On the morning of February 6, 2021, two different groups (eight people total) went skiing in the Wilson Glades area of Alexander Basin on the north side of Wilson Peak in Millcreek Canyon. Both groups were ascending when the avalanche happened. Group A was near the top, and Group B was below. This avalanche was likely human triggered, but it cannot be determined by whom. Six people were caught and fully buried. Two of them survived, and four did not.
Lake Mead is currently projected to be at its lowest level since filling within the next year, possibly triggering the first federal shortage declaration on the river that supplies water to 40 million across seven U.S. states. LUKE RUNYON / KUNC
Dry conditions are the worst they’ve been in almost 20 years across the Colorado River watershed, which acts as the drinking and irrigation water supply for 40 million people in the American Southwest.
Understanding and explaining the depth of the dryness is up to climate scientists throughout the basin. We called several of them and asked for discrete numbers that capture the current state of the Colorado River basin.
84% of Upper Basin in extreme to exceptional drought
This is the highest percentage of land in the river’s Upper Basin since 2002, which stands as the region’s driest year on record. The Lower Basin fares worse, with 93% of the land area in those categories.
The basin is made up of portions of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California. Two Mexican states also receive Colorado River water.
84% of the Upper Colorado River watershed is currently experiencing extreme to exceptional drought conditions, the highest percentage since 2002. CREDIT U.S. DROUGHT MONITOR
Nancy Selover, Arizona’s state climatologist, says the Upper Basin figure is concerning because that accounts for the river’s headwaters. If it’s dry there, that means many more problems as the water flows downstream.
“This is when we’re supposed to be gaining and accumulating water in the form of snowpack, and that’s not happening,” Selover said.
Conditions have been deteriorating across the river basin since the summer of 2020. Monsoon rains didn’t arrive. Record-breaking high temperatures dragged well into fall. Even hardy desert plants, the ones well-adapted to water scarcity, have struggled.
“Creosote is one I personally like to call it the cockroach of the vegetation world because pretty much nothing kills creosote. It survives,” she said.
But even some creosote is dying, unable to take the one-two punch of both the hottest and driest conditions on record last year in parts of Arizona.
“People are having to do things that you don’t necessarily see, but we have water being hauled for livestock, water being hauled in for wildlife,” Selover said.
She compares the current drought conditions to 2018, another record-breaking hot and dry year just a couple years ago. It’s not quite as bad as 2002, she said, but it could easily get there.
2. Three exceptional droughts in 20 years
Exceptional drought is a category that is supposed to capture the severity and frequency of an extended dry period. Climate scientists call it D4. For context, on the scale of “no drought” to “worst drought,” there’s no category that captures conditions more dry than exceptional.
“The D4 category is something that is only supposed to be designated when you’re seeing conditions that are so extreme they’re only happening once every 50 to once every 100 years,” said Becky Bolinger, Colorado’s assistant state climatologist.
The Colorado River basin has experienced three D4 droughts in the last 20 years, including the current one. 2002, 2018 and 2021 are the most intense dry periods on record for the basin.
“The droughts that we are seeing are becoming that much more severe because of the temperature component, they’re warmer,” Bolinger said.
This time series graph shows the percent of the Upper Colorado River watershed in certain drought categories. The red and dark red represent extreme and exceptional drought, which combined have plagued the basin in 2002, 2018 and now in 2021. CREDIT U.S. DROUGHT MONITOR
The increase in temperatures means the atmosphere is thirstier. It sucks up moisture from forests, backyard gardens and crop fields with greater intensity.
In parts of the Colorado River basin, Bolinger said climate change has caused conditions on the ground to bump up against the designated drought categories.
“Even though conditions may be evolving and getting even worse, we don’t really have a way to depict that, because D4, that’s that ceiling,” she said.
3. A 12-inch deficit
The dryness is currently off the charts in parts of the watershed. Both Utah and Nevada experienced their driest years on record in 2020. Every other state in the watershed had one of its top five driest years on record.
Climatologist Jon Meyer with the Utah Climate Center said the number that captures the severity for him is 12 inches.
“That’s about the amount of water that our soils are behind in terms of what they normally would have,” Meyer said.
That deficit is about the same amount of precipitation that falls across Utah in an entire year. A year’s worth of rain and snow is missing from Utah’s ground.
“We are really in unprecedented territory right now, and it’s not even close,” Meyer said.
Coming out of its driest year on record, Utah soils are seeing staggering moisture deficits. In parts of the state more than a foot of precipitation would be needed to saturate them, or roughly an entire year of rain and snowfall. The black line represents current soil moisture conditions, while the red line is the minimum soil moisture in the period of record. CREDIT USDA NRCS
Because the deficit is so substantial, Meyer said it’s very likely the watershed will see drought conditions persist in 2021. Dry soils soak up snow when it melts, keeping it from rivers and reservoirs.
