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The Climate Crisis Could Mean the Twilight of the American West

In an excerpt from his book River Notes, leading anthropologist Wade Davis recalls how the taming of the Colorado River in the 1960s — 'nature serves man' went the thinking — helped shape the nation. But now facing a historic drought, all that could be lost in a generation

I first visited the Grand Canyon in 1967 with two school friends and an elderly teacher who filled his summers by taking young students on long road trips, camping across the country. I mostly remember the color of the sky and the immensity of the chasm, with the Colorado River as seen from the canyon rim just a dirt thread lying across the bottom of the world. The nearest we got to the river was a mule ride down the Bright Angel Trail, three hours that left us sunburnt and swarming with ticks. Of the greater forces at play that summer, we were as oblivious as our teacher.

In retrospect, 1967 was an auspicious year for the army of engineers, planners, and developers whose confidence in their ability to tame the Colorado, transform the desert, and reimagine the hydrology of the American West had taken on a religious dimension, secured as if an article of faith.

The Glen Canyon Dam, built over a decade, had been formally dedicated by the president’s wife, Lady Bird Johnson, on September 22, 1966. In scale, it was an astonishing feat of construction, a concrete arch surpassed in height only by its elegant sibling downstream, the Hoover Dam, an art deco masterpiece of engineering completed in 1935. Lake Mead above the Hoover Dam would remain the largest reservoir in the United States, but as the waters of the Colorado began to spread across the catchment of the Glen Canyon Dam in the first months of 1963, a vision emerged of a body of blue water in volume only slightly smaller than Lake Mead, but in scale and aspect incomparably more beautiful and dramatic.

To Floyd Dominy, the man ultimately responsible for the building of the Glen Canyon Dam—and its greatest champion—the reservoir that became Lake Powell was a thing of pure beauty, a miracle in the desert. “There is a natural order in our universe,” Dominy famously wrote.

“God created both Nature and Man. Man serves God, but Nature serves Man. To have a deep blue lake, where no lake was before, seems to bring Man a little closer to God.”

Even his archrival, David Brower of the Sierra Club, haunted all his life by the loss of Glen Canyon, agreed that Dominy was a good man, even a great American, though very much a product of his times. Like so many of his generation, including my own father, Dominy believed that any natural resource not used was wealth wasted. He had been raised as a boy on a dying farm in Nebraska during the Dust Bowl. His first job as county agent in rural Wyoming was helping ranchers build earthen dams to secure water for their livestock. By his own account, he became a crusader for the development of water. As Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, singularly responsible for water policy in the American West, Dominy was not just an advocate of massive water projects, dams, and canals designed to tame every river and divert water to the cities, farms, and settlements of the desert southwest; he was, in his own words, “the messiah.”

A United States Geological Survey Research Ecologist drives his boat along the Colorado River and the Glen Canyon Dam in Page, Arizona last year. Joshua Lott/The Washington Post/Getty Images

As Lake Powell slowly came into being, with the flow of the Colorado shut down as if by a tap, there was little concern for the downstream consequences. In later years, conservation would sometimes trump engineering, but in 1963 ecological considerations hardly entered the conversation. The environmental movement was embryonic; as an organized political force it would only emerge in the wake of the dam’s construction, catalyzed by the outrage provoked as the reservoir above the dam deepened and spread, flooding Glen Canyon, famously eulogized by photographer Eliot Porter as “the place no one knew.”

The overwhelming national consensus in 1967 called for growth. Albuquerque’s population had doubled in a decade. Las Vegas that year had a population of 181,000; Tucson, 274,000; Phoenix, 763,000. Each of these cities would grow at least five-fold in a generation, with Las Vegas increasing to 2.8 million, and Phoenix by 2022 achieving a population of 4.6 million. If few in 1967 anticipated such figures, it was evident to all, as Dominy never ceased to say, that if there was to be any growth at all, it would be dependent on water, stored in Lake Powell.

Thus, over twenty years, as the reservoir expanded, reaching in 1983 a maximum depth of 583 feet, extending in length 186 miles, with a width of 25 miles and 1,900 miles of shoreline, Lake Powell—celebrated as a recreational wonderland — became a symbol of human triumph, capacity, and resolve. It stored 20 million acre-feet of water — enough to fill 10 million Olympic-sized swimming pools — a vital repository that made possible the transformation of desert lands that would, in time, be home to 40 million Americans.

