Dam Nation: Running Out of Water in the West

A vivid look at the water shortage facing the West’s thirsty cities that still expect population booms both now and in the future.
By Stephen Grace
July 2012

Scientists agree that regions in the West are heating up and drying out. “Dam Nation” by Stephen Grace presents a crash-course on the complex history of water in the West and explains how future water shortages will expose the startling fragility of civilization.
GLOBE PEQUOT PRESS
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During the frenzied days of early emigration and expansion in the West, running out of water was rarely a concern, and a dam-building fever filled empty spaces with cities and farms. Today metropolitan areas like Los Angeles and Denver are desperate with thirst. Dam Nation: How Water Shaped the West and Will Determine Its Future (Globe Pequot Press, 2012) by Stephen Grace tells the story from the beginning when Western water law was formed through the era of technological mastery and taming wild rivers to today when ongoing legal and moral battles over water consume the West. The following excerpt was taken from the introduction. 

Whenever you put a lot of people in an area with little water, there is going to be trouble. The trouble might be as focused as the engineering challenge of moving a river from one side of a mountain to another; it might be as all-consuming as the collapse of a civilization.

Though the United States as a whole has a wealth of freshwater, the resource most vital to life is not distributed evenly throughout the nation. The 100th meridian—which cuts the Dakotas roughly in half and runs through Nebraska and Kansas, cleaves Oklahoma’s panhandle, and forms the eastern edge of the Texas panhandle—provides a dividing line for rainfall. East of this line, at least twenty inches of precipitation spills from the sky each year, enough to sustain agriculture. Land west of the line, with the exception of a strip of temperate rainforest along the Pacific Northwest coast and scattered patches of lushness on mountain slopes, receives less than twenty inches of precipitation—not enough for crops to flourish without irrigation. Simply put, the West begins where moisture tapers off and dryness takes over.

Early explorers of western lands labeled the frontier that stretched beyond the 100th meridian the Great American Desert. Into these parched wastes adventurers trekked and then returned to the rich gardens of the East with tales of the West’s burning plains stretching dry and treeless in all directions and its mountains wrapped in shrouds of snow beneath a sky so wide it seemed of a world that could not be. The West was as alien as Mars to Anglo-Americans. That they chose to settle there, and still to this day do so in droves, demonstrates the region’s pull on the imagination. From these arid lands grow dreams of wealth and fresh beginnings in a world of bright sun and boundless possibility.

Recent arrivals to Phoenix or Las Vegas, surrounded by splashy water parks and golf courses of vivid green, have been known to mutter, “I heard somewhere this was a desert.” A real estate developer in Denver recently said to me, “The only thing I know about water is that it comes out of my faucet.” Water managers across the West have done such a superb job of making sure cities have adequate supplies they have created an illusion of profusion, which can make people take water for granted. But mention water to a Westerner whose great-grandparents homesteaded a patch of land as dry as a legal brief and listen to the stories flow. Water might not seem like a big deal to someone from a state that sloshes with rain, but people whose ancestors settled this water-shy region know that the West was won not by men on horseback with six-shooters hanging from their holsters, not by sheriffs with stars of tin pinned upon their chests and guns blazing in high noon shootouts. It was won by farmers and ranchers with irrigation shovels in hand—and by politicians and lawyers divvying up water rights in a dry land.

If the talk in the West is not of drought, it is of flood. For days on end rain buckets down and then for weeks or months there is none at all. The West is a place of extremes (temperatures can swing more than seventy degrees from midday to midnight), and water is no exception. Dearth or surfeit, feast or famine: The rivers swell with surplus beyond their banks and then dry to useless trickles. Today’s headline in the local newspaper: Bridge Destroyed by Surging Creek. Record-breaking temperatures have melted snowfields in the mountains and turned the stream that usually slips gently through town to a deadly gush. Ripping trees from the ground, stretching and twisting bridges until they crack apart, the melee of mud and debris now threatens people and property across the floodplain. Mountain snows have disappeared too quickly in this sudden blast of heat. There won’t be enough water left to feed the summer flows. The creek will run dry, and soon the headlines will shout of drought.

