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Red Snow Warning in the American West

The end of welfare water and the drying of the West.

| Mon Sep. 14, 2009 1:03 PM EDT

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

Pink snow is turning red in Colorado. Here on the Great American Desert — specifically Utah's slickrock portion of it where I live — hot 'n' dry means dust. When frequent high winds sweep across our increasingly arid landscape, redrock powder is lifted up and carried hundreds of miles eastward until it settles on the broad shoulders of Colorado's majestic mountains, giving the snowpack there a pink hue.

Some call it watermelon snow. Friends who ski into the backcountry of the San Juan and La Plata mountain ranges in western Colorado tell me that the pink-snow phenomenon has lately been giving way to redder hues, so thick and frequent are the dust storms that roll in these days. A cross-section of a typical Colorado snowbank last winter revealed alternating dirt and snow layers that looked like a weird wilderness version of our flag, red and white stripes alternating against the sky's blue field.

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The Forecast: Dust Followed by Mud

Here in the lowlands, we, too, are experiencing the drying of the West in new dusty ways. Our landscapes are often covered with what we jokingly refer to as "adobe rain" — when rain falls through dust, spattering windows or laundry hung out to dry with brown stains. After a dust "event" this past spring, I wandered through the lot of a car dealership in Grand Junction, Colorado, where the only color seemingly available was light tan. All those previously shiny, brightly painted cars had turned drab. I had to squint to read price stickers under opaque windows.

All of this is more than a mere smudge on our postcard-pretty scenery: Colorado's red snow is a warning that the climatological dynamic in the arid West is changing dramatically. Think of it as a harbinger — and of more than simply a continuing version of the epic drought we've been experiencing these past several years.

The West is as dry as the East is wet, a vast and arid landscape of high plains and deserts broken by abrupt mountain ranges and deep canyons. Unlike eastern and midwestern America, where there are myriad rivers, streams, lakes, and giant underground lakes, or aquifers, to draw on, we depend on snowpack for about 90% of our fresh water. The Colorado River, running from its headwaters in the snow-loaded mountains of Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming, is the principal water source for those states, and downstream for Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and southern California as well.

While being developed into a crucial water resource, the Colorado became the most dammed, piped, legislated, and litigated river in America. Its development spawned a major federal bureaucracy, the Bureau of Reclamation, as well as a hundred state agencies, water districts, and private contractors to keep it plumbed and distributed. Taken altogether, this complex infrastructure of dams, pipelines, and reservoirs proved to be the most expensive and ambitious public works project in the nation's history, but it enabled the Southwest states and southern California to boom and bloom.

The downside is that we are now dangerously close to the limits of what the Colorado River can provide, even in the very best of weather scenarios, and the weather is being neither so friendly nor cooperative these days. If Portland soon becomes as warm as Los Angeles and Seattle as warm as Sacramento, as some forecasters now predict, expect Las Vegas and Phoenix to be more like Death Valley.

If the Colorado River shut down tomorrow, there might be two, at most three, years of stored water in its massive reservoirs to keep Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and dozens of other cities that depend on it alive. That margin for survival gets thinner with each passing year and with each rise in the average temperature. Imagine a day in the not so distant future when the water finally runs out in one of those cities — a kind of slow-motion Katrina in reverse, a city not flooded but parched, baked, blistered, and abandoned. If the Colorado River system failed to deliver, the impact on the nation's agriculture and economy would be comparable to an asteroid strike.

Too Much Too Soon, Then Too Little Too Late

Hot and dry is bad enough; chaotic weather only adds to our problems. As we practice it today, agriculture depends on cheap energy, a stable climate, and abundant water. Those last two are intimately mixed. Water has to be not just abundant, but predictable and reliable in its flow. And the words "predictable," "reliable," and "water" go together ever less comfortably in our neck of the woods.

Here's the problem. Despite the existence of the Colorado River's famous monster-dams like Hoover in Nevada and Glen Canyon in Utah and the mega-reservoirs — Lake Mead and Lake Powell — that gather behind them, we really count on the vast snowfields that store fresh water in our mountains to melt and trickle down to us slowly enough that our water lasts from the first spring runoff until the end of the fall growing season. Dust-covered snowpack, however, absorbs more heat, melts sooner, and often runs down into streams and rivers before our farmers can use it. In addition, as the temperature rises, spring storms that once brought storable snow are now more likely to come to us as rain, which only makes the situation worse.