In 1973, construction began on the Central Arizona Project, a 336-mile diversion canal conceived to bring water from the Colorado — 456 billion gallons altogether — to Phoenix and Tucson, even while providing irrigation for more than a million acres, allowing farmers to grow cotton, hay, and alfalfa in the desert. To secure federal funds to cover construction costs, Arizona cut a deal with California that was certain to haunt the state should the flow of the Colorado ever be compromised or reduced. But with water in abundance, there was little concern. That the open canal lost over five billion gallons of water each year to evaporation, and another three billion to leakage, was considered tolerable wastage, given the scale and benefits of the project.

As Lake Powell reached its maximum capacity in 1980, water levels five times what they are today, the future seemed exceedingly bright. The only threat to the dam came in 1983 when a surge of snowmelt into the reservoir raised lake levels to a dangerous extent, forcing the engineers to open the spillways for the first time since the initial construction. Abundance of water, not a shortage, marked the 1980s, a decade now recognized as having been unusually wet.

Floyd Dominy turned ninety in 2000, his faith in the transformative power of engineering unshaken, his dreams of greening the desert still vital and alive. But with the turning of the millennium, the weather changed, along with, as we now recognize, the climate. By the time he passed away a decade later, the entire basin of the Colorado was in the midst of a drought seemingly without end, the most severe to have struck the American Southwest in twelve hundred years.

Certainly by 2006, the signs were there. Indeed, it was growing concern about the state of the Colorado River, and a looming water crisis throughout the West, that drew me back to the Grand Canyon that year and ultimately led to the writing of River Notes: A Natural and Human History of the Colorado. I had in mind from the start a small book, one you could readily pop in your backpack or river bag. A text that would explain what you were seeing and provide a context for what you were hearing from the guides. The entire geological history of the canyon, for example, condensed in eight pages, and could be readily understood. All these wonderful themes: the mystery of the Anasazi; the power of the Mormon dream of Zion; the lost voices of the Zuni, Hopi, Havasupai, and Paiute; the prophetic passions of John Wesley Powell; the poetic ravings of Ed Abbey; the astonishing engineering achievements of the dam builders. River Notes was most assuredly not written as a work of environmental activism. It was simply the book that I wanted to have when going down the Colorado through the canyon, trying, and often failing, to make sense out of everything.

In an aerial view, the All-American Canal conveys water through the Imperial Sand Dunes of California’s Colorado Desert. The 80-mile long canal carries water from the Colorado River to supply nine Southern California cities and 500,000 acres of farmland where a few hundred farms draw more water from the Colorado River than the states of Arizona and Nevada combined. David McNew/Getty Images

River Notes was published in 2012, What made the book uncomfortable for some is precisely what gives the reissue of the book relevance today — not because things have changed, but because so much has stayed the same. In 2006, the situation was ominous, but even the most vocal activists and conservationists found reassurance in knowing that the crisis they so earnestly anticipated still lay in the future, a long way off. Drought was acknowledged, but few believed it would extend for a generation and still be with us in 2023, its consequences rendered all the more severe by climate change. One could bemoan the plight of the river, criticize the profligate, herald environmental apocalypse while anticipating catastrophe by the campfire, without ever having to confront the fundamentals, the economic foundations, the very infrastructure of the world that Floyd Dominy had brought into being, and upon which everyone in the American Southwest — river guides included —now depended.

River Notes posed a challenge because in telling the story of the Colorado, the book exposed contradictions and structural flaws, if you will, in the foundational myths that have driven and sustained the entire settlement of the American West, from the hejira of the Mormons to the diversions that drain the last of the Colorado, allowing nothing of the river to reach the sea.

Not that I set out to do this. I knew very little about anything that appears in River Notes until I experienced the river and researched the book. As much as anyone, I found it unsettling to learn that the entire water crisis in the American West comes down to cows eating alfalfa in a landscape where neither belongs. That the delta of the Colorado could be reborn with the water that today goes to produce a third of 1 percent of the nation’s cattle production. That the federal government sets aside 250 million acres of open land for ranchers who produce less than 10 percent of America’s beef. That no amount of water conservation in the home, on the golf course, or in the swimming pools and fountains of Los Angeles and Las Vegas will make a difference as long as half of the country’s water supply is used to fatten cattle.

After all the efforts of all the engineers, and all the billions spent, the many hundreds of dams erected, the excavation of miles upon miles of canals and aqueducts, the total area brought into cultivation is roughly the size of Missouri—most of which was made arable by tapping a finite supply of groundwater. The wild rivers have everywhere been sacrificed, but the desert still rules the American West. Without malice, and certainly without glee, River Notes suggested, if gently, that Floyd Dominy’s world was crumbling, his dream dying, and with it our collective vision of Zion, imposed with undaunted courage and tenacity by generations of Americans upon a land that even God could not tame.

