Charles Bowden’s Fury ~ High Country News, 2014



He first saw the whale nearly 20 years ago, in Mexico. He was standing watch, so to speak, and the dark ocean exploded in foam and spray and there in front of him was the monster he’d been pursuing, the source of all the violence and corruption he’d seen. It scared the hell out of him and he turned away. He didn’t go after it.

Then, a few years later, the whale came back and killed a friend of his, and Bowden blames himself for this. If he would have fought the whale in the beginning, he believes, his friend would still be alive.

“I was a coward,” he says.

It didn’t happen quite like that. The whale is an allegory, because I promised I wouldn’t write the real names and places. But his friend did die and the thing that killed him is the thing Bowden saw, and it was like a horrible monster. The allegory fits. Bowden is Ahab and he’s going after Moby Dick.

Charles Bowden in Arizona’s Sycamore Canyon, July 2013. Courtesy Molly Molloy

He’s 69 years old, in fair shape from lifting weights and going on long walks, but he’s losing some teeth and is pretty much penniless. His possessions consist of a sleeping bag, a cot, a stove for coffee, a Honda Fit and a pair of Swarovski binoculars — high-quality glass. This is the way he wants it, having nothing to lose. He knows his only real asset is more than 40 years’ experience as an investigative reporter, and also he knows that the whale is not Evil, that Ahab was wrong. The whale, for Bowden, is part of nature, our nature.

He’s speaking in the tone of a scientist but describing violence and violent acts, signs and sightings left in the wake of the whale. There was the man who was tortured and killed and his body was found without a head. A few days later the head was delivered to his family in a cooler. There was the baby’s blood splattered on the wall above the bathtub. There was the girl who was raped for a week by 10 policemen. There was the arm with a tricep as thick as a truck tire that strangled hundreds of men. The list is endless, stretching back decades. Even before he first saw the whale, Bowden was finding evidence of something he couldn’t explain, something dark beyond his imagination.

“I didn’t choose this course,” he says. “It chose me.”

Bowden’s last report, for instance, was a confession by a member of the Chihuahua State Police who tortured and killed hundreds of people for a Juárez drug cartel. El Sicario, the assassin, describes in detail how there was no separation between the police and the cartel, how he was just following orders, and how he found himself in Hell. For instance, he became an expert at boiling people alive in a big kettle of water, keeping them alive for a day, long enough to get them to talk — you have a hook and you keep pulling them out and slicing off the dead flesh because they can’t feel that, and you have a doctor there pumping them with adrenaline so they won’t die. Bowden talked to the sicario for months before he would open up, and then the more Bowden listened, the more he came to see the man as a normal human being, not evil. And then Bowden began to like him. They became friends.

That was two years ago and since then Bowden has been silent. Reclusive. Back at headquarters there grew some concern — was he perhaps traumatized, drinking too much, unable to work? And so I was sent to find him and measure his sanity, his health and well-being.

He knows why I’ve come. This morning, before I arrived, in order to prove he’s been working, he emailed a new book to an editor in New York. It’s called Rhapsody and he says it’s a love story about wild things and wild places. I wonder what this has to do with the whale, but I don’t ask the question. Instead I ask him if it’s true he’s been hiding out.

“I just got tired of talking to stupid people on the phone,” he says. “I wanted to strip everything down and start over.”

He knows I understand the feeling and lets it sit for a moment with the crickets.

“I got trapped on a path,” he says.

Bats are dive-bombing bugs above our heads.

“I wanted to write about nature, about animals, what it’s like to be an animal, but I went into murder reporting and now I’m recovering.”

I can’t see him but I know he’s lying on his back with his hand on a cup of red wine, looking up at the stars.

“Everything you see out there is constantly re-inventing itself,” he says. “We call it evolution. It’s all one big yes.”

The crickets agree.

“I want to write something that matters. In order to do it you have to get rid of yourself. The lion on the hunt ceases to be the lion and becomes the deer.”

I know what he’s saying, but I’m wondering how to describe it to the folks back at headquarters.

