Heather Hansman is the author of “Downriver: Into the Future of Water in the West.”
Coming into the crush of the first real rapid, Red Creek, I white-knuckle my paddle, try to keep breathing and think about what John Wesley Powell must have felt when he teed up to the trough of the first wave.
It’s May, the same time of year that, 150 years ago, Powell and a nine-man crew put onto the Green River just upstream from here and paddled on down the Colorado through the Grand Canyon — the first non-Native Americans on record to do so.
When Powell made his trip, the Homestead Act was less than a decade old, and the chalk-dust canyons of the Colorado Plateau were a big blank space on the map. America’s manifest destiny was just manifesting itself, but he could see that as the West filled up, human demand for its resources would outstrip supply.
His predictions about water shortages have proved eerily true. The Colorado River — of which the Green is the biggest tributary — is the main water source for 40 million people. It’s already overallocated, and climate change is predicted to shrink flows by up to 50 percent by the end of the century. We’re finally coming to grips with those forecasts and beginning to heed Powell’s century-and-a-half-old warnings. But it’s taken drought and desperation to get us there, and we have to do better.
This spring, the seven states in the Colorado River Basin signed a drought contingency plan. For the first time, each of the states has agreed to take less than its individual allocated share of water, to try to shore up the supply for a drier future. It’s a small but significant step in dialing back demand to meet supply — the heart of Powell’s prediction — but no one, not even the state leaders who agreed to it after almost 100 years of battling over water rights, thinks it goes far enough.
Climate change and overuse are still advancing. I followed Powell’s path because I wanted to understand how water conflicts were going to play out, and my first move was the same as his: get on the river to see what’s going on. Today, Red Creek is in the tailwater of Flaming Gorge Dam, and I can see the impacts of a highly regulated waterway: the non-native trout, the unnaturally clear water, because the dam stops sediment that would normally make the current milky and thick. We’ve constructed a vast network of pipes, reservoirs and dams and built up a society around that man-made river, and that’s not going to change. No one wants to cut off water to Salt Lake City or to stop growing food in Yuma, Ariz.
This winter brought above-average snowfall, but it barely dents two decades of extended drought that experts are now calling aridity, because drought sounds temporary and fixable. It was another anomalous winter in the swinging yo-yo of climate change: unpredictable and hard to manage, in a river system that’s managed down to every drop.
We’ve been okay so far, in part because reservoirs give us a buffer in the dry years, but we’re sucking down our storage, and in the fragile interlocking mesh of current water use, our squeezed supply won’t last for long.
As I paddled, I saw the intractability of an overstretched water system firsthand: ranchers with decades of family history who told me they were unable to pass down their land, cities building new reservoirs to shore up their reserves, desiccated tribal reservations where opportunity has been thwarted by withheld water rights. It was obvious, as Powell anticipated, that the math didn’t line up.
In his “Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States,” he predicted that there wouldn’t be enough water for unchecked westward growth in the drylands beyond the Great Plains; he warned that groundwater wouldn’t be enough to sustain agriculture and that the most sustainable way to use water in the West would be lightly, and within a river’s own watershed.
The prevailing climate theory at the time, pushed by land speculator Charles Dana Wilber, was that “rain follows the plow” — that is, agriculture itself could change the climate of arid regions — so Powell’s message of moderation was inconvenient to the culture of optimism and American exceptionalism. It still is. We know better than that now, I think, but it’s hard to shake the outdated dreams that we can keep growing and not suffer consequences. The drought contingency plan is an important step in addressing that, but there will need to be more compromises and creative ways to incentivize using less.
Spring, if you’re a boater, always comes with the fragile dream of following the hydrograph, watching for the spike of runoff, trying to predict your risk and your rush as you hope that snowmelt and spring rains have provided the depth to make your way downstream. But at some point, that risk has to line up with reality. You can’t float if you don’t have any water.