Americans don’t do austere, and to their credit they don’t know the meaning of failure. Our reluctance to accept defeat, or adapt to a new reality, is evident in the choices we’ve made in the years since 2012. Growth remains the mantra. The cities of Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and California rank as the fastest-growing places in the country. Phoenix has increased in population faster than any American city. River water from the Colorado supports 15 million more people today than it did when Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992. Ten million more than it did in 2006. The river now serves one in ten Americans.

In River Notes, I wrote that the reservoirs of Lake Mead and Lake Powell were down to two-thirds capacity and might never again be full. With the drought then in its twelfth year, I cited climate models suggesting that it might be here to stay. We are today in the third decade of a drought that, despite heavy snowpacks in California and parts of the mountain west, remains unrelenting.

Over the last century, the river’s flow has averaged roughly 15 million acre-feet a year, far less than the 17.5 million acre-feet that planners anticipated when water rights were apportioned to the seven states of the basin — Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, and California — in 1922. In that year, the population of Arizona was roughly 350,000, that of Nevada a mere 80,000. Between 2000 and 2022, the flow of the river dropped to an average of 12 million acre-feet; over the last three years the annual flow has been but 10 million acre-feet. Even as the volume of water coming down the Colorado has dramatically declined, the seven states of the basin continue to clamor for allotments based on flawed assessments established nearly a century ago, exerting rights to consume what the river cannot provide.

People play golf on the Lake Powell National Golf Course near the Colorado River on October 23, 2022 in Page, Arizona. Joshua Lott/The Washington Post/Getty Images

As a result, during a drought of historic severity, water consumption has consistently surpassed the total natural flow of the river; altogether since 2000, water use has out-stripped supply by 33.6-million acre-feet (an acre-foot is 325,851 gallons). To meet demand, water has been diverted from the major reservoirs. Lake Mead, last full in 1983, is today down to 28 percent of capacity, 1,040 feet above sea level, the lowest it has been since the floodgates closed in the 1930s. If the reservoir drops below 950 feet, the Hoover Dam will no longer generate hydroelectric power. At 895 feet, the reservoir becomes a deadpool; water can no longer pass through the dam. The river downstream ceases to exist.

The situation at Lake Powell is equally grim. Its capacity is now down to 22 percent. In February 2023, the reservoir dropped to 3,522 feet above sea level, the lowest since the Glen Canyon Dam became operational in 1963. Should the water level drop another 32 feet, which can readily occur in a year, it will no longer be possible to generate electricity that today powers and cools the homes and businesses of 4.5 million citizens. A power outage in Phoenix, coinciding with a two-day heat wave, could result in half the population — 800,000 or more — seeking emergency care in hospitals set up to handle but 3,000 patients. An estimated 12,800 would die. At 3,370 feet, Lake Powell will reach deadpool. The Glen Canyon Dam will be but a concrete plug. Water will cease to flow, cutting off the drinking supply of well over 25 million Americans, including most of those living in Phoenix, Las Vegas, Tucson, and much of the Los Angeles basin.

As Lake Powell recedes, yet another challenge emerges. The Colorado below the Glen Canyon Dam runs clear and cold, its heavy sediment load having settled in the reservoir above the dam. In the early years, the Bureau of Reclamation attempted to monitor these deposits, before giving up in the 1980s, confident that it would take, as was claimed, seven hundred years for Lake Powell to fill up. Asked about the dangers posed by the sediments, Floyd Dominy replied, “We will let people in the future worry about it.”

The future unfortunately is now. The entire story of the Grand Canyon is one of wind, water, silt, and sand. Since the Glen Canyon Dam went up sixty years ago, the equivalent of sixty-one supersized Mississippi River barge-loads of sand and mud have been deposited in Lake Powell every day. The total accumulation would bury the length of Manhattan to a depth of 126 feet — close to the height of a twelve-storey building. As the reservoir has shrunk, this silt, exposed to the sun, has formed what can best be described as mud glaciers. As lake levels fall, a gradient is formed, down which these massive sediment accretions are moving at a rate of a hundred feet or more per day toward the dam. Should they reach and plug the dam, threatening the integrity of the structure, the only option would be to bore tunnels at the base of the dam, allowing the sediments to pass, while killing for good the reservoir. “That natural sediment load,” notes Jack Schmidt, director of the Center for Colorado River Studies at Utah State University, “cannot be blocked from the sea forever.”