“In the end all writing is about adding to life, not diminishing it. That’s what life is all about. There isn’t a plant out here that’s not trying to take all that chlorophyll and light and trying to add to life. The book I sent today I did 15 drafts, or I stopped counting at 15. I don’t know if it’s any good, I just know it about killed me and it’s the best I can do.”

Charles Bowden with inmates of Visión En Acción, a mental health facility in Juárez that he supported since he first ran across it while reporting in 2008. Photojournalist and Bowden collaborator Julian Cardona says this was one of his friend’s favorite images. Julián Cardona

He hands me his computer so I can read the book off the screen. He’ll let the work speak for itself. After one chapter I realize it’s a long poem, a song about being in a war. I tell him this and he takes back the computer and reads out loud from the second chapter:

… There is a door that opens to a room and in that room is a table, a round table, and at that table sits power. The head of the table belongs to the fist or paw or talon that grabs power. I want to go through that door and get in that room and sit at that table with that power and the wolf should be there, the elk also, the birds in the sky, the fish in the sea, the serpents and monsters of the deep, and this time when the waters come there will be no Noah and no rainbow, God help us, no rainbow. 

He’s building a rhythm, rhapsodic. It is a song.

… wolves I say, more wolves, elk in the dusk, wolves in the night, and in the morning meadowlarks singing the grass into the light and suddenly one green teal drake attacks another and rams it with its bill and I don’t know why and that is the reason I must get through the door and into the room and sit at that table with the slime and slobber and tooth and fang and fin and feather and ask

why does life mean death

and who said my people were better than wolves

and why can’t I howl at the moon

and who do you love …

Who writes like this? It’s beautiful, but I wonder if he’s lost his mind.

No, he hasn’t lost his mind. This is his “big yes.” He’s written a love song to the whale. Ahab, alone on deck, throws his sextant into the sea, opens his heart, and begins to sing.

… I stare up, and stars are everywhere, there is no city on the horizon, the cold seeks my bones and no moon rises … the voices in my head are my father and his brothers and down the sweep of hill, past the two barns, the hog house, the limestone shed with a spring to cool the cans of milk, past the meadows and the creek and the woodlot the valley flows studded with quarries, refineries and coking mills and in the day the sky goes dark with plumes of smoke and in the night the gas venting off the refineries and the blazes off the coking mills fill the sky with flames and always there is the stench of fuels spent and lives incinerated and no one can tell me why and no one asks why because the money is good and life is hard and the women scrub and the game has fled and hardly a bone or hair remains to haunt us, and they say nothing, they play poker, drink, sit under the apple trees. There is no mention of another way. 

“Yes,” I say, “That’s really good.”

And I mean it. I think he’s the best writer, or one of the best writers, we have, and I’ve felt this way since I read his early reports 30 years ago. But back at headquarters — behind the desks — there are going to be some questions. Bowden’s written more than 25 books and most of them were, let’s say, not financial successes — too grim, people don’t want to think about that stuff. He’s written hundreds of magazine articles, but no magazine editor in New York will talk to him anymore because he tells them straight up they publish garbage — lies and fluff to sell advertisements. I’m afraid they are not going to understand his new book, and if I describe it as a love song to a whale … they’ll call him a fool, write him off as a drunk. Maybe both of us.

So, before I go to sleep, I start laying out how I will present his defense, starting with an explanation of where he comes from and how he arrived at this place.

He was born four days after the first atomic bomb went off — a July 1945 test blast in New Mexico. This timing put him in lockstep to come of age with the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam War protests and the Monterey Pop Festival. He got arrested and beaten up by the cops in Madison, Wisconsin, for building a barricade on the street to protect some people who were burning down a grocery store, but he thought this was nothing compared to what he’d seen black protesters go through in the South in the fight for equal rights. They were Bowden’s early model, people who were willing to risk everything in order to be treated as equal human beings.

Bowden was a part of a cultural movement that seemed to be winning a revolution by speaking truth to power, and it was exhilarating. He rode the crest of the high and beautiful 1960s wave that gonzo writer Hunter Thompson described as “a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. … Our energy would simply prevail.”

But then the wave crashed into the shore and it was over.

