Requiem for a River
Snake Valley, Nevada
[Elevation 5,300 feet]
Somewhere on the road between the lonely McMansion where the Mormon polygamist's senior wife lives and the dried-up spring where the wild horses died of thirst, I put my foot in my mouth. "How big is your ranch?" I ask Dean Baker, the lean and weathered owner of much of the land around us.
My question seems innocuous enough, but an embarrassed silence envelops the packed Chevy Suburban in which I'm riding with eight Nevada ranchers.
Before Baker can answer, Hank Vogler, a hefty man with a long, droopy gray mustache, interrupts. "Well, that's a bad question," he says. "That's like me asking you what does your wife look like naked. Your reply should be, 'That's none of your damn business.'"
I realize that I've inadvertently put Baker in the uncomfortable position of being asked to reveal his net worth to a stranger in front of his friends. Later I learn that he recently refused a $20 million offer from a real estate speculator for his 12,000-acre ranch, land that he and his family have worked for more than 50 years. The speculator wasn't interested in Baker's modest home, which stands behind a gas station, or even his land. He wanted the water rights. In the nation's driest state, water is a precious commodity.
On this late April afternoon, Baker has organized what he's calling a water tour to show me and ranchers from some of the neighboring valleys what eight years of drought have done to the local springs and water table. Baker raises cattle, alfalfa, barley, corn, and other crops here in the Snake Valley, about 300 miles northeast of Las Vegas. The valley is one of many in the Great Basin, the vast, arid, sparsely populated 200,000-square-mile plateau that sprawls across nearly all of Nevada and half of Utah. West of us, beyond a plain matted with sagebrush, juniper, and greasewood, the Snake range walls off the horizon, with the snowy peak of 13,000-foot Mount Wheeler lambent against the azure high-desert sky. Due east, in Utah, looms the Confusion range, named for its chaotic geologic strata. North, beyond sight over the curved rim of the planet, barren salt flats spread like a bridal train to the Great Salt Lake.
Our first stop is at Needle Point Spring, across the state line in Utah, the site of what was once a small pond. Six years ago, 12 wild horses were found dead there. The pond, on which they depended, vanished nearly overnight after a nearby rancher tapped it to irrigate some new fields. The only sign that water ever flowed there is some dead, brittle gray grass and an empty cattle trough.
The demand for water here, exacerbated by the growth of Las Vegas, has never been greater. Las Vegas, built in the middle of the Mojave Desert, gets 60,000 new residents-and four inches of rain -- each year. To secure the water it needs to maintain that growth, the city plans to build a $2 billion pipeline to pump groundwater from the valleys of northern Nevada. Baker and his fellow ranchers believe the pipeline will be a disaster, not just for them but for the Great Basin ecosystem, which is one reason we've driven to Needle Point Spring. If a single farmer can suck a spring dry, what will happen when a city of nearly two million starts pumping groundwater here?
The remote Snake Valley is but one of the many fronts in a battle for water rights that will play out in the decades ahead across the entire Southwest. The Brobdingnagian twentieth-century system of dams, reservoirs, tunnels, and canals that made possible the explosive growth of desert metropolises like Las Vegas is overtaxed. An unprecedented drought has depleted Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the huge reservoirs on the Colorado River that supply water to some 25 million people and support a $1.2 trillion regional economy. With the onset of global warming, an already bad situation is likely to get much worse. Some climate scientists suspect that the current drought is not an aberration but the start of a transition to permanently drier conditions in the fastest-growing -- and most arid -- region in North America.
Disputes over water are nothing new here. Without the Colorado River, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Tucson would still be small towns, and the Sonoran Desert would reclaim the implausibly green Imperial Valley in California, one of the world's richest agricultural regions. Even San Diego would be running out of water.
Late last year, the seven states that share the Colorado River's water -- Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming -- agreed to new federal guidelines for managing the river that should prevent the drought from morphing into a full-blown catastrophe. But that agreement won't end the region's water wars. During four months of traveling from the river's wild, clear headwaters in the Colorado Rockies to its trickling, ignominious end in Mexico, I frequently heard two aphorisms, the first attributed to Mark Twain, the second anonymous: "Whiskey's for drinking, water's for fighting over," and "Water always runs uphill to money."