 

Across the West’s deserts and plains, precipitation often evaporates before it touches the earth. Dangling in dark tendrils known as virga, it hangs teasingly above the ground. Some of the rain that does reach the soil is lost to evaporation powered by the sun’s energy; some is absorbed by the roots of plants and transpires from their leaves, returning to the air as vapor. Pulled by gravity, some drops of water dribble down into aquifers beneath the ground, and some liquid moves across less porous surfaces as runoff, spilling toward low-lying areas to gather in lakes and streams.

Precipitation in frozen elevations of the West’s mountains falls, of course, as snow. Peaks reach skyward toward clouds born in Pacific storms. Sodden billows snag on summits and dump their loads of wetness before wringing themselves dry and then moving on, eastward. Each blizzard builds the snowpack, and the white blanket thickens throughout the winter. Some of the frozen water sublimates, turning directly from ice to vapor that blows away on dry winds. When mountain snows thaw in spring, runoff pours toward the valleys and plains, swelling the rivulets, streams, and rivers that nourish civilization in the West. High in the mountains we ski in snow that stores the water we drink below.

 

Outside my home in Colorado, where the Great Plains hinge upward toward the Rocky Mountains, the sun is shining and it is raining. Each drop sparkles as it falls, and a breeze blows waves of damp coolness through windows framed by furling curtains. The air is rich with the odor of wet pavement and plants, sharp with the smell of ozone. Plump drops turn to hailstones that ping against the roof and scuttle through the yard. The sidewalk is a foot deep in water, and the creek behind my home, which earlier in the morning was nothing more than a few moss-slimed puddles boiling with tadpoles, is suddenly deep enough to float a kayak. An hour later the sun is burning down. Rocks steam in the heat along the banks of the creek, and a great blue heron stands still as a stick, waiting to spear a fish or a frog with the dagger of its beak.

“When I lived on some ranchland outside of town,” a friend tells me later in the day, “the people there tacked notes to fenceposts to let each other know when they wanted to use water from the local stream for their fields. No computers, e-mail, or anything like that—just putting up handwritten notes on the fences, the way it had been done forever.” This same day, another person says to me, “I remember hearing that on the frontier, in a lot of the homicide cases there was an irrigation shovel found at the murder scene.”

Westerners have mostly stopped hitting each other with shovels, but water is still on our minds, and for many of us it is an obsession. To stave off dehydration in this dry climate, we drink water as if it’s our second job. The weather report means more than a wardrobe choice or what time we will water the lawn. When clouds bunch up and block the blue sky, we may curse the rain that falls because it stalls our bike ride or our ballgame, but we watch drops patting the dust and know we need the moisture. We understand that downpours and blizzards replenish the rivers and fill the reservoirs, and in the West, storms are less a nuisance than a sign of salvation. We read about the snowpack in the newspaper, scanning daily updates of its depth to know the quality of the skiing, but also to understand the amount of liquid that will flow toward our cities when the mountains release their meltwater in spring torrents and summer trickles. A thin snowpack means lean rivers, emaciated reservoirs. It means water-starved cities and water rationing and more talk of projects to bring more water to places that have run short of supply.

Scientists have verified what old-timers already know: Annual snowpack across the West is dwindling as the world warms. But the cities that sprawl across the deserts and plains beneath the West’s snowcapped peaks are filling with people, burgeoning with thirsty hordes. The Hohokam once lived here, as did the Ancestral Puebloans. Their civilizations rose around their skill at manipulating water. For centuries they made this dry land bloom, and then their great waterworks fell to ruin and their canals filled with dust. They abandoned their cities and roamed in haggard bands across a burning land, beneath a pitiless sun.

 

The Continental Divide runs along thin, serrated mountaintops of the western United States, forming a knife-edge of hydrology. Water that shears to one side flows to the Atlantic; water that slices down the other side runs to the Pacific. In the cloud-shrouded heights of castellated peaks, the Colorado River, the central character in so many narratives of the West, begins its story on the Continental Divide before it ventures from its mountain home and journeys toward the sea. But our story now is of a smaller stream, one that also begins on the divide, but one that holds nowhere near the power or prestige of the Colorado—a modest trickle in comparison. From the spine that splits the continent in two, this stream spills not west to merge with the Colorado River, but east, toward the dry prairie that holds the metropolis of Denver. The city is desperate for the stream’s liquid bounty, and engineers have devised structures of concrete and steel to store its flow and send it where the city needs it to go.

