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for people who care about the West

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.