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
[Elevation 10,600 feet]
The river that sustains seven states begins in the sky, when moisture borne from the Pacific on westerly winds settles as snow on the peaks of the Rockies. This high, white reservoir is the source for roughly 70 percent to 80 percent of the water that flows in the Colorado. The potential energy stored in the falling snow and transferred to rushing mountain freshets sculpts the Grand Canyon and spins the 35-ton turbines at Hoover Dam.
Right now, though, the snow is mostly just making me cold. Our small party -- two scientists, a park biologist, another journalist, and I -- has paused on the northeast edge of a frozen lake, known simply as the Loch, high in Rocky Mountain National Park. We've spent this early-spring morning passing single file through a soundless white forest, buoyed atop five feet of snow by our snowshoes. We've followed the path of a stream, which courses invisibly beneath snow and ice, up the slope of a steep, U-shaped valley gouged by glaciers more than 12,000 years ago. We're nearly past the tree line now; our destination is a weather station on a ridge above the lakeshore, where we'll begin to collect snowfall and streamflow data.
"If you have an extra layer, now would be a good time to put it on," says Jill Baron, an ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Baron, a crisp, energetic woman with short brown hair, dons a yellow and gray Gore-Tex parka. A large backpack covers nearly half of her five-foot frame. She has made this climb hundreds of times over the past 24 years. "Good data, hard won" is how she describes her work.
We tuck our heads deep into our hoods as protection against frostbite and set off across the lake. With our heads bowed and cowled, our small column must look like a strange sect of mountain penitents. A half hour after crossing the lake we reach CO98, the prosaically named weather station. Baron immediately puts me to work shoveling snow away from some solar panels that power a variety of instruments, and I'm grateful for the warmth of activity.
CO98 is one of more than 250 such outposts in a continent-spanning network called the National Atmospheric Deposition Program, a project jointly operated by the USGS, the Department of Agriculture, and assorted state and local groups. Researchers like Baron visit all the stations weekly, recording the amount of rainfall and snowfall, checking streamflow gauges, and testing water, rain, and snow for acidity or pollutants like mercury.
While I help Baron remove some paper charts from a drum attached to a rain and snow gauge, Karl Cordova, a biologist with the National Park Service, and Donald Campbell, a USGS hydrologist, retrieve a couple of five-gallon plastic buckets of snow from a simple but ingenious collector. The device consists of a lidded box that holds the buckets and a small motor that opens and closes the lid. When snow or rain falls on two small metal plates that almost touch, the moisture conducts electricity, creating a circuit between the plates. The current triggers the motor to open the lid and expose the buckets. When the precipitation stops, so does the current, and the lid slides back into place.
Cordova loads the two snow-filled buckets into his cavernous backpack, adding maybe 20 pounds to his load, and we start back down the trail, where one more chore awaits. At a stream flowing out of the lake, we stop to collect a water sample. To reach the stream, Cordova digs a hole through several feet of snow. Baron removes her snowshoes, drops into the hole, and dips a flask into the frigid brook.
Arduous research like this over the past decade has revealed two unsettling facts about mountains throughout the West: from the Cascades to the Rockies, less snow is falling each year and the dwindling alpine snowpack is melting earlier.
"Peak runoff when we first started doing our studies was from the middle to the end of June," Baron tells me as we start back. The wind has subsided; we actually manage to enjoy the Loch's icy beauty now and even talk comfortably as we clomp side by side over the snow. "So snowmelt would start somewhere from the end of April to early May. In the past several years we've been seeing it occur three to four weeks earlier."
Baron is cautious about making the connection, but we're probably witnessing the effects of global warming on one of the highest, coldest parts of the country. Climate scientists predict that for every 1.8 degree Fahrenheit increase in temperature, mountain snow cover will retreat upward by 500 feet. The West's total snowpack could be reduced by as much as 40 percent in the next half century.