As scarcity has increased the stream’s economic value, so the rarity of water in this land of cracked brown earth and dusty sky has sent its scenic value soaring. Between boulders big as houses and through slopes of scrambled talus, the little stream meanders down the mountains. It glides over beds of polished rocks and slips past pads of moss. In huddles of wind-twisted trees, it floods the gaps between roots. From other streams it gathers volume until it is too wide for a person to leap across. Each riffle creates a small violence of water, and in curved and hollow places the stilled flow deepens. Mayflies ride across its rippled skin. Among the forests that crowd its shores, owls open the soft fans of their wings and dippers dive from the trees. Ponderosa pines armored in bark that smells like vanilla reach their stiff limbs across the water. Children gather to swing from ropes above pools that darken to jade. Anglers cast flies into eddies, droplets of water flinging from the arcs of their lines in a bright scatter. Retirees with binoculars in hand scan the banks for birds. Adventurers craving jolts of adrenaline pilot tipsy boats through whitewater that lifts in leaping peaks and gnashes in scissoring waves. Denverites on the plains below drink from it and grow their grass with it and flush their toilets with it, and they head to the mountains seeking solace and adventure in its flow. This stream is in their bodies and homes and souls. It is everything, it is life itself. And it is not enough. Water managers warn that the city will need more, much more. As Denver sprawls its way across the plains and toward timbered folds of hill, it will drain this stream and many more, and one wonders will there ever be enough.

Denver represents the leading edge of America’s next great urban explosion. As Denver goes, so goes the rest of the West, and so goes the nation. David Brooks of the New York Times, in a column titled “I Dream of Denver,” cites a 2009 Pew Research Center survey that identifies Denver as the most desirable place to live in the country. Denver and other western cities, Brooks writes, “offer the dream, so characteristic on this continent, of having it all: the machine and the garden. The wide-open space and the casual wardrobes.”

In order for dreams to grow in Denver, water must be piped through tunnels punched into the crest of the continent. Most of the state’s water is on the western slope of the mountains, where the green land is veined with rivers; the majority of the state’s population lives on the eastern slope, where tan grasses hiss in the wind. Diversion projects already crisscross and plunge through the Rockies, creating a plumbing system of staggering scale and complexity, and new pipelines are being proposed to slake the thirst of cities on the eastern plains. Colorado, along with many other western states, is predicting a population boom in coming decades.

Between 2000 and 2010 growth in the West was atomic in its explosiveness, accelerating at a rate nearly twice the national average. Many of the fastest-growing cities and states in the nation are in the western United States, and their supplies of freshwater, paltry compared to those of places that are depopulating, are under increasing strain. Moreover, Mexico’s northern states are booming, putting additional demands on water that flows through the broiled borderlands of the Southwest.

Cities from Boise, Idaho, to Bend, Oregon, beckon transplants from the East and Midwest with employment opportunities and active outdoor lifestyles. Job creation in the western Sunbelt has outpaced the nation as a whole, and advances in technology have created opportunities to telecommute. One can sip cappuccino at a cafe in Denver’s Larimer Square and trade stocks in New York, or check in with headquarters in Indianapolis, while basking in the three hundred days of sunshine that wash across Colorado’s Front Range each year. Why live amid the dreary winter skies of Chicago when you can conduct business from a smartphone while riding a ski lift at Vail? Why hustle through the rat race of Boston when you can be based in Bozeman working from a virtual office and fly fish on your lunch hour?

In 2008 Forbes ranked Boulder, Colorado, as the “most educated city in America,” and in 2010 Business Week named this western town without a rodeo the best city in the United States for startups. The Rocky Mountain foothills are full of venture capitalists and tech entrepreneurs hiking on their lunch breaks. University professors cram the coffee shops, and professional athletes race their bikes along the trails. But without “ditch riders,” none of the money and talent that has made this region thrive would matter.

