Ariz. — At five years and counting, the drought that has parched
much of the West is getting much harder to shrug off as a blip.
Those who worry most about the future of the
West — politicians, scientists, business leaders, city planners and
environmentalists — are increasingly realizing that a world of
eternally blue skies and meager mountain snowpacks may not be a
passing phenomenon but rather the return of a harsh climatic norm.
Continuing research into drought cycles over
the last 800 years bears this out, strongly suggesting that the
relatively wet weather across much of the West during the 20th century
was a fluke. In other words, scientists who study tree rings and ocean
temperatures say, the development of the modern urbanized West — one
of the biggest growth spurts in the nation's history — may have been
based on a colossal miscalculation.
That shift is shaking many assumptions about
how the West is run. Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New
Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, the states that depend on the Colorado
River, are preparing for the possibility of water shortages for the
first time since the Hoover Dam was built in the 1930's to control the
river's flow. The top water official of the Bush administration,
Bennett W. Raley, said recently that the federal government might step
in if the states could not decide among themselves how to cope with
dwindling supplies, a threat that riled local officials but
underscored the growing urgency.
"Before this drought, we had 20 years of
a wet cycle and 20 years of the most growth ever," said John R.
D'Antonio, the New Mexico State engineer, who is scrambling to find
new water supplies for the suburbs of Albuquerque that did not exist a
The latest blow was paltry snowfall during
March in the Rocky Mountains, pushing down runoff projections for the
Colorado River this year to 55 percent of average. Snowmelt is the
lifeblood of the river, which provides municipal water from Denver to
Los Angeles and irrigates millions of acres of farmland. The period
since 1999 is now officially the driest in the 98 years of recorded
history of the Colorado River, according to the United States
"March was a huge wake-up call as to the
need to move at an accelerated pace," said Mr. Raley, assistant
secretary of the interior for water and science.
Losing Water at Lake Powell
Some of the biggest water worries are focused
here on Lake Powell, the vast blue diamond of deep water that
government engineers created in one of the driest and most remote
areas of the country beginning in the 1950's. From its inception, Lake
Powell, the nation's second-largest artificial lake, after Lake Mead
in Nevada, was a powerful symbol across the West. Some saw it as a
statement of human will and know-how, others of arrogance.
Powell, part of the Glen Canyon National
Recreation Area, has lost nearly 60 percent of its water and is now
about the size it was during the Watergate hearings in 1973, when it
was still filling up. White cliffs 10 stories high, bleached by salts
from the lake and stranded above the water, line its side canyons.
Elsewhere, retreating waters have exposed mountains of sediment.
The tourist economy here in Page has been
battered. The National Park Service, which operates the recreation
area, has spent millions of dollars in recent years just to lay
concrete for boat-launch ramps that must be extended every year, a
process that one marina operator here called "chasing
Daniel C. McCool, a professor of political
science at the University of Utah and director of the American West
Center, says Powell is the barometer of the drought because what has
happened here is as much about politics, economics and the
interlocking system of rules and rights called the law of the river as
it is about meteorology.
Part of the lake's problem, for example,
dates to a miscalculation in 1922, when hydrologists overestimated the
average flow of the Colorado River and locked the number into a
multistate agreement called the Colorado River Compact. The compact,
along with a subsequent treaty with Mexico, requires Lake Powell to
release 8.23 million acre-feet of water each year below the river's
dam, Glen Canyon, no matter how much comes in.
Because the river's real average flow was
less than the 1922 compact envisioned, Powell very often released more
than half of the water the Colorado River delivered. But it did not
really matter because the upper basin states were not using their
share. Now, communities from Denver to Salt Lake City and Indian
tribes with old water rights in their portfolios are stepping forward
to stake their claims. Lake Powell, which has been called the aquatic
piggy bank of the upper West, is overdrawn.
If water levels continue to fall, Powell will
be unable to generate electricity as early as 2007 or sooner, some
hydrologists say. And it would be reduced more or less to the old
riverbed channel of the Colorado River not long after that. Even now,
the lake's managers say, it would take a decade of historically normal
rainfall to refill it.
"If we're only in the middle of this
drought, then Lake Powell might be very close to some very dramatic
problems," said Dr. John C. Dohrenwend, a retired geologist for
the Geological Survey who lives near the lake.
Insufficient water for the Glen Canyon Dam
turbines would be only the beginning. At that point, much of the lake
bottom would be exposed, creating a vast environment for noxious weeds
like tamarisk and thistle. The next step in the spiral would come at
what is called "dead pool," where decades' worth of
agricultural chemicals at the lake bottom would begin mixing more
actively with the reactivated river. The question then,
environmentalists say, is what would happen to the Grand Canyon, just
south of the dam.