“It doesn’t matter if we get an incredible snowpack, our soils are so depleted right now that that’s not going to really translate to water coming down through the river systems,” Meyer said.
Forecasts don’t paint a pretty picture for snowpack either. It’s lagging in both the Upper and Lower basins, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration projects much of the watershed to tilt toward hotter and drier weather for the rest of the winter.
“These reservoirs are as empty now as when they started filling Glen Canyon Dam in the 1960s,” said John Fleck, director of the University of New Mexico’s water resources program.
The low levels aren’t just causing hand-wringing among the West’s water officials. The dropping water and the reservoirs’ expanding bathtub rings are also tied to policy. As Lake Mead outside Las Vegas and Lake Powell in Utah decline, certain policies are triggered into action. Drought contingency plans for the Upper and Lower Basin are now in use.
The Lower Basin states of Arizona and Nevada have begun to see their deliveries from the river curtailed. Those cutbacks are likely to grow steeper in 2021. An official shortage declaration from the federal government could come as early as this year, as Lake Mead is currently projected to be below 1,075 feet in elevation at the end of 2021.The Colorado River’s two biggest reservoirs — Lakes Powell and Mead — are headed toward their combined lowest storage amount since they were both filled.
Meanwhile, Lake Powell’s projected decline in 2021 recently triggered the Upper Basin plan to be used for the first time. Water managers in the four Upper Basin states and the federal government are expected to start monthly planning calls this year to consider options for propping up the reservoir if needed.
“Reservoir storage is the best single number that captures two things: how much water nature provides and how much water humans are consuming out of that provision,” Fleck said.
“The reservoir is integrating all the problems we have, all the challenges we face show up in that one number, in that one place,” he said.
5. A deadline in 2026
With the reservoirs approaching their lowest levels in modern history, that brings us to our final number: 2026.
That year is the deadline for water users to negotiate a new set of managing guidelines for the Colorado River.
“The challenges are really hard,” Fleck said. “And it’s easy to put them off if you get a wet year. The dry years are what force the really important steps forward in the policy community.”
The negotiations promise to be a more intense process than the basin saw in the lead-up to the last set of guidelines in 2007, or the effort to bring together drought contingency plans in 2019. Federal and state officials have committed to a more inclusive process that integrates the needs of tribes, environmental and recreation groups, and Mexico.
Meanwhile, climate change is adding pressure to the entire river system, exacerbating existing supply and demand imbalances.
Extremely dry years that produce eye-popping statistics tend to grab officials by the shoulders and give them a good shake. That’s important for the entire region, Fleck said, because the backdrop of an impending crisis will set the tone for those negotiations. For those talks to start in the middle of another record-breaking dry period should make it clear to everyone involved: the future of the Colorado River is all about learning to live with less.
This story is part of ongoing coverage of the Colorado River, produced by KUNC with financial support from the Walton Family Foundation. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial coverage.
A Young Man Resting on an Exercise Bike, Amityville, N.Y., 1988, courtesy the artist and Sean Kelly Gallery, Stephen Daiter Gallery, and RenaBransten Gallery.Dawoud Bey
Here’s a tip: If you’re looking at one of Dawoud Bey’s images, the photographer suggests you look not at the face, but at the hands: “Hands are very important — they are expressive,” Bey says. “They are a part of each of our idiosyncratic, expressive vocabulary. And to me they are one of the things that makes an individual who they are in the performance of themselves.”
Combing Hair, Syracuse, N.Y., 1986, High Museum of Art, gift of Eric Ceputis and David W. Williams, 2017Dawoud Bey
Bey’s large photographs are complex in their many gradations of meaning, and direct. There are images of teenagers staring at the camera; lovers in the park; young people and their elders sitting in wooden church pews.
Bey doesn’t consider his work strictly documentary in the traditional sense. He’s more an interpreter, a director. He’ll pose his subjects, sometimes accessorize them, at other times remind them of a gesture.
“The photographs are very much made,” he says. “You know, I don’t necessarily need people to think that when they look at the photograph, I just want them to believe the experience of the thing that they’re looking at.”
A Couple in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, N.Y., 1990, courtesy the artist and Sean Kelly Gallery, Stephen Daiter Gallery, and Rena BranstenGallery.Dawoud Bey
Growing up in Queens, Bey didn’t see people who looked like him on the walls of a museum until he was a teenager. Bey sees his work as a corrective.
“I like to think of myself as a white box artist who makes work about non-white box things,” he says. “I like to bring those things into spaces where folks don’t necessarily think that’s what they will encounter or they’re not used to encountering certain kinds of works about certain kinds of subject within the context of the museum.”
