We share the river with 40 million users, many who never see its silty waters. We fear for its health, worry when it’s low, celebrate when it rises and get excited when it floods. It is life for the West. When I see its headwaters in the Rocky Mountains and watch it flow through Glenwood Springs and Grand Junction, I wonder how long it will take for the liquid to pass through our town. I envision it crashing through Westwater and Cataract canyons, pooling in Lake Powell, slipping through the gates of Glen Canyon Dam and on through the Grand Canyon, thence to Lake Mead where it pools again.
I hadn’t really considered what the term “dead pool” meant, aside from it being a violent big screen movie that I made no point in watching. But it came to my attention last week while reading about western watewwr users’ concerns that Lake Mead may in fact reach a state of “dead pool,” where its level isn’t high enough to go through the Hoover Dam and on to southern points.
The governor of Arizona signed legislation last week, prompted by a federal deadline to ink a drought management plan that uses less water from the Colorado River. It is part of a three-state pact with Nevada and California that make up the lower basin states that use the dwindling river, and it’s a component of a greater seven-state drought contingency effort that also includes Mexico. As Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signed the agreement Jan. 31, he referred to the 19-year drought that has been occurring, and I thought to myself, “When do the conditions of nearly two decades stop being described as some sort of multi-year blip and become an accepted norm?” Are we in a drought, or is this just how it is?
I’ve been in Arizona for the past few days and it’s been raining … a lot. Some botanists are saying there may be another “super bloom” of wildflowers like there was two years ago. Last year was a bust: the ground here looked burned from lack of any rain, similar to the Four Corners region. Over the course of two years, the precipitation pendulum swung hard, from good to nearly none. We felt it in Moab and throughout the West as wildland fuels grew, dried out, and in many cases burned up. Moab’s water year seems to be a bit short this year, calculated on very long averages. But there is still the rest of winter and spring to come.
One thing is clear, as we fear for climate change and its effects: What we once came to take for granted is no longer the case. Being prepared for extremes is the task at hand. Which is a primary reason behind the creation of agreements among states that use the Colorado River. Upper basin states including Utah agreed on a plan in December. Arizona, a junior state in terms of water rights, was the only state that required legislation to approve their portion of the plan.
So in total, seven states and Mexico have agreed to voluntarily cut back on their use of the river. Their hands were forced somewhat by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation that threatened to impose federal sanctions if states didn’t come up with their own restricted water budgets. What this means for Arizona is that some farming areas of Pinal County between Phoenix and Tucson may have to stop using river allotments. As much as 40 percent of farmland might have to go fallow. As a consequence, or as a solution to keep the fields alive, some farmers are planning to drill wells to tap into the water table, which could bring untold issues in terms of supplies. If we can’t see what’s happening underground, is it not a problem? Is river water and groundwater not related?
Interestingly, opposition to Arizona’s plan came from just a few Democrats who said the deal didn’t go far enough. And I fear they are right. Crazy weather and a burgeoning populace is a bad mix. But when did a bleak natural resource outlook ever stop growth?
Our planning models and infrastructure have long harkened back to “pre-drought” days. But it’s clear we should stop comparing current availability with past supplies. And maybe as we look at “our” Colorado River, we should get used to seeing those boulders stick up where we rarely saw them before. We may infrequently get to experience “big water” spring rapids or full irrigation ditches. The river will continue to be part of our lives and consciences, even if there is less of it. And it will continue to be the lifeblood of the West for as long as it keeps flowing.