The trompe l’oeil of water
The week before Christmas I flew to Las Vegas, water on my brain. I had snagged a window seat, which was good. Assigned an aisle seat, I might have snarled and clawed. I’m a geographer. As the explorer John Wesley Powell knew, the lay of the land matters.
Banking after takeoff from Denver International Airport, I studied the dots of blue, reservoirs created first for farms and now appropriated to hydrate the homes and lawns of Colorado’s Front Range. Following Interstate 70 west from Denver, I looked down on the Williams Fork, the Blue and other valleys lined with diversion ditches maintained by Denver.
Next in the archipelago of wetness was the Gore Range, between Summit County and Vail, still glistening with snow deposited the day before. Amid the knobs was Mount Powell, named after John Wesley, who in fact had climbed it, as had I, mostly during summer, but once during winter when it was still thick with snow.
Mountains such as these are the source of the greatest wealth in the Southwest. Some 75 percent of water in the Colorado River and its tributaries comes from mountains, and most of that in the form of snow. Half the snowpack in Colorado lies between 9,000 and 11,000 feet.
That gives us a landscape of the rich and the poor. The San Juan Mountains, for example, receive between 40 and 50 inches of precipitation annually. Just a few miles away, it’s desert by anybody’s definition, with just 7 inches of precipitation annually at many locations. It’s a landscape of haves and have-nots.
This duality is played out across Colorado. Seventy-five percent of the state’s precipitation falls naturally west of the Continental Divide, but 80 percent of the population lives to the east, mostly in metropolitan Denver and other cities located at the foot of the mountains.
At Grand Junction, our plane broke through clouds, and we began veering southwest, as does the Colorado River, passing the two big reservoirs of the Southwest ” Lake Powell and then, as our plane began banking for the descent into McCarran International Airport, Lake Mead, at the time about half-full, the emptiest it had been since 1965.
In Las Vegas, I heard much about the Colorado River that I already knew:
– That there isn’t enough river to satisfy all 24 million people who currently want a piece of it.
– That more people are arriving all the time, with no end in sight as states of the Southwest ” Nevada, Arizona and Colorado ” continue to lead the nation in population growth.
– That there isn’t as much water in the river as the framers of the Colorado River Compact in 1922 had assumed there would be.
– And again, there was talk about the climate becoming hotter and drier.
In 1922, the seven states that contribute water to the Colorado River convened in Santa Fe to discuss how the waters of the river should be apportioned. Representatives from Colorado instigated the meeting, afraid that Arizona and especially California would develop far more rapidly, hogging the water if a first-in-time, first-in-right system for the river was followed, as was used in individual states in the West.
These discussions in Santa Fe were grounded by an assumption that the Colorado River carried an average 16.5 million acre-feet of water. That had been the average flow for the previous two decades, despite some drought years.
Although agreement came with difficulty, and not fully until 1929, the compact outlined the basic rules for the river, and most fundamentally this: The water would be split between the upper basin and lower basin. Or rather, the upper basin was responsible for delivering half of the 16.5 million acre-feet at Lee’s Ferry, Ariz., on a rolling 10-year average.
Later, in 1948, the four upper basin states, including Colorado, divided their half percent of the river’s water. Colorado got 51.75 percent of the upper basin’s share, or about a quarter of the entire river.
In some respects, the framers of the Colorado River Compact were correct. California did develop far more rapidly than other states. Indeed, it has been the gnawing fear in Colorado for decades that, despite the river compact, “California is stealing our water.”
But, as has now become abundantly clear, the assumption of 16.5 million acre-feet was unfounded. Nearly a century later, we now see that the river has, except for a few short periods, been much drier, carrying about 13.5 million acre-feet. New research of tree rings further shows that drier, rather than wetter, has more often been the rule going back for a millennium.
More disturbing, global warming computer models are now gaining improved resolution. Not only will temperatures in the Southwest be hotter, which means more evaporation and hence greater dryness, shorter winters will mean less snow lingering to cool mountain slopes into summer. In the desert, at Lake Powell, 6 feet of water per year evaporates off the surface.
Computer models about future precipitation in the Southwest are unclear, but projections of temperature are not. The most bleak picture is painted by a study released last year by two scientists from Boulder, Marty Hoerling of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Jon Eischeid of the University of Colorado.
“Our analysis of climatic change projections reveal the Southwest to be now embarking on a new era of drought,” they write. “In the past, drought was principally precipitation driven and enhanced by temperatures. Indications from the simulations are that droughts will become increasingly temperature driven, and enhanced by precipitation deficits.”
