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.


| July 2012


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.














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