Bey wanted to be a musician, but he was given his late godfather’s 35-millimeter camera and soon got serious about photography. His inspiration was the late Roy DeCarava, the first black photographer to receive a Guggenheim fellowship, specifically to make images of under-documented communities.
“There was this big hole,” DeCarava told me in 1996. “There were no Black images of dignity, of beautiful Black people — so I tried to fill it. … I wanted to find in the Black community itself, I was looking for humanity. These are people. Before they’re Black, they’re people, and this is what I’m concerned about!”
DeCarava shot in black and white and so does Bey — primarily. Corey Keller, co-curator of the Bey retrospective, says, “there are not many photographers who have coaxed that much nuance and that much expression out of that dark end of the spectrum in photography like de DeCarava did — and that was really important to Dawoud in his work.”
As a result, the people in Bey’s photographs take on greater substance and presence. His 2012 series, “The Birmingham Project,” is his response to the 1963 Ku Klux Klan bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. The photographer pairs images: One of a woman who would be the age of one of the victims, had she lived, next to that of a young girl, the age of one who died.
Mary Parker and Caela Cowan, Birmingham, Ala., from the series “The Birmingham Project,” 2012; Rennie Collection, VancouverDawoud Bey
Bey was working on “The Birmingham Project” around the same time 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was killed by a police officer in Florida. “I was acutely aware that I was making work about the past, but that the past was also very present,” Bey says.
The final series in the retrospective shows work Bey did in 2017. The title is a riff on a line in a poem by Langston Hughes: “Night Coming Tenderly, Black.” The location is Ohio. The subject, the underground railroad. There are no people here, just houses, picket fences, fields and forests. Though the photographs look like they were shot at night, all were taken during the day.
Untitled #20 (Farmhouse and Picket Fence I), from the series “Night Coming Tenderly, Black,” 2017, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Accessions Committee Fund purchaseDawoud Bey
“I was thinking about this narrative of the Black subject — the unseen Black subject, in this case — a fugitive slave moving through the darkness of night,” Bey explains. “And that darkness of night being the kind of Black space that would lead to liberation.”
Bey says his ability to capture Black history and life has its roots in another of his artistic inspirations: John Coltrane.
“I think my background in music is what allows me to feel confident, improvising in situations, not knowing what’s going to happen,” he says. “But having a clear sense of the parameters that I’m functioning within, whether it’s the space of the photographic frame or whether it’s the bar in music.”
Bey says Coltrane showed him early on the responsibility of being an artist, of sharing something that’s larger than himself.
The snap of the snare drums is insistent. New Orleanians take joyous turns high-stepping and chicken strutting, dressed in the hand-sewn feathered finery of their social clubs and krewes. The celebration, shown on a new 30-second public service announcement airing in the city, is both resplendent and aching, an evocation of Carnival masking season that should have begun this month, culminating on Feb. 16 with Mardi Gras. All of it canceled, of course, by the coronavirus pandemic.
Yet the spot is hopeful: to regain this and more, it exhorts, get vaccinated.
The advertisement is one of numerous efforts around the country to persuade people of the importance of getting a Covid shot. But its homegrown approach, using neighborhood personas and invoking local culture with “laissez les bons temps rouler” dance moves and costumes, may make it particularly effective, say experts in vaccine hesitance and behavioral change.
“I’m getting the vaccine so we can have Mardi Gras, y’all!” shouts Jeremy Stevenson, a Monogram Hunter Mardi Gras Indian, also known as Second Chief Lil Pie, as he sways wildly in a 150-pound, 12-foot-tall tower of turquoise feathers and beading, beneath the Claiborne Avenue overpass, a well-known festival meet-up.
Other locals prance forth to offer their own reasons, concluding with the tagline: “Sleeves Up, NOLA!”
“I teared up several times and also just laughed out loud with delight. The sense of community is contagious,” said Alison M. Buttenheim, a vaccine behavioral expert at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing who is most decidedly not a New Orleanian.
“Vaccination is framed as a collective action that everyone can contribute to in order to bring back things the community values and cherishes,” added Dr. Buttenheim, the scientific director of the university’s Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics.
Although national vaccine hesitation rates are falling, surveys show that antipathy to the new shots is still widespread among some demographic groups, jeopardizing the goal of broad immunity. There has been little consensus, much less activity, around ways to build confidence in the shot.