Ditch riding is the second oldest profession in the West, and the duty of a ditch rider is to keep water flowing through the thousands of vital arteries that distribute the lifeblood of a community. The job entails everything from scooping mud and pulling weeds from ditches to making sure all users receive, according to schedule, the exact amount of water to which they are legally entitled, no more. When miners realized water was worth more than gold because every enterprise in the West depended on it (without water even the bordellos would close their doors), they put down their pickaxes and pans and started ditch companies.

If water stops running through the ditches, there are no more lush lawns in Denver, no more bike rides on lunch breaks in Boulder, no more information-based economy. Everything in the arid West, from its universities to its aerospace industry, depends on carefully tended ditches.

 

America’s Jeffersonian vision of a nation stretching from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific shores almost vanished in the Great American Desert, that expanse of semi-arid plains between the 100th meridian and the Rocky Mountains. But the nation was determined to fill the brown void with verdant life, to turn it into a garden and make it yield riches. With a bit of slick marketing, the Great American Desert was repackaged as a region where prosperity could take root in fertile soil. The Homestead Act of 1862 sent a flood of settlers west into lands of brittle grass rattled by wind, places of murderous heat and killing cold. These pioneers were promised free land and assured that the water-poor region would, almost miraculously, be transformed into an agrarian paradise. As they made their way across terrain bare of rivers, their tongues swelled with thirst and they put pebbles in their mouths to make saliva flow. The pioneers understood that water is life, and when they failed to secure adequate supplies of water they were lowered into prairie graves.

The pioneers who managed to make lives for themselves in the West fought over water with fists and shovels and guns, providing much of the region’s delicious lore. Mercenaries guarded canals with pistols strapped to their hips and rifles clutched in their hands, bloodless knuckles bright in the sun. The region’s arid environment wasn’t simply a setting where events took place; the viciously parched land was an active participant—and arguably the most important agent—in the history of the West.

Legendary explorer and esteemed scientist John Wesley Powell warned that without a water plan crafted to suit the arid landscape, the region would remain mired in conflict. But Congress ignored Powell’s recommendation to create small-scale communities based around watersheds. Instead it began a building frenzy. Soon an audacious system of federal projects siphoned off streams, transporting their flow far from their sources and diverting the elixir of the West to thirsty deserts and droughty plains. This was not an effort that aimed to help people survive in a hard land; it was a program of conquest, the goal of which was to transform the desert and build an empire. Water went from being something rare and cherished, a blessing delivered in bags draped across the backs of burros and hauled by the bucketful in wagons, to a commodity that surged through steel siphons and was transported in aqueducts guarded by fences. Water brawlers traded pistols for pinstripes as lawyers and lobbyists fought over the precious resource, and rivers were turned to concrete trenches empty of willows, fish, and birds.

The story of the West is above all the story of dams. Promethean dams allowed the region to be replumbed on a scale unprecedented in world history, providing the water and power that allowed a new nation hungry for growth to surge westward and develop its economy into a juggernaut. Farms blossomed scores of miles from the nearest stream. Cities fed by sluiceways grew from sagebrush and sand. Almost every major river in the West was dammed many times over, and engineers managed to squeeze abundance from lands where life had always been sparse. Confident that technology would deliver water in unlimited quantities, people poured into the western United States, packing themselves into artificial oases. Today, as farmers and cities clash over rivers and aquifers, and as water infrastructure across the region is stretched close to collapse, Powell’s skepticism that the West’s limited water supplies could support unrestrained growth is not as easy to dismiss as it had been back in the days of Manifest Destiny. And his warnings about the problems that would ensue seem prescient and precise.

If we run out of oil, we can make use of other energy sources. There are no alternatives to water. A dehydrated child cries without tears, and a person who doesn’t drink water develops dry and sunken eyes, a rapidly beating heart, and bluish-gray skin that is cold to the touch. And then that person dies. Because water is rare in the western landscape and the region is so vulnerable to drought, lack of fluid essential for life lies at the heart of the West’s culture, and this absence of water is intimately connected with things that have been and things that will be. The scarcity of water in the western United States has caused conflict in the past and will lead to trouble in the future.

“When the well’s dry, we know the worth of water,” remarked Benjamin Franklin.

