Paul Andersen: Mega runoff sends wrong message on water
If only the beavers had been left to do their work on the vast and convoluted watershed of the Southwest. But fashion intervened and trapped out the greatest water managers the world has ever known, leaving us to worry over water.
“The drought is over,” reported the Crested Butte News, exulting that Blue Mesa Reservoir might fill this summer, thanks to a huge snowpack. Last autumn, this 20-mile-long man-made pond looked more like a mud puddle with bathtub rings.
It’s the same with Lake Powell where hydropower is jeopardized by the prolonged drought that has had Western states in a stranglehold. It’s the same in California where reports trumpeted “Water, Water Everywhere!”
Local creeks and rivers have begun flowing like endless torrents of mocha java. There’s soil in that roily runoff, and there’s a lot more on the way as the high mountain valleys and cirques are just beginning to release their payloads toward the Sea of Cortez.
Except that those payloads rarely reach their natural terminus because the Colorado River is tapped out. Seven Western states depend upon the old Grand River, majestic carver of canyons. And there are calls for more from the growth magnets of Colorado’s Eastern Slope where land development never ends and the party’s never over.
It was only 10 days ago that the main tributaries to the Roaring Fork began to pick up sediments and show significant rise. A goodly portion of that water is piped beneath the Continental Divide and into the Arkansas River, then on to thirsty subdivisions sprawling over the Front Range.
Now that summer is here and nighttime temperatures are warming, the flows will pick up and peak for a month. River rafters, water managers and mosquitoes love these conditions.
This runoff will be something to watch for the magnificent volume and power of a rippling, roaring, inexorable force of nature that can only be stopped by bleeding it dry for profligate flood irrigation of hay meadows, urban growth, the spewing fountains of Las Vegas and swimming pools in L.A.
Despite sighs of relief, there should be no complacency in how we value this precious fluid medium that undercuts river banks and splashes against bridge abutments. Water is the lifeblood of the West, and this year’s diluvium should not lull us into forgetfulness and set back water conservation measures.
“California suffered historic drought from 2011 to 2017,” reported EcoNews in Southern California. “Now the reservoirs are filling up and the snowpack is deep. And our leaders state, ‘We will not be caught flat-footed another time.’ We’re filling reservoirs with record amounts of water. And the good news is that people are not relaxing.”
In April, the Associated Press reported that President Donald Trump signed a plan to cut back on the use of water from the Colorado River, which serves 40 million people in the West. “The Colorado River drought contingency plan aims to keep two key reservoirs, Lakes Powell and Mead, from falling so low they cannot deliver water or produce hydropower.”
We should have listened to John Wesley Powell, the one-armed Civil War veteran famous for running the Colorado River lashed to a chair on the deck of his dory. Powell’s report in 1878 called for slowing the rush of settlement to what he knew were arid places where homesteaders would become embattled over water.
“For Powell, the water would not be taken out of the watershed or out of the basin and transferred across mountains … hundreds of miles away to allow urban growth to take place,” explains Powell biographer Donald Worster. “Any city — Los Angeles, for example — would have had to deal with these local watershed groups and meet their terms. So L.A., if it existed at all, would have been a much, much smaller entity. Salt Lake City would be smaller. Phoenix would probably not even exist.”
We need more beavers and fewer Phoenixes, more water conservation and fewer dams, more John Wesley Powells and fewer Floyd Dominys, more care for our rivers and less greed about using them up. If only the beaver had been spared and Powell had been heeded. Hindsight is always 20/20.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.