In the meantime, ordinary American families are already experiencing shortages that would have been unthinkable in 2006. For decades, the Arizona city of Scottsdale has provided the Rio Verde Foothills, a community of two thousand homes, with access to its municipal water supply, sourced from the Colorado. On January 1, 2023, this supply was cut, a decision made by a city facing its own crisis, leaving the people of Rio Verde no option but to buy water by the truckload at prices that tripled overnight. Those who dug wells discovered that, after years of drought, the water table had fallen by hundreds of feet. Residents have turned to using paper plates and urinating outside, even while coping with monthly water bills as costly as their mortgage payments.

Cities such as Las Vegas have implemented strict conservation measures, banning ornamental grass, limiting water deliveries to golf courses, reducing the size of swimming pools, using recycled water whenever possible. Yet despite these efforts, Las Vegas still uses twice as much water as the average US consumption. Hedging its bets, the city is building a three-mile-long tunnel that will come up at the bottom of Lake Mead, a $1.4-billion drain to ensure that if the reservoir ever runs dry, Las Vegas will get the last drop.

In the end, what Las Vegas and other cities do hardly matters, for the elephant in the room remains agriculture. Fully 80 percent of the water drawn from the Colorado goes to irrigating some 5.5 million acres, most of which is used to grow alfalfa and grass to feed cattle, and not only in the United States. Alfalfa grown in Arizona is exported by the ton to fatten cattle in Asia and the Middle East.

A sign warning buyers of the water situation is displayed across from a property for sale in Rio Verde Foothills, Arizona, on February 24, 2023. Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

Even as the Bureau of Reclamation in 2014 issued reports warning of a looming freshwater crisis, Saudi Arabia’s largest dairy company, Almarai, through its subsidiary Fondomonte, began buying and leasing land across western Arizona. In one agreement, as reported by The Arizona Republic, the state authority leased Almarai thirty-five hundred acres of public land at one-sixth market value. In rural Arizona, groundwater is largely unregulated; whoever has the money can drill a well and lay claim to the water. Thus, as household wells were running dry with the falling water table, a Saudi agricultural giant was permitted to use deep industrial wells to extract unlimited amounts of groundwater, allowing it to grow alfalfa in one desert to feed dairy cows eight thousand miles away in another desert, in a water-stressed nation that has, for all the right reasons, banned the cultivation of the crop within its own borders.

Utah dedicates fully 68 percent of its available water to growing alfalfa, even though livestock generate an insignificant 0.2 percent of the state’s income. In California, it takes 3.2 gallons of water to produce a single almond. Such grotesque inefficiencies would suggest an easy fix, if only the problem were so simple. If Americans eliminated meat from their diet for just one day each week, it would save a volume of water equivalent to the entire annual flow of the Colorado, which on paper would go a long way to alleviating the crisis. But it would also imply economic losses in the millions, with annual meat consumption nationwide dropping by over 10 billion pounds. In 2021, almonds ranked as California’s top agricultural export, generating sales in excess of $4.7 billion.

Agriculture’s claim to the Colorado is inviolable, if only because the irrigated fields of the basin provide so much of our food. California, the largest consumer, has rights to 3.1 million acre-feet — as much as Arizona and Nevada combined — in good measure because the state produces a third of the country’s vegetables and three-quarters of our fruits and nuts. The Imperial Valley alone grows most of the country’s broccoli and a good share of the lettuce, all made possible by the waters of the Colorado. As Californians see it, they feed the nation, while their rival states upriver — Arizona and Nevada —cultivate urban sprawl, which places ever more pressure on a diminishing supply of water upon which everyone’s survival depends. In other words, it’s California farms versus subdivisions in Las Vegas. Avocados and almonds taking on the challenge of the wealth generated by the fastest-growing cities in the country.

Negotiations between California, Nevada, and Arizona are especially fraught, as they are the states most dependent on water from the large reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, and they alone can be forced by the federal government to reduce consumption. In August 2021, as water levels in Lake Mead reached new lows, Washington finally decided to act. Invoking the impact of the historic drought, the Department of the Interior formally declared an emergency water shortage on the Colorado, an unprecedented move that triggered immediate reductions in water deliveries to certain states—including Arizona, which lost fully a fifth of its allocation. Altogether, the seven states of the original 1922 Colorado River Compact—again Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, and California—were ordered to reduce their consumption by four million acre-feet, as much as 30 percent of the total flow of the river.

Six of the states agreed on a plan, but California — the greatest consumer — held out, citing its agreement with Arizona, which had allowed the construction of the Central Arizona Project back in 1973. California proposed that its share be reduced by 17 percent, while Arizona’s be cut in half. If implemented, California’s 800-square-mile Imperial Valley would receive more water from Lake Mead than the entire state of Arizona; the flow in the aqueduct that brings drinking water to Phoenix and Tucson would be reduced to a trickle.