 

Scientists have determined that during the decades the frontier filled with people, the weather in the western United States was abnormally wet. By studying tree rings, which form patterns that reflect the amount of moisture available in the environment, researchers can reconstruct rainfall and riverflows before historical records were compiled by measurements made with instruments. Tree ring data has shown the twentieth century to be one of the wettest centuries in the last five hundred years. Put simply, the development of the urbanized West was based on a fluke. The worst droughts Westerners have endured were short-lived and lush by comparison to the megadroughts of the past. And those episodes of deadly dryness will almost certainly visit the region again.

The United States Global Change Research Program (USGCRP), which coordinates and integrates federal research on climate change, warns that the West is heating up, and as temperatures rise, snowpack across the region will shrink, creating “a serious water supply challenge.” Even if precipitation amounts in the West remain the same, the moisture will fall increasingly not as snow but as rain. Liquid from a rainstorm is quickly spent; water banked as snow in the frozen vaults of mountaintops is distributed downhill throughout the spring and summer. The timing of water supplies in the West is as important as their quantity. Warmer weather turns mountain snowpack to running water sooner in spring, lifting the level of flood danger; streamflows peak early and are diminished throughout the hot months when they are needed most by cities and farms. Higher temperatures in the sunburned lands of the West increase transpiration, meaning more water sweats from the pores of leaves. And the rising heat drives evaporation, turning more water in snow, soil, rivers, and reservoirs into vapor wafted by weather currents to other regions of the globe, where it precipitates and is lost to the West. A hotter climate also means thirstier people and crops, creating a spike in demand for dwindling supplies of water.

Richard Seager, lead author of a paper in the journal Science that made headline news across the West in 2007, has concluded that the American Southwest is entering a period of “permanent drought” similar to the 1930s Dust Bowl. And the Southwest is by no means the only area of the West heating up and drying out. The Sierra Nevada snowpack, which along with the Colorado River supplies water to California, is thinner than it was a few decades ago and is melting two to three weeks sooner each spring. Springtime snowpack in the Cascade Range has decreased in some places by more than 50 percent since 1950. A study published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society bluntly states, “The West’s snow resources are already declining as the climate warms.” Soon we will no longer be able to say that the West is in drought, because drought conditions will be the new norm, and when combined with rising population demands, will lead to “increasingly costly, controversial and unavoidable trade-off choices,” in the words of the National Research Council. This is polite speak for “water wars.”

Water wars are nothing new in the West. As the old western saying attributed to Mark Twain goes, “Whiskey’s for drinking, water’s for fighting over.” Rarely are there win-win scenarios in the world of western water. Whenever one party lays claim to a limited supply, another party, be it Las Vegas or a lettuce farm, a thirsty suburb or the desert pupfish, suffers. To manage water is to manage conflict. Occasionally peace breaks out in the West’s water wars, but usually the struggle for the lifeblood of the region produces winners and losers. As the scarcity of water intensifies, competition for the resource will accelerate, pitting farmers against cities, states against each other, putting the United States and Mexico at odds, and perhaps even causing the United States and Canada to clash over the great rivers of the north that still run uncurbed to the sea. The West’s increasingly stressed water supplies have already been causing trouble.

Thanks to irrigation, eastern Colorado began growing a thick carpet of crops in the late 1800s. Some farmers diverted the flow of the South Platte River to their fields; others pumped water from beneath the ground. This worked fine for everyone until a drought in 2002 dried up the plains. By drawing water from an aquifer that feeds the South Platte, pumpers shrank the river, killing the crops of farmers who relied on the river’s flow. The pumpers pumped their way to a bountiful harvest while the diverters watched the river shrivel and their fields go to rot. The diverters demanded action. The state intervened in 2006, forcing the pumpers to stop drawing water from underground—and then the pumpers watched their crops toast in the sun as the decision of state water officials bankrupted them. After hearing rumors of some pumps still operating secretly, farmers and communities that relied on the river’s flow launched a spy campaign, hiring private investigators to snoop around pump-fed fields. These water sleuths looked for puddles and for healthy crops of corn, telltale signs of clandestine pumping. “I wish I could have caught them on my property,” said a local farmer with wells on his land. “We shoot every other trespasser and he’d be the second one.” Diverters versus pumpers on the High Plains: a modern-day water war.