In other words, the 16.5 million acre-feet assumed in the Colorado River Compact will rarely be there and probably not the 13.5 million acre-feet, either. Instead, the models developed by Hoerling and Eischeid see 10 million acre-feet, maybe even 7 million acre-feet in the midcentury.
By then, the parched year of 2002, the driest in 300-plus years, will have become the new norm. Dillon Reservoir had dust devils that summer. In Denver, when the Martin Luther King statue was unveiled, city workers spray-painted the withered bluegrass grass. The light from Durango to Fort Collins that summer frequently had an odd orange tint, like some science-fiction movie, because of all the forest-fire smoke.
In a way, Las Vegas is already seeing the future. It is, of course, a strange place. Walking down Las Vegas Boulevard, otherwise known as The Strip, a phrase that I first heard used by painters in ski towns kept roiling in my head: “trompe l’oeil, trompe l’oeil.” All was illusion.
Within the shopping and entertainment malls, my confusion deepened as deft lighting and carefully painted walls created illusions of place and illusions of time. Here was a village in the Middle East at sunset, there was Paris, and beyond was Venice.
Once, going up an escalator, I was temporarily caught off guard as I emerged at the next level. Instead of indoors, I was outdoors again, and it was dusk, the sun slipping behind distant mountains. But hadn’t I watched the December sun set three hours before at Hoover Dam?
On The Strip, it’s always dusk, life always on the edge of possibilities.
Away from The Strip, the hard and harsh realities have been understood for some time now in broader Las Vegas and Clark County, which also includes Henderson. This is a place that gets 4 inches of precipitation a year. The Strip and all its make-believe fountains, canals and waterfalls are the economic engine.
Renting a car, I drove around Las Vegas for a couple of hours. In older neighbors, lawns were anything but green. The Southern Nevada Water Authority has instituted a program of austerity in recent years, buying up sod at a rate of $2 a square foot. In the new neighborhoods, it’s not permitted in front yards and allowed in only one-half of the backyard space.
Stopping in a housing development advertising homes starting in the “low threes,” I walked past small front yards of stone with one or two small shrubs. At the community playground, a rubberized mat was under the jungle gym.
Clark County surpassed Manhattan four years ago in population. Nobody could have possibly imagined that reality in 1922, when the Colorado River Compact was drawn. Instead of millions of acre-feet of water, as California and Colorado got, Nevada accepted 300,000 acre-feet. Las Vegas was little more than a place for the steam locomotives to refuel, tapping the underground reservoirs remnant from when the glaciers melted 12,000 years ago.
Las Vegas long ago tapped out those aquifers. It has exhausted its share of the Colorado River. It is now extending its arms to tap underground aquifers 100 miles away in Lincoln County.
Pat Mulroy, the clear-voiced director of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, apologizes to no one, but concedes, “We do make a delightful target, I will give you that.” Then she marshals out her case. The Strip, for all its extravagances, uses only 3 percent of water in Las Vegas yet is the largest economic driver in Nevada.
The new conservation program during the past two years actually has reduced water use, even while 60,000 people a month have been moving in.
“It’s no longer a drought plan; it’s a way of life,” Mulroy says. As cities are becoming more efficient with their water, she says, so must the farms and ranches, which even now use 50 to 80 percent of water in the Western states.
Mulroy figures that plans being laid for Las Vegas now will eventually accommodate a 50 percent increase in population, to 3 million people.
Led by Las Vegas, the seven basin states authorized a study of ways to augment the Colorado River Basin. For decades there has been idle talk about bringing water from the Columbia or from the Missouri into the drier Colorado River. This study has more feet under it.
This new study aims to look at the various ways ” cloud-seeding, desalinization, removal of the water-sucking exotic called salt-cedar (tamarisk) and even extraction of water for coal-bed methane deposits ” to increase supplies and to evaluate whether there is likely to be much bang for the buck. This evaluation cost $700,000.
“The goal is to put all of them on a level playing field and get an idea of the costs, show how much water could be yielded, and some of the environmental issues,” said Kay Brothers, deputy general manager of Southern Nevada Water Authority.
Cloud-seeding has its supporters. Last year, for example, the Central Arizona Project chipped in money in March to seed the clouds around Telluride. Several parts of the Sierra Nevada in California and Nevada have been seeded for decades, as have ranges in Utah. In Colorado, Vail has paid for cloud-seeding since 1977.
The appeal of cloud-seeding is that it requires little infrastructure other than scattered ground-based generators and perhaps some airplane operations. Some estimates place the cost at $5 to $10 per acre-foot of water produced, said Larry Dozer, deputy general manager for the Central Arizona Project.