At that time, in the early ’70s, Bowden had a tenure-track position teaching history at the University of Illinois in Chicago. He was a young rising star in the field, but he couldn’t take the competitive, small-minded bullshit that comes with academia. So he dropped out of the system and disappeared from the screen, living on a bicycle, sleeping on the side of the road around Tucson, Arizona, where he’d gone to high school.

Charles Bowden, left, is introduced to Ed Abbey, center, by environmentalist monkeywrencher Dave Foreman, right, on Abbey’s back porch in Tucson in the early 1970s. After being asked to not take photographs, P.K. Weis surreptitiously squeezed off a few frames. “Chuck would have expected no less!,” the photographer, a Bowden colleague at The Tucson Citizen, writes. P.K. Weis

He got good on the bike and started racing. When he won a 300-miler across the desert he thought he should buy a better bike, a Colnago, for $1,500. To earn some money, he took a job writing for a local daily, The Tucson Citizen, and then he fell in love with newspapers — writing for newspapers, the whole idea of being a fierce watchdog against power and corruption. The reigning desert scribe, Edward Abbey, lived in Tucson at that time, Abbey and Bowden were friends, and this is how Abbey explained it in a piece called A Writer’s Credo:

It is my belief that the writer, the free-lance author, should be and must be a critic of the society in which he lives. … That is all I ask of the author. To be a hero, appoint himself a moral leader, wanted or not. I believe that words count, that writing matters, that poems, essays, and novels — in the long run — make a difference. If they do not, then in the words of my exemplar Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the writer’s work is of no more importance than the barking of village dogs at night.

Bowden followed Abbey’s credo and won awards. Politicians lived in fear of his pen. Then, when nobody else at the paper wanted the job, Bowden took the crime beat. And that’s when things changed.

For three years in the early ’80s, he covered crime and learned about violence and the results of violence — dead babies, raped women, the men who did it, men who killed. Gradually, as will happen with cops and crime reporters and public defenders, he began “to lose the distinction between the desires of criminals and the desires of the rest of us.”

… I’d quit the paper twice, break down more often than I can remember, and I’d have to go away for a week or two and kill through violent exercise the things that roamed my mind. It was during this period that I began taking 100 or 200 mile walks in the desert, far from any trails. I would write these flights from myself up and people began to talk about me as a “nature writer.” (Bowden reading aloud from his 1998 Harper’s piece, “Torch Song: At the Peripheries of Violence and Desire.”)

Nature writer sounded better to Bowden than crime reporter, as a career move. He liked writing about nature. He was tired of violence and wanted to find out what it’s like to be a lizard or a bat. So, like Abbey and Thoreau, Bowden went into the wilderness, trying to leave civilization behind.

But when Bowden got to the desert, he found a war zone. Instead of writing about animals and what it’s like to be an animal, he ended up covering the drug trade and the other smugglers who assisted one of the largest human migrations in history — lots of dead bodies, some murdered and dismembered with body parts rearranged as conceptual art, some lying in the hot desert getting eaten by birds and javelina.

Bowden wrote the hard truths behind these facts, these dead bodies. It was our demand for illegal drugs that fueled the violence in Mexico. It was our free trade policy that broke Mexican farmers and started the mass migration north where they became like slaves, our slaves, if they made it alive. There was no getting away from this part of our civilization, it spilled over into the wilderness, it was part of the wilderness.

Nobody wanted to hear these truths. Often his editors didn’t believe what he wrote because they’d never heard it before. If it hadn’t been in The New York Times, it didn’t exist. Eventually, after a lot of arguing, his reports would get published and then be ignored, met with silence. Readers, common unsuspecting folk, also had never heard such horrors before and didn’t know whether it was fact or fiction or what, and they especially didn’t like how Bowden would bring these faraway horrors into their homes, even into their minds and bodies, and leave them there. People usually don’t want that to happen to them. Something like that we try to forget as soon as possible.

Not Charles Bowden.

“Not on my watch,” he would always say, back then.

