES
    4 standard or custom lengths. Rugged protection for backpacking. Affordable pricing.
  • FIVE-ACRE VIEW LOT WITH WELL
    5 acres, well. Abuts Carson NF; hike fish ski; deer turkey elk.
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST
    9+ acre inholding. Passive solar strawbale off the grid and next to the Continental Divide Trail in ponderosa pine/doug fir forest at 7400.