Dozer calculates that an acre-foot of water in the mountains of Colorado, Utah or Wyoming could produce $60 to $80 worth of electricity at Glen Canyon, Hoover and other downstream dams. Altogether, cloud-seeding could augment the river basin yield 7 to 10 percent pear year. “I am a believer,” he says.
But skeptics also abound. That skepticism runs so deep that the Department of Interior, which funded large-scale operations and experiments beginning in the 1950s, pulled the plug in the early 1980s and continues to firmly deny future funding.
Wyoming, meanwhile, has appropriated nearly $9 million for a five-year program to be staged partly in the Medicine Bow Mountains, between Laramie and Steamboat Springs. Unlike cloud-seeding operations such as are done for Vail, this program intends to establish a scientific control group to better answer that persistent question, “Does it really work?” An operational program is also planned in the Wind River Range, south of Jackson Hole.
In Colorado, the essential question is whether more water can be found to sustain additional residents, particularly along the Front Range and in the mountain valleys. The answer is easy: Yes, if farms are allowed to go fallow. Some 85 to 90 percent of the state’s water goes to agriculture, mostly to grow corn, alfalfa and other crops used to feed livestock.
But agriculture is close to religion in Colorado. The alternative is to tap headwater streams from Granby to Aspen. The water is high in quality, even if the quantities are relatively small.
The greater stores of water are much farther downstream, possibly on the Gunnison River, on the Colorado River near Fruita or on the Yampa River west of Steamboat Springs.
Two bold proposals have emerged in the past 18 months. One envisions a pipeline from about 70 miles west of Steamboat, near the community of Maybell, to draw water from the Yampa River to the Front Range. A second, even more ambitious proposal is to draw water from the Flaming Gorge Reservoir, on the Utah-Wyoming line, back across Wyoming along Interstate 80 and down along the Front Range. The cost of that project is estimated at $2 billion to $3 billion.
Both ideas assume Colorado still has water. By some estimates, Colorado has up to 500,000 acre-feet of water to develop. Others, such as Eric Kuhn, general manager of the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District, think Colorado has less water than that now ” and will, given the accumulating evidence of climate change, have much less in the future.
David Getches, dean of the University of Colorado School of Law, is similarly skeptical of how much water remains available for development. Evidence of that scarcity is firming, he says. And even if private investors should want to build pipelines from hundreds of miles away to deliver to the Front Range, it’s not good public policy to build a society that cannot be sustained, he says.
A somewhat contrary point of view is taken by Colorado Supreme Court Justice Greg Hobbs, a water lawyer by training who for many years represented the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, which administers the Colorado-Big Thompson Project in the Fort Collins-Boulder-Greeley area.
“Colorado should use every drop of the compact that it can figure out how to use,” Hobbs says, and it should do that because it will lose agriculture otherwise. We have already lost 1 million acres of agriculture land during the last 10 years. We make a mistake if we don’t store it.”
Hobbs is attentive to the growing body of evidence about climate change, but he argues the changing climate argues for increased storage. Even if there is less precipitation in the future and more rain instead of snow, there will be a wide range of variability. “To me what that says is you had better capture what you can.”
Also an uncertainty is whether more senior water rights obtained for possible oil-shale development will, in fact, be used.
But Hobbs is insistent that it should be up to entrepreneurs to figure out whether to develop further water projects, such as is proposed for the off-channel site near Wolcott.
In early March, I returned from a water conference in Salt Lake City where I had heard Hobbs, Getches and others speak. Driving this time, I stopped in Green River, Wyo., where John Wesley Powell shoved off his dory in 1869 to explore the Green and Colorado rivers.
Standing along Interstate 80, the river still frozen over and the sun dipping on the horizon, I thought about the origins of this river in the Wind River Range above Pinedale, and of its tortured path to Utah, joining the Colorado near Moab, but almost the equal in water.
If Aaron Million, the entrepreneur who is proposing to divert water from the Green, gets his way, the pipeline will march from that river along I-80 eastward across the Continental Divide for hundreds of miles, at Laramie dipping southward to Fort Collins and the Front Range.
It’s an absorbing thought, yet another stroke in what the historian David Lavender called the “massive violation of geography.” But ski lifts, interstate highways and jet airplanes all violate some sensibility or another, and I’m just flat-out amazed at their ingenuity.
After flinging a few rocks onto the ice, I got in my car and pointed it east. At the speed limit, I figured I’d be home about midnight.
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A ski season surrounded with uncertainty kicks off on Wednesday. The six inches of new snowfall Tuesday will allow opening of an additional 62 acres on Aspen Mountain, bringing opening-day total to about 160 acres.