At an impasse, the states did nothing. A year went by before the Bureau of Reclamation took them to task, demanding a plan of action. California once again targeted Arizona; the six other states went after California. In the absence of any agreement, the next step appeared to be litigation. The last time California and Arizona went to court to fight over water rights, the case consumed eleven years. Should a new legal battle drag on, with Lake Mead and Lake Powell falling every month nearer to deadpool, the lawyers may just find themselves, as former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt notes in a recent editorial, fighting over a wasteland.

On April 11, 2023, the Biden administration set in motion at least the beginnings of a solution to the immediate crisis. An environmental review issued that day by the Department of the Interior began with the obvious. The nation could either prioritize the farmers of California based on water allocations determined a century ago and utterly anachronistic today, or it could spread the pain across all states and all Americans affected by the crisis. A third option was to do nothing, which was clearly unacceptable.

This aerial view shows sprinklers watering a lettuce field in Holtville, California, on February 9, 2023. – A blanket of crops covers the floor of the Imperial Valley in southern California, a patchwork of vibrant greens given life by the Colorado River. Sandy Huffaker/AFP/Getty Images

The importance of this federal review lay less in what it said than in what it implied. While acknowledging that the seven states of the basin retain certain rights encoded in law and exercised by tradition, the Department of the Interior affirmed its own authority to determine how, when, and for what “beneficial use” water could be released from the reservoirs. The message was clear. Washington had the legal tools to intervene. With Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland having set a deadline for August 2023 for the states to come to some kind of agreement, California, in particular, came under immediate pressure to compromise. On the eve of the 2024 presidential election, with Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico critical to Democratic prospects, the Biden administration was not about to let Phoenix and Tucson, not to mention Las Vegas, run dry.

Placing the fate of the Colorado above the rights of states, in a manner without precedent in American history, President Biden was clearly ready to impose, if necessary, unilateral reductions that would see water deliveries to California, Arizona, and Nevada reduced evenly by as much as 25 percent. A decade ago, such a declaration might well have prompted a legal challenge from the states. Today, with reservoirs running dry, a protracted legal battle is in the interests of no one — not the people, and certainly not the river.

Instead, the parties came up with a temporary solution. In a compromise announced on May 22, 2023, the federal government pledged $1.2 billion to irrigation districts, cities, and Native American tribes throughout the lower Colorado Basin in exchange for a commitment to voluntarily reduce water consumption by a total of 2.3 million acre-feet. An additional reduction of 700,000 acre-feet will come from California, Arizona, and Nevada, in a manner to be determined by them. Should the three states fail to reach an accord, the Bureau of Reclamation is empowered to withhold the entire allotment.

If fully implemented, consumption will be reduced across the lower basin by three million acre-feet, roughly 13 percent of the water currently used. It’s not enough, but it is a beginning. If formally adopted by Congress, and extended beyond its current expiry date in 2026, this agreement will be good for the cities of Arizona and Nevada, as well as the thirty Native American tribes that have their own rights to the river. Perhaps not so great in the short term for some farmers in California. But certainly, in the end, it will be a blessing for all Americans, especially those whose lives have been touched by the river.

This past winter good news at last brightened the prospects of the Colorado. Across the upper basin of the river, in the mountains of New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming, the record snowfalls during the winter of 2022–23 have begun to melt. Those monitoring the reservoirs report that the volume of spring runoff flowing into both Lake Mead and Lake Powell is one-and-a-half times larger than normal. In Utah, the Great Salt Lake, which has lost almost two-thirds of its volume since 1985 (including forty billion gallons of water annually since 2000), has been replenished with a flood of snowmelt. That meltwater has raised the lake’s level three feet above where it stood in November 2022, when it reached a record low of just 37 percent of its former volume. At its lowest point, there was real concern that the lake would be completely gone within five years. Now, it has a new chance. A season of snow does not imply that the crisis is past, or even that the drought has ended. But perhaps it will provide a reprieve, allowing us time to make the difficult decisions and implement the measures that the crisis has long demanded.

Between AD 1275 and 1300, the Anasazi, a civilization that had thrived in the canyonlands for a thousand years, simply vanished, abandoning their urban centers, their irrigated lands, their sacred enclosures. Their descendants, the Hopi and Zuni, tell of a time of drought, the end of the rains. Without food in the desert, one can live for a fortnight; without water, perhaps a day. The collapse of the Anasazi occurred in a single generation. The drought in the American Southwest has now entered its twenty-third year.

Excerpted with permission from: River Notes: Drought and the Twilight of the American West Greystone Books

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