Rip Your Strip
All of this is now changing. Fast. The airways across the Southwest are loaded these days with public service announcements urging us to conserve our water. "Rip your strip" may be a phrase unknown in much of the country, but everyone here knows exactly what it means: tear out the lawn between your front yard and the street and put in drought-resistant native plants instead.
Everyone is increasingly expected to do his or her part. In my little town of Torrey, Utah, we voluntarily ration our domestic water on weekends when the tourists are in town, taking long showers and spraying the dust and mud off their tires. Xeriscaping — landscaping with drought-resistant native plants instead of thirsty grasses and ornamental shrubs — is now fashionable as well as necessary, even required, in some western towns, a clear sign that at long last we get it. Yes, we live in a desert.
Unfortunately, it's unlikely that this sort of thing, useful as it is, will be nearly enough. Our challenge is only marginally to take shorter showers. After all, 80% of Utah's water goes into agriculture, mostly to grow alfalfa to feed beef cows raised by ranchers heavily subsidized by federal grants and tax write-offs. They graze their cows almost for free on public lands and have successfully resisted even modest increases in fees to cover the costs of maintaining the allotments they use.
Utah legislators passed a law last session that gives agriculture precedence when there's not enough water to go around. Consider that a clear signal that the agricultural interests in the state don't have any intention of changing their water-profligate ways without a fight.
Sure, everyone agrees that we have to change, but we in the West are fond of focusing blame on personal bad habits that waste water — and they couldn't be more real — rather than corporate habits that waste so much more. The fact is that we Westerners have never paid anything like what our water truly costs and we lack disincentives to waste water and incentives to conserve it. Behind all that fuss you hear from us about the damn government and how independent-minded we Westerners are, is a long history of massive dam and pipeline projects financed by the American taxpayer, featuring artificially low prices and not a few crony-run boondoggles. Call it welfare water.
The Ruins in Our Future
A visit this summer to the most famous ruins in the West, the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde National Park and hollowed out palaces at Chaco Culture National Historic Park, proved a striking, if grim, reminder that we weren't the first to pass this way — or to face possibly civilization-challenging aridity problems. The pre-Colombian Anasazi culture flourished between 900 and 1150 A.D., culminating in a city in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, that until the nineteenth century contained the largest buildings in the Americas, now uncovered from centuries of drifting sands. Mesa Verde with its "skyscraper" cliffside dwellings, also flourished in the twelfth century and was similarly abandoned and forgotten for hundreds of years.
The mysteries of these deserted cities — their purpose and the reasons they were abandoned — may never be fully plumbed. This much is undeniable though, as one walks through cobbled plazas and toppled towers, and past sun-blasted walls: cities, dazzling in their day, arose suddenly in the desert, prospered, and then collapsed. Tree-ring data confirm that an epic drought, one lasting at least 50 years, coincided with their demise. Broken and battle-scarred bones unearthed in the charred ruins indicate that warfare followed drought. What the Anasazi experienced — scarcity, the need to leave homes, and a struggle for whatever remained — is getting easier to imagine in a water-short West. Only this time at stake will be Las Vegas and Phoenix.
Archaeologists at Chaco recently uncovered a sophisticated cistern system under the city. Anasazi builders, they now believe, learned how to harvest the runoff from the summer rains that poured down and spilled over the sandstone cliffs behind the ruins. Think of these as the Lake Meads and Powells of their time, capturing the torrential monsoon rains just as those reservoirs do the Colorado River's flash floods.
The cistern system provided temporary water security, but eventually it clearly proved inadequate. In the long run, Chaco couldn't be sustained because turbulent, unreliable flows of water are hard to tame. The descendants of those who left it behind settled the mesa-top villages of the Hopis in Arizona and of the Pueblo tribes of New Mexico. They learned to live on a smaller scale, with scant rain, and after many hundreds of years, they (unlike their once living and magnificent cities) remain. There is hope in that. It is no less possible now to understand limits, to practice precaution, and to build resilient communities.
When it comes to the perturbed weather regime we are now entering, it's not just our agriculture and our sprawling cities that are having trouble adapting. The vitality of whole ecosystems is at stake. Native vegetation suffers, too. When critical moisture arrives before temperatures are warm enough for seeds to germinate, they don't. The native grasses on my land didn't thrive despite our cold, wet spring. Invasive cheat grass, however, blooms early, grows quickly, then dies and dries. It ignites easily and burns hot.
When higher temperatures evaporate the moisture in soils, they become drier in late summer and fall. Plants wither and are vulnerable to insect infestations. The vast expanse of mountain I can see out my window may seem like a classic alpine vista to the tourists who flock here every summer. A closer look, however, reveals expanding patches of gray and brown as beetle infestations kill off entire dried-out mountainsides. More than 2.5 million acres of Rocky Mountain woodlands have been destroyed by bark beetles so far. The once deep-green top of Grand Mesa in western Colorado is becoming a gray, grim dead zone, a ghostly forest waiting for lightning or some careless human to ignite it.
Dead forests, of course, are fuel for the dramatic, massive wildfires you now see so regularly on the TV news. We had quite a few of those wildfires this summer in Utah, but — what with southern California burning — they didn't make the evening news anywhere but here. That statement can be made all over the West. Both the frequency and size of fires are on the rise in our region. Early in the summer of 2008, while more than 2,000 separate wildfires raged across his state, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger made a point that many Western governors might soon be making. He claimed that California's fire season is now 365 days long. The infernos that licked the edges of the Los Angeles basin this August were at once catastrophic and routine.
Smoke is dust's inevitable twin in a West beset by climate chaos, and the lousy air quality we suffer when fires are raging is part of the new normal. A few years ago we could check the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website to see when winds might shift and bring relief. This summer, like last, there were so many fires and they were so widely distributed that it hardly mattered which way the wind blew: smoke was in our lungs and eyes one way or the other.
All of this adds up to a kind of habitat holocaust for wild species, from the tiniest micro-organisms in the soil to the largest mammals at the top of the food chain like elk and bears. Nobody makes it in a dead zone, whether it's a dust bowl or a desiccated forest.
Changes start at the bottom, as is usually true in ecosystems. When soil dries and the microbial dynamic changes, native plants either die or move uphill towards cooler temperatures and more moisture. The creatures that depend on their seeds, nuts, leaves, shade, and shelter follow the plants — if they can. Animals normally adapt to slow change, but an avalanche of challenges is another matter. When species begin living at the precarious edge of their ability to tolerate the stress of it all, you have to expect wildlife populations to shift and dwindle. Then invasive species move in and a far different and diminished landscape emerges.
Human populations in the West will also shift and dwindle, with jarring consequences for all of America, if we do not learn quickly that watersheds have limits, especially within arid and unpredictable climates. The land also needs water. And such problems aren't just "Western." Dust storms and smoke won't just stay here.
There are, of course, enlightened and engaged citizens who are doing their best to address the growing challenge of a heated-up, chaotic climate. Conservation groups like the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance are working hard to protect critical habitat for stressed species and urging government land management agencies to include global warming in their plans and projections. The Glen Canyon Institute has raised the specter of a diminished Colorado River and is challenging water managers to get innovative and adopt policies that reward water conservation and punish waste. Across the West, people are waking up and learning about their own watersheds — where their water comes from and where it goes. This, too, is hopeful. Time, unfortunately, is not on their side.
So, come see the beautiful West, our shining mountains, blue skies, and fabled canyons. It's all still here right now. Take pictures. Enjoy. But hurry...