The Drought ~ Alta Journal

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GORDON WILTSIE

A road trip along the diminished Colorado River reveals the hot, dry, and terribly inevitable future of the western United States.

BY ROB SCHULTHEIS

DEC 21, 2022

Collins Spring—latitude: 37.44; longitude: -110.17—in southeast Utah is a resource so rare that its location is marked on U.S. Geological Survey maps. Back in the wetter years of the past, the spring ran all year long, from a rock face just below the rim. 

It fed a skein of descending streamlets and ponds and green gardens of brush and wildflowers, all the way to Grand Gulch, two miles away. Around the spring, cowboys would make camp, taking advantage of the reliable water source. Centuries before them, the Ancestral Puebloans (long referred to as the Anasazi) lived there, and all along Grand Gulch, and beyond—until a decades-long dry spell drove them out. Their abandoned villages and rock art are everywhere in the Grand Gulch gorge. You can see evidence of drought in their paintings and incisions on the cliffs: images of war, men battling with spears and shields. They were fighting over the precious liquid. After the Ancestral Puebloans fled, the climate turned wetter again, into desert but livable desert, but there was no one there to enjoy it until the Navajo people began to arrive from the north 400 years later.

I remember one visit 20-odd years ago, before the current drought began, when we planned to hike down Collins Canyon to Grand Gulch, bivvy at the junction, and travel onward the next day. We left Telluride late and didn’t make it out to the remote trailhead till after dark. We scrambled our gear at the trailhead and made our way down Collins, lighting our path with headlamps. It was a wet year, even for that pre-drought time, and there was a pool where the spring sprouted from the rock. We slithered and sloshed down through puddles and pondlets in the canyon bottom.

There were frogs everywhere, tiny frogs, each matte-black and the size of a quarter—mobs and mobs, many tens of thousands of them, and each of them was singing its love song at the top of its lungs: “Brekekekeks ko-ax ko-ax, brekekekeks ko-ax ko-ax.” Their voices echoed off the canyon walls in a splendid Cenozoic chorale. One of our party was so enthralled that she scratched out the place’s official name on her map and wrote over it, “Frog Palace Canyon.” 

But drought here moves like quick twitches of lightning. The last few times I visited Collins, the spring had run totally dry; it wasn’t a living spring anymore, just a name, an empty name that had lost its meaning with its water. A khaki crust of dead moss hung below the cleft where the waters had once poured, and the canyon was no longer an amphibians’ Jardin des Tuileries; it was dead and dreamless, like the empty railway station in an existential novel, on a line that will never see another train. Water had long ago shrunk to mud, and mud had withered away to desiccated soil and dry sand. I trudged down the rocks, plashed through dunelets 
of bonemeal dust. The leaves and needles of the brush were silvery, famished-looking. Even the stalwart old cedars and junipers seemed to droop with exhaustion. But worse, overwhelming it all, was the terrible silence, haunted by the ghosts of tens of thousands of songs.

This was the desert that seems to be impatiently awaiting us: awesomely voracious and now terribly inevitable. I remembered a paraphrase from the Iranian American poet Sholeh Wolpé; the words seemed to fit the scene around me: As hollow as the empty space in the letter “o” in the word “nothing.”

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A flash flood pours across a road in Valley of the Gods, part of Bears Ears National Monument in Utah.

GORDON WILTSIE

Gordon Wiltsie, the noted photographer and frequent Alta Journalcontributor, and I have lived in the West for decades, and we have ended up at opposite ends of the great western drainage: the Colorado River system. My home, Telluride, Colorado, is in the zone where the drought begins, 8,750 feet above sea level, in the southwest corner of the Rockies. The annual runoff from the Rockies’ melting snowpack fuels the river and everything west of the Continental Divide, as far north as the Great Basin and into the Northwest. Wiltsie is at the far end of the drought, on the Pacific Ocean edge, just south of San Francisco, in Half Moon Bay. The great cities of California depend on our snowmelt and the water from the Sierra Nevada, which is stricken by warming temperatures and ebbing precipitation. Simplified, the failing snow in the mountains is an arrow aimed at tens of millions of people living more than a thousand miles away. We decided to trace the drought on a westerly course, from where it begins all the way to where the buck stops, the bitter end. 

A cynic once compared technocracy to a man who chain-smokes in bed: all seems well until the smoker falls asleep and goes up in flames—bed, bedroom, his life. If this drought is worse than any of the previous ones, it’s largely because of us. The captain of the Titanic should have seen the iceberg in his ship’s path, but human ingenuity met reality and was destroyed. It isn’t difficult to see the same thing happening here. For thousands of years, Colorado River droughts have been triggered by a climatic phenomenon called La Niña, far away to the southwest in the Pacific: the ocean’s surface cools along the coast, and snowfall in the Rocky Mountains declines. In the preindustrial past, La Niñas came in intermittent waves; in between, there was enough snowmelt to support human life across the Colorado River system. Now, our modern industrial economy has made the overall climate warmer. There are more frequent La Niñas, and each leads to less Rocky Mountain snow. At the same time, technology has managed to cram tens of millions of people into the faltering Colorado River system, thanks to concrete, steel, and fossil fuel. But we seem to have forgotten one thing: water, which we can’t manufacture—at scale, not yet.

Wiltsie and I begin our journey where the water journey begins, in the Rockies. Atmospheric warming and desertification start right here. The mountain reservoirs have been drying up since the drought took hold. Blue Mesa Reservoir, outside Gunnison, Colorado, is at about 20 percent of capacity and shrinking fast. The San Juan River system, which supplies a large percentage of the Colorado River’s water, is impounded at Navajo Reservoir, just south of Durango, and distributed downstream; now the lake is at about 50 vertical feet below normal. The tributaries that normally feed it are themselves flowing far below capacity. We drive southwest, passing by McPhee Reservoir, which traps the Dolores River just outside Dolores, Colorado; the Dolores is an important tributary of the Colorado itself, feeding into it just west of the Colorado-Utah state line. This end of the reservoir, formerly a playground for boaters, is totally dried up, and you could jump across the Dolores River without getting your feet wet.

~~~ CONTINUE ~~~

One thought on “The Drought ~ Alta Journal

  1. Great to see Rob’s eagle-eye take on the disaster that was and is the Colorado River compact. Well- written and purposely dusturbing

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