Drought Cycle Is Not Something You Ride Around Moab

Ed Abbey somehow has made his way to Heaven

May 14, 2003 in The Rockies | Comments (0)

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In a startling comment to the Salt Lake Tribune, a U. S. Bureau of Reclamation hydrologist named Andrew Gilmore said that given four more years of this drought, “It’s conceivable that we could run out of water at Lake Powell.”

Lake Powell a mud puddle? The place nobody knew unindundated? Will it be Mother Nature who throws the ultimate monkey wrench? RIP, Ed Abbey, it could happen. Glen Canyon is half full and draining.

At 53 percent full, Lake Powell holds about 13 million acre-feet of water. The early forecast called for the reservoir to gain about 4 million acre-feet in the coming runoff. But under the Colorado River Compact, Lake Powell owes 8.23 million acre-feet a year downstream.

In southern Utah in late April I took the ferry from Hall’s Crossing to Bullfrog. The big boat had to dock at a makeshift platform at the end of a newly bladed dirt road down to the waterline. The white stain of high water was 75 or 80 feet up the red cliffs.

On the way to Escalante — no use boycotting the Burr Trail highway — I took a walk in Bullfrog Basin. A new weed was thriving in the dried muck. Seashells littered the sand. Weird six-foot marker buoys were marooned like space vehicles on the moonscape, with no water in sight.

I was told it was the same to the north where the Colorado River is exposed and running at Hite for the first time in 30 years.

On the way back to Santa Fe in May I asked a guide in Bluff, Utah, how the river running business was going. The San Juan, flows by the little desert town on its way to Lake Powell. He said the rafting companies have all but suspended business because of the sand bars — they were tired of dragging the boats while passengers waded.
As the Southwestern drought continues, there is no relief in sight. The spring runoff is about to begin, but the latest water forecasts are, for example, 43 percent on the Rio Grande at Elephant Butte, 42 percent on the San Juan at Navajo Reservoir. Those are percentages of normal. But many are beginning to wonder: what’s really normal?

Wise people from Hopi elders to Wallace Stegner have warned us: cycles of drought are normal in the arid West. The dams, including the monster at Glen Canyon, are water storage projects — with recreation added as a bonus — and right now they are doing their job. But the Bureau of Rec, drunk with Congressional appropriations, may have deluded itself.

Archeologists have noted: tree rings show long cycles within the short cycles of drought. The dry spell in the 12th Century was about 70 years long. The Anasazi moved. The empire of Chaco Canyon evaporated.

But why worry? The government will think of something. Buy that house boat while the prices are down. Wasn’t there a lot of late snow in Denver? Droughts don’t last more than three or four years, do they? And they can always buy up the agricultural water rights and convert them to condo and golf use. It drives out the poor.

Some biologists are saying low water is good for fish. Some promoters are pointing out that Glen Canyon scenery submerged since at least 1973 is now accessible off Lake Powell. Maybe they’ll find Everett Ruess. And tourism does not seem to dropping along with the water. The scenery that draws people here is, after all, first and foremost, desert scenery. Isn’t that what all the SUV ads are about?

And desertification probably improves oil reserves. Just look at Saudi Arabia.