Charles Bowden poses at a duplex known as the House of Death in a middle class neighborhood in Juárez in 2004, just months after a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement informant known as Lalo led Mexican police to the bodies of 12 people who had been tortured, then buried in the patio. Julián Cardona

And he seemed fearless. In the mid-’90s, for instance, he published the name of the leader of the Juárez cartel, with a photo, presenting evidence that tons of illegal drugs were being flown into Juárez on commercial aircraft where they were unloaded by the Mexican military. A month later the leader of the cartel, Amado Carrillo, died on the operating table while having his face redesigned by plastic surgeons. The surgeons were tortured and killed. Somehow, for reasons that remain a mystery, Bowden stayed alive.

He kept investigating the drug trade. Everybody in Mexico knows the Mexican government and the Mexican military are involved in the drug trade, but proving it is difficult. Reporters in Mexico are often threatened and sometimes killed. There is no rule of law — policemen become killers, judges are paid to let people out of jail, reporters are paid to be silent. Those in power remain invisible. Bowden wanted to see them, clearly, and know their nature, what it’s like to be them, the people who run the killing machine.

He made friends with people who wanted to tell the truth about what they’d seen and what they’d lost, people on both sides, all sides, of the drug war. He told their stories and he got it right and he built a wide network of reliable informants, people who trusted him. He was putting the pieces together slowly and carefully.

Then one day the whole thing unfolded in front of him, emerged like Moby Dick surfacing from the depths of the ocean, and what he saw frightened him. It was too big, too powerful for him to fight.

A few years later, in the mid-’90s, another reporter named Gary Webb saw the same whale, and he didn’t turn away. Webb wrote about it, but then Webb was ruined for what he wrote. His report — charging that profits from the ’80s crack epidemic in Los Angeles were funneled to a Latin American guerrilla army run by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency — was quickly denounced by The New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. Webb became a pariah. But Bowden met Webb and investigated Webb’s sighting of the whale. He retraced all Webb’s steps and found no flaw in his methods or findings. In fact he found more evidence to support Webb’s claim, and wrote an 11,000-word magazine article about it. But it wasn’t enough. Webb lost his job, his marriage, his home, his money … and then he shot himself in December 2004. That was the experience that left Bowden feeling alone, a coward.

In 2008, Juárez exploded in a wave of violence that lasted four years and left somewhere around 15,000 dead bodies. There were periods when it was more dangerous to be in Juárez than anywhere in Afghanistan or Iraq. The wave of violence was said to be a war between the Juárez and Sinaloa cartels, but the people doing the killing often wore uniforms of police and the military, and the dead people were often innocent bystanders. Also, there was so much killing that the killers started to “sign” their work by arranging the body or body parts in a particular fashion, such as hanging the body from an overpass in morning rush hour traffic with a threat written on a poster board, or cutting off the head and placing it between the legs facing the crotch wearing a Santa Claus hat, or hanging the body, face covered with a pig mask, like Christ crucified on an iron fence. Things like that, and worse.

Bowden filed his reports, and always the reaction was the same — nobody cared, nothing happened, the killing continued. One of his reports during this period described how killing is fun. There were something like 500 separate street gangs in Juárez and the initiation was always the same — kill someone. Young boys joined the gangs knowing their lives would be short and violent, but also knowing that for a brief period they would have money and girls and cars and drugs — better than working like a slave in a maquiladora assembling televisions and vacuum cleaners to be sold in America — and they’d get to kill people, which made them feel real and alive like nothing they’d ever experienced. And then they would, in turn, get killed and it would be over, no more fear. Bowden wrote this up and handed it in and the response was silence. The paychecks from headquarters kept coming, but they stopped publishing what he wrote.

In 2010, Bowden was sitting in a restaurant with a man who happened to mention that he knew an assassin, a sicario, who had been a state policeman in charge of investigating kidnappings in Juárez, but instead he kidnapped, tortured and killed people for the cartel. Recently he’d gone into hiding and found Jesus Christ as his lord and savior. He wanted to confess everything.

Bowden pounded his fists on the table and said, “I want him!”

