Revisiting "A River No More"

  With the five-year drought worsening in the Colorado River Basin, two Western icons are emerging like sore thumbs aching for attention. One is the casino-hotels of Las Vegas, their resplendent fountains and the waterways on which gondolas float and water spurts in time to music. The other is the graceful arch of Glen Canyon Dam that backs up water in Lake Powell.

Both are distractions from root causes. The casino-hotels use mostly recycled water. The dam was a compromise that no one wanted to build in its present location but that everyone — federal dam builders, conservationists and basin states — agreed on. We are, despite the Ed Abbeys of the present day, stuck with it.

A wet weather cycle has given way to a prolonged dry cycle of unknown duration. The string of reservoirs along the Colorado River and its major tributaries — the Green, San Juan and Gila rivers — are shrinking to record low levels.

Who really is to blame? The first is erratic Nature. In the spring of 1983, Lake Powell filled quickly. Boards and steel plates were used to raise the height of the dam, and the water came within six-thousandths of an inch of the top. Had the dam failed, direct ripple effects would have been felt past downstream Hoover Dam, all the way to the Gulf of California, while the indirect ones would have reached Los Angeles to Denver, and beyond.

Now, the water level has shrunk to less than half the capacity of Lake Powell. Lake Mead behind Hoover Dam is also becoming a bathtub, complete with rings and scum in the bottom. There is talk of forceful measures imposed by federal fiat, which will only result in endless litigation and are not long-term solutions.

The second problem is humans. We — you and I — use water in excessive amounts. We tend to think of the present as like the distant past. That's what the seven Colorado River Basin states did when they unrealistically apportioned Colorado River water in 1922, based on wet years at the start of the last century.

We react, at best, with temporary solutions that tend to hurt others but not ourselves, then we drift, lazily, down the river again. We favor painless cures. My guess as to what is in the back of some people's minds now is to take water from agriculture and cut the flows to Mexico. It wasn't too long ago that a Los Angeles County supervisor suggested towing icebergs from the Arctic, or was it the Antarctic? I have read recently of ever more hare-brained schemes.

So what is a real solution?

We could start over again with fresh thinking. Throw out the "Law of the River," that mishmash ranging from handshakes to international treaties to the 1922 compact. This myth of false abundance never did — and certainly no longer — fits the realities of water in the West.

I have no idea what precisely can be substituted. I have only a few words of advice to offer: Share intelligently and fairly and with restraint.

People will be hurt, economically and socially. But the eventual price this oasis civilization will pay should make the prospect of some pain bearable for everyone. No wasteful civilization that outgrows its water resources ever survives in a form that even vaguely resembles its former wealth.

All we have to do is look at the fate of the ancient Indians of the Southwest who disappeared, or the empire of Mesopotamia in the Middle East, where soldiers are now fighting in what was once the Garden of Eden.

Twenty-three years ago I wrote a book titled A River No More: the Colorado River and the West. It concluded: "Certainly, the region, as symbolized by the Colorado River and the lands it succors, was approaching a new era in which the ultimate limits of what has always been considered a limitless frontier were in sight. Within a few more years, perhaps 20 or so, there was not going to be enough water to fulfill everybody's desires. The river was running dry."

Fifteen years later, in 1996, I wrote in the preface to a new edition of the book: "What occurred during the intervening years was a microcosm of the historic, long-term cycle of floods and droughts. The extremes illustrated how fragile the hold was on the water that sustained the Western states."

There is a race to see what we deplete first, water or oil. There is no substitute for water.

Philip L. Fradkin is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in Pt. Reyes Station, California. Two of his books, Sagebrush Country: Land and the American West and Fallout: An American Nuclear Tragedy, have just been reissued by Johnson Books.

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 [email protected].

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