An Issue That May Go to Congress
"Americans won't stand for the Grand
Canyon being endangered," said John Weisheit, the conservation
director for Living Rivers, an environmental group in Moab, Utah, that
advocates removing the dam at Glen Canyon and allowing the river to
return to its natural course. "In another year, they're going to
be talking more seriously about Powell in Congress."
But the fact is, no one knows: the weather
could change tomorrow. Many past Western droughts have ended suddenly,
with a bang of precipitation. But some dry spells persisted for
generations. From about 900 to 1300, scientists say, periodic drought
in the West was the norm. Only a few times during that period,
according to tree-growth measurements, was precipitation anywhere near
the relatively high levels of the 20th century.
"What is unusual is not the drought
periods, but the above-average wet periods," said Dr. Robert
Webb, a hydrologist with the Geological Survey who specializes in the
The uncertainty has local, state and federal
officials along the 1,450-mile river scurrying to secure water
allotments while also preparing for the worst.
Already in Las Vegas, the regional water
agency is removing the equivalent of a football field of grass every
day from front lawns, playgrounds and golf courses to save on outdoor
watering. Farther downriver, Arizona officials are pumping billions of
gallons of water into aquifers to save for an even less rainy day.
Electricity has become a concern. The Western
Area Power Administration, the federal agency that distributes power
from hydroelectric projects in the Rocky Mountain West, plans to
reduce by about 25 percent the amount of electricity it can promise in
Conserving on a Large Scale
In Los Angeles, a representative from the
West's largest urban water agency, the Metropolitan Water District of
Southern California, is among a group of Western water officials
dusting off plans to help limit evaporation from reservoirs, which
could save billions of gallons. One idea is to pour a nontoxic
substance over the reservoirs to form a water-trapping barrier.
The group, which has been holding meetings,
is even looking at far-off solutions like raising the height of Hoover
Dam so that more water could be collected and saved during wet times.
"We understand we have a problem and we
are working on it," said the Los Angeles representative, Dennis
Underwood, a former head of the federal Bureau of Reclamation, which
oversees dams and reservoirs in the West.
There are also worries downstream from Powell
at Lake Mead, which serves Nevada, Arizona and California. It could
drop low enough as early as next year to force officials to declare a
drought emergency. That would hurt the booming southern Nevada economy
through significantly higher water rates and outright bans on things
like new swimming pools, said Patricia Mulroy, general manager of the
Southern Nevada Water Authority.
Mr. Raley of the Interior Department said he
wanted the states to consider a water bank, in which unused water
could be leased or sold across state lines. Some previous efforts to
create banks, with federal oversight, have been contentious because
they were seen by smaller states as a means to funnel more of the
river to water-guzzling California.
But the notion of cutting private water deals
on the Colorado is gaining broader acceptance, in large part because
of the drought. The most celebrated example was a deal last year to
sell irrigation water in the Imperial Valley of Southern California to
the urban water district in San Diego.
Some advocates for agriculture fear that
water-to-the-highest-bidder could ravage ranches and farms if owners
were induced to sell their irrigation rights. But private-market
supporters say the truth, like it or not, is that farmers own most of
the West's water, and ultimately there will be fewer of them.
There is some concern that if the Colorado
River goes into crisis, the ensuing tangle of litigation over water
rights, endangered species and border disputes could undo the system
of Western water law that has evolved over the last 100 years.
Some say that would be a good thing.
"The law of the river is hopelessly,
irretrievably obsolete, designed on a hydrological fallacy, around an
agrarian West that no longer exists," Professor McCool at the
University of Utah said. "After six years of drought, somebody
will have to say the emperor has no clothes."
Water officials in Arizona and Nevada say
they would also like to rethink the law of the river to put their
states on a more equal footing in sharing the Colorado River. But Mr.
Raley said such talk invites disaster and chaos, especially during a
"This isn't the time to plunge into
chaos," he said.
Other people who live here on the fringe of
Lake Powell say that the West's great reservoirs have, in their very
decline, proved their value in stretching out limited water resources
and underlined the difference between past civilizations here that
anthropologists say were wiped out or displaced by drought.
"Those people back then had nothing to
catch and save their water — now we do," said Ronald W.
Thompson, district manager of the Washington County Water Conservancy
District in southwestern Utah.
"I'm a believer that history repeats
itself — long-term drought could return," Mr. Thompson said.
"But I suspect our civilization can weather this."
Kirk Johnson reported from Page, Ariz.,
for this article and Dean E. Murphy from Grand Canyon National Park.