Charles Bowden along the border fence in the Anapra neighborhood of Juárez, Mexico, where he chronicled maquila workers, the unsolved murders of women and gang violence. Julián Cardona

He thought if the sicario would talk then he’d be able to say who was ordering the killings. This would be hard evidence implicating those who were in charge, a way to make them visible.

So he met the sicario and got to know him for several months, never asking a question about his former life. He knew that when the time was right he wouldn’t have to ask a question, and until then it would be pointless. People don’t tell you anything worth knowing until they trust you.

Eventually the man opened up and the truth poured out of him like a rare flood in a desert wash — how he did it, tortured and killed, how he became good at it and took pride in his work. Unfortunately, the sicario never knew who he was working for. His phone would ring and a voice would give him an order, and he would follow the order. He was a good soldier, doing his job as best he could, never asking questions that could get him killed.

As Bowden got to know the sicario, he began to see him as a highly intelligent person who’d been trapped in the killing machine. He’d done evil things, but he was not evil. They became friends … and oh, the horror.

Charles Bowden amid the hummingbird feeders at author and colleague Jim Harrison’s place in Patagonia, Arizona, 2011. In his foreword to The Charles Bowden Reader, Harrison wrote: “You don’t simply read Bowden, you become a Bowden addict, and the addiction is not always pleasant.” Marie Baronnet

Bowden came to this house in the trees next to the stream to strip everything down and start over. Writing the new book, finding a new way to write, has been his therapy. It makes perfect sense to me.

Bowden gets up at dawn and pours birdseed into two feeders and fills four hummingbird tubes with sugar water. He’s been doing this wherever he lives, for decades. The birds are waiting for him, and within a minute there are 40, 60, 80 … too many to count. I ask him what kind of birds we’re looking at.

“Broad-billed hummingbirds, white-winged doves, cardinals, brown-headed cowbirds, thick-billed kingbirds, lesser goldfinch, black-headed grosbeaks, Inca doves, mourning doves, violet-crowned hummingbirds, black-chinned hummingbirds. … I go through 100 pounds of birdseed a month.”

He makes some coffee and we sit down in the same places as last night and he continues where he left off. I don’t have to ask a question. He knows why I’ve come.

“I’ve always felt alone,” he says. “I have a consciousness that separates me from other people. I’m an animal, full of lust and desire. If people knew who I really am they wouldn’t like it.”

I’m thinking that’s how we all feel, sometimes, but never say it out loud.

All in all, Bowden appears to be doing fine. He’s going after the whale, and I hope he catches it.

Postscript from Bowden’s Blood Orchid, 1995: Imagine the problem is not physical. Imagine the problem has never been physical, that it is not biodiversity, it is not the ozone layer, it is not the greenhouse effect, the whales, the old-growth forest, the loss of jobs, the crack in the ghetto, the abortions, the tongue in the mouth, the diseases stalking everywhere as love goes on unconcerned. Imagine the problem is not some syndrome of our society that can be solved by commissions or laws or a redistribution of what we call wealth. Imagine that it goes deeper, right to the core of what we call our civilization and that no one outside of ourselves can affect real change, that our civilization, our governments are sick and that we are mentally ill and spiritually dead and that all our issues and crises are symptoms of this deeper sickness … then what are we to do?

Scott Carrier is a writer and documentarian based in Salt Lake City; his books include Running After Antelope, published in 2001, and his radio pieces have been aired on radio shows including Hearing Voices, This American Life, and All Things Considered.

Colin Mitchell’s forecasting life in Argentina

Hi Jerry,

I thought I’d send some pics along of my first week at Baguales.  It’s really beautiful here, it helps to make up for the lack of summer.  

I stayed at this cool old lakeside hotel, called the Mascardi Lodge, nice old school 4-star, and now I am at the ‘Hosteria’ the lower lodge at Baguales.  Also very nice, old school digs.  Not much snow, but a meter and a half or more in the forecast for next week, changing to heavy rain after that, should be good for a few more grey hairs.  