In Oregon’s Klamath Basin, when irrigation water was shut off by the federal government to boost river levels so endangered fish would be protected during a drought, farmers stormed the headgates. With blowtorches and power saws they forced one open, briefly restoring the flow. Federal marshals arrived to establish order, death threats were issued, and three men who hailed from the town of Bonanza drove a pickup truck to a town that held the offices of the Klamath Tribes, who have lived along the river for some ten thousand years. The Bonanzans, while shouting “sucker lovers”—a reference to fish that the Klamath consider sacred and would be harmed if water was diverted to irrigate crops—blasted shotgun pellets at street signs and a portable outhouse.

Water wars are more commonly fought not with spies and shotguns but with politics. At the annual meeting of the Western Governors’ Association in 2010, Montana governor Brian Schweitzer suggested to reporters that they ask Wyoming governor Dave Freudenthal a question: “I’d ask that fella why he won’t stop stealing our water,” Schweitzer said. “That’d be a good question.”

 

In addition to the mountain snowpack that makes surface water when it melts, groundwater is the other main source of the region’s freshwater. Moisture percolates into the soil and trickles downward, saturating layers of gravel and sand, flooding the cracks and fissures of fractured rock, and pooling in porous stone. Rainfall and snowmelt recharge these aquifers when their moisture infiltrates the ground, and seepage from lakes and streams helps to fill them too. But farms and municipalities across the western United States are sucking aquifers dry. Cities such as Phoenix have watched the earth beneath them buckle and fold as it droops downward toward hollows in the ground emptied of water.

Water seems like the ultimate renewable resource; it does, after all, fall from the sky. But the period it takes for nature to fill an aquifer such as the Ogallala, which underlies the High Plains and has allowed land seared by sun and raked by dry winds to become the nation’s breadbasket, is on a geologic timescale, not a human one. Groundwater pumping in most parts of the West is not much better than a free-for-all. Water is being pulled out of aquifers far faster than it is being replenished, and in many areas no one is sure how many people are pumping or how much water they are guzzling. In an unregulated world of extraction, the tragedy of the commons unfolds.

The tragedy of the commons, a dilemma first described by Garrett Hardin in a 1968 issue of the journal Science, has become a central concept in ecology and natural resources management. Hardin based his idea on the overgrazing of nineteenth-century community pastures—these are the “commons.” Imagine a pasture shared by herders. A herder, in order to maximize his own gain, increases his number of cows. This allows him to enjoy the profits of grazing more animals on the pasture; but the costs of the damage caused by his additional cows are spread among everyone. The herder fears that if he doesn’t add more cows, others will expand their own herds and rob him of his share of grass. Rationally acting to further his self-interest, he continues to add cows; others do the same, until eventually the pasture is overgrazed to the point of collapse.

When allowed unlimited access to a finite resource, people go after short-term profits at the expense of the resource’s long-term ruin. The path toward destruction is predictable—it is rooted in human nature. This is the tragedy.

 

Some water officials in the West are scrambling to find solutions to the problem of diminishing rivers and aquifers by promoting conservation and pioneering more efficient methods of use. Others are developing grandiose schemes to rework the plumbing that distributes water across the region. The projects of which they dream, megadams and mammoth pipelines, are reminiscent of an earlier era, when greening the brown expanse west of the 100th meridian was a cause undertaken by the nation at any cost, and with an intensity approaching religious fervor. That era provided the great waterworks the West relies on today—dams such as Hoover and Grand Coulee, diversion systems such as the Colorado River Aqueduct and the Central Arizona Project. Understanding the dam-everything-that-flows mentality of that crucial time in the development of the West’s water resources goes a long way toward explaining where we are now. But before we delve into that era to witness the tense political dramas that played out on the West’s arid stage, we will begin at the beginning. We will follow the first white explorers into the parched frontier.

To read more of Stephen Grace’s latest on water and the West, visit his blog, Dam Nation.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Dam Nation: How Water Shaped the West and Will Determine Its Future by Stephen Grace, published by Globe Pequot Press, 2012. 


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