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Requiem for a River

Photo of the Colorado River
Hydro energy: The Colorado flows through Glen Canyon Dam, west of Page, Arizona. Lake Powell is visible to the north.
More than 80 years ago, seven western states hammered out a pact dividing up the water in the Colorado River. Agriculture was king and Las Vegas just a railroad watering stop in the middle of nowhere. Today, after an eight-year drought, the river is in crisis. Tim Folger traveled from its snow-fed headwaters to the feeble trickle that enters the Gulf of California, asking everyone he met: What comes next?

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."

Glacier Gorge
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.

image of Tim Folger
Tim Folger, an OnEarth contributing editor, has been writing about science and the environment for more than 20 years. In 2007 he won the American Institute of Physics science writing award. His work has appeared in Discover, National Geographic, Sci... READ MORE >

The Nevada Engineer looks at perennial yield which is not sustained yield by definition. The water rights applications are based on a "water budget," the concept that water withdrawal does not exceed the natural predevelopment discharge. "The predevelopment water budget only indirectly provides information on the amount of water perennially available, in that it can only indicate the magnitude of the original discharge that can be decreased (captured) under possible, usually extreme, development alternatives at possible significant expense to the environment." USGS Circular 1186, Sustainability of Ground-Water Resources (1999), pages 18 and 22. Las Vegas Valley Water District filed the 146 original water rights applications in 1989, is still there in Las Vegas, and is a member of SNWA. The Nevada Engineer has a public interest test for interbasin transfers of water.

Often, it is not the water but the water managers that need to be managed. We in the Snake Valley, NV do not trust Pat Mulroy as here words differ from her actions as the following notes:

Pat Mulroy, the SNWA General Manager at the Sept 11 hearings: “We have a new ethic to protect environmental resources” and “We have an environmental record beyond reproach”. And she also said re the Owens valley: Pat Mulroy finds such comparisons ridiculous. “Owens Valley was a time and place when this country had no environmental ethic and no environmental laws. Those days are gone,” she insists.

Just before a newspaper ad campaign in Nevada suggesting the Water Authority is concerned about environmental issues associated with the pipeline project, this from the Nevada State Engineer’s Office: “State Engineer Tracy Taylor, in a 19-page decision, largely rejected an effort by lawyers for the Southern Nevada Water Authority to limit consideration of environmental issues in the hearings, scheduled Sept. 11-29 in Carson City. Taylor also rejected a Water Authority motion to exclude consideration of the effects on recreation and "scenic values" the ground water pumping and exportation could have.”

Another critical point is her spin on conservation: Las Vegas uses far more water per capita than say Tuscon or Albuquerque. Mulroy has a long way to go here to be credible on conservation.

Tim: good job as always.

The root of all evil is unbridled population "growth." Actually, it is population explosion, relative to sustainability, which demands a population decrease. It is the 5000 pound elephant in the room that few, if any, talk about - population expansion. Bad news for all the good folks trying to conserve, reuse, recyle, etc. Too many footprints, too many carbon and water footprints. No matter what technology and other measures yield, population growth will outpace the gains. It is far, far, far past time to stop granting tax exemptions beyond one child per couple per lifetime. It's time to require breeding pairs to fund the offsets to the damage they are causing. If not in dollars, then in donated time - donated time at the schools they do not fund (breeders getting, instead, an undeserved tax exemption for the pain they cause ethical people), work on the conservation easements, work in the planned parent agencies, etc. It's time for breeders to pay the real cost of the selfish, callous, unethical, costly damage with which they are saddling nature.


Great humor in such a compellingly serious story. I find you to be a truly gifted scribe.
Thanks for the care.

Namaste' dp

I agree 100% that POPULATION is driving a great deal of the environmental problems. I have been a ZPG (that will tell you my age) proponent since I was 14 years old and living in Salt Lake City - Home of the "Go Forth, Multiply, and Replenish the Earth" folks. I have only been through Las Vegas on my way to California and would never consider that a fun place to visit. We have got to open up that ugly POPULATION discussion - much like the one we need to have about Race - but our planet can NOT sustain the level of humanity growing at the current rate - no way/no how. Bad Foreign policy coupled with the ridiculous RELIGIOUS beliefs will make this very hard to do. However, I believe that if we don't start making seriously hard choices, the planet will make them for us and we won't have to worry any more because most of humanity will be dead.

I feel like I've lived too long. . .

Congrats on your bigoted attitudes in regards to religion. Perhaps you should not consider yourself the person to decide the fate of our plantet, as I am sure you are only slightly more intelligent than your post makes you seem.

*sp* planet

When colorado river water users wish to have more water they can have about 9 million AF when they are able to pay for the desalination.
That is desalinate 1.5 million AF and give to Mexico,
and 7.5 million AF for those below Glen Canyon.
There would be some additional pumping costs.00000-

the world offers this awesome river.