Saludos, Colin

Winter hit quickly here, the giant storm faded a bit, but we have ~ 40cm on the ground with 70 more in the forecast by Friday.  We got our weather station up in the nick of time.  We managed to get it up to 1875 meters and it reaches camp with two repeaters.  We had to hack our way through the Patagonian rain forest to get to the mountain…. Quite a week!  The Cerro Ciruela pic is my avalanche forecasting area (top left).  If you zoom in, you can see the road at the bottom of the paths… They say down here when the parrots come down, it’s going to snow… They were right this time!  The rest of the pics are the weather station.  Note the hat that my porter is wearing.


The Entrance to Aspen, no bridge over wealth

Its effects are nearly as devastating as global warming and more immediate. We see its consequences in our own lives, yet struggle connecting the dots to describe it as the cause. It is the reason we resent billionaire transplants. Mapping its destruction throughout society transforms concerns over affordable housing into something greater than petty griping. The wealth gap is displacing people throughout the social strata and raising the poverty line through homelessness.

We are lately focusing on the Entrance to Aspen over the aging Castle Creek Bridge. Yet, there is a wider, deeper chasm challenging local residency and there are no detours around it. When a resident leaves Aspen today, the wealth gap all but ensures they will never return. A working person arriving now has almost no chance to call it permanent home.

Some insist that the displacement of locals is happening everywhere. They say this to make it seem like no big deal. They might as well sugarcoat global warming, too. That’s happening everywhere.

We acknowledge COVID-19 attracting the ultra wealthy to the relative safety of mountain communities. Technology now enables white-collar workers to do their jobs remotely and that has brought copious new wealth to town. Global warming plays a part in driving those who can afford it toward the luxurious escape of cool breezes, verdant landscapes and the fountainheads of water sources in places like Aspen. But, what facilitates all of these causes of skyrocketing costs and displacement of workforce is the burgeoning wealth gap transforming the planet. And we thought it only affected the poor.

According to Talmon Joseph Smith and Karl Russel in a New York Times story on the great generational wealth transfer looming in the U.S., total family wealth in this country grew from $38 trillion (adjusted for inflation) in 1989 to $140 trillion in 2022. They point out that the richest 1% in our country possess as much wealth as the bottom 90%.

The effects of the wealth gap are perhaps more obvious in Aspen than anywhere else, even if not with as dire direct consequences as in other parts of the world where the phenomenon is moving the line between life and death. Skeptics need only ponder how a handful of billionaires have simultaneously displaced thousands of local workers in Aspen while at the same time demand more services than ever from them, forcing them to commute daily from homes 50 and more miles away.

Billionaires need no longer to be satisfied with a single mansion in town. The Federal Reserve reports that through 2021, the richest 1% of Americans added more than $12 trillion to their net worth since the beginning of the pandemic. This astonishing sum is literally enough to buy all residential and commercial property in Pitkin County 1,800 times over. The ultra rich could easily buy all 525 U.S ski resorts and the entire towns around them with only the windfall they’ve accumulated since the outbreak of COVID-19. And, it appears they are in the process of doing just that.

The ultra rich are not selling in Nantucket to buy in Aspen. They are adding to their real estate collections. It’s why prices are rising everywhere. With money in bulk, it’s not even a decision to buy another mansion across the river to tear down because it’s blocking the view. If you want more privacy in the West End, you simply buy all the houses surrounding yours, just as medieval aristocrats built walls around their castles.

This process leaves far fewer houses around for the multimillionaires to showcase. What’s a merely filthy rich person to do? Well, they buy houses from the working second-homeowner to remodel and bring up to snuff. This leaves the wealthy vacationer in a bind. They are left to remodel dilapidated shacks and condominiums: You know, the places workers used to call home. These former citizens then use their windfalls to buy something downvalley. The domino effect displaces people in Basalt who then displace people in Carbondale and the transience continues to Glenwood Springs, then Rifle, and on and on. The ripples of housing displacement travel all the way to the oceans of poverty where the poor are pushed off the seaside cliffs to drown in the turbulent seas where desperation foams into despair.

This is true trickle-down economics at work.

As an incubator for the wealth gap, Aspen is hosting a major global force of destructive displacement. With our outsized carbon footprint, we are facilitating another. If we only construct a missile silo in the center of the roundabout, we would contain the trifecta of existential threats to our planet.