Join Torrey House Press tonight for an inauguration-eve conversation with authors Amy Irvine and Pam Houston and former Colorado senator Mark Udall. TONIGHT: Tuesday, January 19 at 6 PM MT Free and online Register Here As the world awaits a new United States presidential administration and people everywhere anticipate a vaccine, the climate and extinction crises still roil, and racial injustice and income inequality continue to crush. What kind of leadership do we need to address these daunting problems? What role can the West play in shaping a more just world? Join former US senator Mark Udall and Pam Houston and Amy Irvine, authors of Air Mail: Letters of Politics, Pandemics, and Placefor a riveting online discussion on inauguration eve. Learn more.
Music journalist Betto Arcos gathers his favorite reports from prolific career in Music Stories from the Cosmic Barrio.Erik Esparza/Courtesy of the author
For over a decade, arts journalist Betto Arcos has been a familiar voice to public radio listeners, bringing them the sounds of the world — be it from a samba school in Rio or an amphitheater in Colombia, profiling artists who play unusual instruments or create cross-cultural mashups. More than 140 of those reports are collected in his new book, Music Stories from the Cosmic Barrio. Arcos spoke with NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro about learning in his travels how music creates community, and vice versa. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read on for an edited transcript.
Lulu Garcia-Navarro: Tell me about the title of the book. What do you mean by the “cosmic barrio?”
Betto Arcos: “Cosmic barrio” to me is a place where you can find music that has to do with community, that has to do with identity, that has to do with coming together to create a peaceful, loving environment where people can have a great time.
That is beautiful; those are words I need to hear right now. Why did you write the book?
I felt like I could put together something that will bring people into music in a different way than, say, the way the stories have been airing on NPR, on the BBC, on The World, on KPPC here in Los Angeles. I really wanted to have all those stories in one book so that people could just dig in and start listening — and yes, go to YouTube if they want, go to Spotify, and find all of this amazing music from different corners of the world.
Adalberto Arcos Landa
You could have laid out your pieces chronologically as you reported them over the years, but you instead organized this book by themes. Talk us through the different themes and why you decided to work that way.
I felt that I wanted to help the listener — or the reader in this case — get an idea of what music can be. Not just music to create music, to have a good time with music, but that music has the power of doing so many things. Music can be transformative, music can be something where we have moments of anguish, of pain, when we want to celebrate somebody. I wanted to create sort of these concepts behind every chapter. There’s one called “Identity,” and it’s not just identity like, say, Colombian identity or Mexican or Brazilian identity. It’s identity that a person or an artist or a musician has through the music they create. There’s also “Power” — not just the power of anybody, but the power that women have to create their own story.
It strikes me that the hallmark of your radio reports is that you often don’t rely on album recordings: You collect the sound of locations and artists playing their instruments in their own context. In one case, you profiled a very interesting trumpet player, Ibrahim Maalouf, who uses an unconventional version of the instrument. What made this trumpet so important and special to Maalouf’s music?
He is a musician from Lebanon, and he’s playing the traditional style of music that’s played in that part of the world. His father Nassim Maalouf created the four-valve trumpet — typically, trumpets have three valves — and the fourth valve is the one that creates the so-called quarter tone, this very kind of blue note that people are familiar with in jazz. I wanted to tell the story of how that trumpet changed the life of this musician, how his father wanted him to continue playing classical music but he really wanted to make his own sound to create his own music.
Since this is a collection of your stories over the years, your experiences with music, who’s the most striking character you’ve covered?
This was actually a suggestion from Tom Cole — he’s been my editor [at NPR] for the last 10 years. He once said to me, “Betto, when you’re in Cuba you should try to get an interview with Leo Brouwer.” I said, “He’s impossible to get.” I tried so many times before. [But] one day I got a call from a friend, who helped me get the interview. Leo Brouwer is a tower of music, not just in Cuba, but in Latin America. He is one of the greatest composers of classical guitar music and he also helped to create the conservatories in Cuba that gave us some amazing musicians that have the classical and the Cuban popular music in their sound. To me, it’s like talking to someone that was so influential and still influential today. That was a very special, very meaningful moment for me.
You mentioned editor Tom Cole, who edited your pieces for NPR’s Arts Desk and wrote the foreword to your book, and who happens to be retiring this week. He said this about you and your broad curiosity: “As jazz musicians say, he’s got big ears.” What did you learn from him over the past decade of working on stories together?
More than anything else, how to tell a story. He was my teacher; he’s been my mentor. He taught me how to write the first sentence in a story. I thought I knew how to do it until he said to me, “No, no, no. It has to be something catchy. it has to be something that grabs people.” … He’s really been my guiding light as a journalist, as a writer.
We remember the award-winning writer Barry Lopez, who wrote evocatively about nature, and in turn shed light on truths about the human experience. He died Christmas day at the age of 75. Lopez lived among the Arctic’s Inuit people for five years, and raised a wolf pup for his book about the relationship between wolves and men.