This shift in the way our water reaches us is crucial in the West. Not only is snowpack shrinking as much as 25% in the Cascades of the Northwest and 15% in the snowfields of the Rocky Mountains, but it's arriving in the lowlands as much as a month earlier than usual. Farmers can't just tell their crops to adjust to the new pattern. Even California's rich food basket, the Central Valley, fed by one of the most complex and effective irrigation infrastructures in the country, is ultimately dependent on Sierra snowpack and predictable runoff.

We need a new term for what's happening — perhaps "perturbulence" would describe the new helter-skelter weather pattern. In my Utah backyard, for example, this past May was unusually hot and unusually cold. At one point, we went from freezing to 80 degrees and back again in three short days. Not so long ago, seasonal changes came on here as if controlled by a dimmer switch, the shift from one season to the next being gradual. Now it's more like a toggle switch being abruptly shut on and off.

To add to the confusion, our summer monsoon season arrived six weeks early this year. A surprisingly wet spring seemed like good news amid the bigger picture of drought, but it turned out to mean that farmers had a hard time getting into their muddy fields to plant. Then when spring showers were so quickly followed by summer storms, some crops were actually suppressed, according to local gardeners and farmers.

The West at Your Doorstep?

Our soggy spring and summer, however, masked an epic drought that has touched almost every corner of the nation west of the Mississippi at one time or another over the past decade. Southern Texas right now is blazingly bone-dry. Seattle had a turn with record-breaking temperatures earlier this summer. In New Mexico, the drought has been less dramatic — more like a steady drumbeat year after year.

A trip to the edge of Lake Powell in the canyon country of southern Utah in June revealed the bigger picture. A ten-story-high "bathtub ring" — the band of white mineral deposits left behind on the reservoir's walls as the waterline dropped — stretches the almost 200-mile length of the reservoir.

Recreational boat users, hoping against hope that the reservoir will refill, have regularly been issuing predictions about a return to "normal" levels, but it just hasn't happened. Side canyons, once submerged under 100 feet of water, have now been under the sun long enough to have turned into lush, mature habitats filled with willows and brush, birds and pack rats. A view from a cliff high above the once bustling, now ghostlike Hite Marina on the receding eastern side of Lake Powell shows the futility of chasing the retreating shoreline with cement: the water's edge and a much-extended boat-launching ramp now have 100 acres of dried mud, grass, and fresh shrubs between them.

After decades of frantic urban development and suburban sprawl across the states that draw water from the Colorado, demand has simply outstripped supply and it's only getting worse as the heat builds. Not surprisingly, a debate is building over what to do if there isn't enough water to fill both Lakes Powell and Mead, the principal reservoirs along the Colorado. Should the seven states that depend on the river live with two half-full reservoirs or a single full one, and if only one, which one? River managers have now realized that both massive "lakes" were always giant evaporation ponds in the middle of a desert and only more so as average temperatures climb. There is no sense in having twice as much water surface as necessary, which means twice as much evaporation, too.

Given the stakes, the debate over what to do if there isn't enough water is playing out like the preview to the all-out water war to come when the reality actually hits. Westerners are well aware that, as always, there will be winners and losers. The constituency for Lake Mead will no doubt prevail because of its proximity to Las Vegas and Phoenix, two cities that grew bloated on cheap but, as it has turned out, temporary water from the dammed Colorado. Already desperate to make up for their lost liquid, they will surely muster all their power and influence to keep the water flowing.

Las Vegas is now aiming to tap into an aquifer under the Snake Valley that straddles eastern Nevada and western Utah. Recently, a rancher friend who ekes out a precarious living there mentioned the obvious to me: the dusty surface of that arid high desert is barely held in place by a thin covering of brush, sage, and grass. Drop the water table even a few more inches and it all dies. The dust storms that would be generated by a future parched landscape like that might make it all the way to the Midwest or even farther. After decades in which Easterners ritualistically visited the American West, the West may be traveling east.

Those we pay to look ahead are now jockeying like mad for position in a future water-short West. A new era of ever more pipelines, wells, and dams is being dreamed up by the private contractors and bureaucrats swelling up like so many ticks on the construction and maintenance budgets of the West's heavily subsidized water-delivery infrastructure. It is unlikely, however, that their dreams will be fully realized. The low-hanging fruit — the river canyons that could easily be dammed — were picked decades ago and, unlike in the good ol' days when water simply ran towards money, citizens of our western states are now far more aware of the ecological costs of big dams and ever more awake to the unfolding consequences of dependence on unreliable water sources.

Making more water available never led to prudent use. Instead, cheap and easy water led to such foolishness as putting a golf course with expanses of irrigated green in every desert community, not to speak of rice and cotton farming in the Arizona desert.

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