It took awhile. It is now clear that my angst over the burgeoning presence of billionaires throughout mountain towns and the sadness over what our town has become is not only a superficial lashing of my ego. It is finally recognizing that my beloved Aspen has been brought by greed and excess to the headwaters of some seriously bad stuff.

Roger Marolt acknowledges that billionaires pay for our bike paths. Email him at





It’s big news, but probably won’t be enough to save the river system

The Colorado River and the silt flats left behind by a receding Lake Powell. Note the old Hite Marina boat ramp on the left side of the image. This was once at water’s edge. Jonathan P. Thompson photo. 

The News: Arizona, California, and Nevada have come up with a landmark agreement to slash their consumption of Colorado River water by 3 million acre-feet in coming years. The Colorado River and its reservoirs are saved! 

The Buzzkill: Nope. Not quite. 

Yes, the three Lower Basin states came up with an agreement to cut water use substantially. Yes, it’s a breakthrough (as any such agreement would be). But no, it won’t be enough to save the Colorado River if the climatic conditions of the last couple decades persist or worsen. Plus, the proposed cuts are only for the next few years. What then? 

The Background: For those who may have forgotten, the 1922 Colorado River Compact divvied up the river between the Upper and Lower Basin states (Mexico was included in the 1940s). The problem: The 16.5 million acre-feet pie they parceled out was bigger than what actually existed—even back then. They assumed the river carried about 20 million acre-feet each year, on average. In fact, it was more like 14 million acre-feet, so they were already in debt to reality when the Compact was signed. Oof. 

In the decades since, the population of all of the states burgeoned and water consumption also increased. Meanwhile, after the wet and wild 1980s, long-term drought and warmer temperatures diminished the river and the reservoirs that were supposed to carry the users over during dry years. Last summer it looked like Lake Powell might drop below minimum power pool, or the level needed to allow water to flow through the hydroelectricity-generating turbines, within a couple of years. Losing hydropower is one thing, but losing the ability to release water through the penstocks is another, with its own dire ramifications

That prompted federal water officials to call on the states to cut consumption by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet per year, or else they would implement the cuts themselves. The states blew past deadlines without an agreement until finally, last month, the Bureau of Reclamation presented two alternatives: 

  1. Cut Lower Basin use according to the concept of priority (meaning Arizona would take the biggest cuts); or,The matrix for the Bureau of Reclamation’s priority-based alternative, which would burden Arizona with the biggest cuts and barely lean on California at all. USBR. 
  2. Cut a flat percentage of each state’s water use (meaning California would take the biggest cuts).The matrix for the Bureau of Reclamation’s flat percentage-based alternative, which would result in larger volume cuts for California. USBR. 

The prospect apparently was enough to scare the bejeezus out of the states, pushing them back to the negotiating table where they came up with this week’s deal. Details so far are sketchy, but here’s what we know: 

The Agreement

  • The Lower Basin states together will cut consumption by 3 million acre-feet over the 2023-2026 period, with at least 1.5 million acre-feet in cuts coming by the end of 2024 (there is no indication of how these cuts will be distributed across the states, but the Washington Post reports California will bear about half the cuts);
  • Up to 2.3 million acre-feet of those cuts will be federally compensated by about $1.2 billion in Inflation Reduction Act funds. Most likely this means that farmers will be paid not to irrigate their crops

So what’s wrong with this deal? I’ll admit that when I first read the stories on this, I was pretty damned impressed: 3 million acre-feet is good! Thing is, all those cuts are spread out over three years, meaning it’s only about 1 million acre-feet per year. That’s only half the minimum amount of cuts the feds say are needed to shore up the river system and its reservoirs. It just won’t cut it, so to speak, if the drying trend continues. 

Furthermore, the deal clearly is meant only to be temporary — a stopgap, a band-aid — that runs out in three years. What happens then? Even if the agreement were to be extended, where would the billions of dollars come from to keep paying the farmers not to irrigate? What if the Republicans’ obstructive ways nix the payments? And what about the additional 700,000 acre-feet of cuts promised? Where will they come from? Or will that require a whole new round of negotiations? 

I don’t want to be a party pooper. It’s great that the states came to an agreement and, yes, it is a solution, of sorts. But it’s not the sustainable, permanent one that’s necessary. 

But who knows? Maybe this past wet winter and huge runoff isn’t an anomaly. Maybe it’s the new normal and big rains and snows will come regularly over the next 20 years, filling up the reservoirs, saturating the soil, and swelling the Colorado River into the muddy monster of yore. Maybe we won’t need these cuts after all. But I sure as heck wouldn’t bank on it. 

Big water! That’s what this chart shows in the form of unregulated inflow into Lake Powell. That is an estimate of how much water would be flowing into the reservoir if there were no upstream diversions or dams. The actual inflow is slightly lower (74,000 cfs instead of 84,000), but the patterns are basically the same. Note that 2023’s runoff is bigger even than the monster flows of 1983 — so far. That’s unlikely to continue as the snowpack is melting fast. This also illustrates just how awful 2002 and 2021 were. USBR.


Challenge at Glen Canyon
Challenge at Glen Canyon
A shorter version of this story original…
In recent weeks I’ve written a piece or two about alfalfa. My thesis: As the biggest single water user in the Colorado River Basin, the crop must play an equally large role in contributing to the cuts necessary to keep the river from drying out. I know, it doesn’t seem like a hot-button topic. I mean, it’s just hay, after all.



The agreement on cuts, aided by a wet winter and $1.2 billion in federal payments, expires at the end of 2026

A placid, green-blue lake cuts through brown rock where the old water lines are plainly visible and suggest how far the lake has dropped.
Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the country, is formed on the Colorado River at the Hoover Dam. The reservoir’s water level has significantly dropped, along with the river.Credit…Matthew Reamer for The New York Times

By Christopher Flavelle

Arizona, California and Nevada have agreed to take less water from the drought-strained Colorado River, a breakthrough agreement that, for now, keeps the river from falling so low that it would jeopardize water supply for major Western cities like Phoenix and Los Angeles as well as for some of America’s most productive farmland.

The agreement, announced Monday, calls for the federal government to pay about $1.2 billion to irrigation districts, cities and Native American tribes in the three states if they temporarily use less water. The states have also agreed to make additional cuts beyond that amount to generate the total reductions needed to prevent the collapse of the river.

Taken together, those reductions would amount to about 13 percent of the total water use in the lower Colorado Basin — among the most aggressive ever experienced in the region, and likely to require significant water restrictions for residential and agriculture uses.

The Colorado River supplies drinking water to 40 million Americans in seven states as well as part of Mexico and irrigates 5.5 million acres of farmland. The electricity generated by dams on the river’s two main reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, powers millions of homes and businesses.

But drought, population growth and climate change have dropped the river’s flows by one-third in recent years compared with historical averages, threatening to provoke a water and power catastrophe across the West.

California, Arizona and Nevada get their shares of water from Lake Mead, which is formed by the Colorado River at the Hoover Dam and is controlled by the federal government. The Bureau of Reclamation, an agency within the Interior Department, determines how much water each of the three states receives. The other states that depend on the Colorado get water directly from the river and its tributaries.

The agreement struck over the weekend runs only through the end of 2026, and still needs to be formally adopted by the federal government. At that point, all seven states that rely on the river — which include Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — could face a deeper reckoning, as its decline is likely to continue.

The negotiations over the Colorado were spurred by a crisis: Last summer, the water levels in Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the two largest reservoirs along the river, fell enough that officials feared the hydroelectric turbines they powered might soon cease operating.

~~~ CONTINUE @ NYT ~~~

Macho Acres Reborn


Just as the proverbial Phoenix rose from death smoke and embers in rebirth so has el museo Sibley and other buildings such as the workshop and the coop (formerly chicken coop apartment lived in by famous dirtbag climbers for 50 years) on Marshall Road. Stopped by this weekend for an official inspection and the Acres was well along in its metamorphosis …


~~~ Some old stories of Macho Acres ~~~