The drought problem.

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EDITOR’S ERROR: I thought I had published this a couple of weeks ago but just discovered that I hadn’t. Whoops! Enjoy this belated post!

After leaving Lost Maples State Park, we spent a few nights exploring San Angelo, Texas and it’s huge state park. There’s really not much to say about this spot. The campground itself is nicely laid out with some huge sites, but very little shade for the warmer months and no apparently regular upkeep of the sites by campground hosts. For instance, our fire ring contained the remnants of previous campfires and some old aluminum foil, and we had to pick up lots of broken glass laying around the picnic table. I had images of rowdy, drunken campers throwing their beer bottles at the fire ring and missing, shattering a whole bunch of bottles. By contrast, we had paid the same price for our site at Lost Maples where the camp hosts thoroughly cleaned every site as soon as the campers checked out. The value of a good campground host is immeasurable.

San Angelo State Park has an extensive hiking trail system, but a prescribed burn had been conducted shortly before our visit, so the landscape was all charred. We understand the need for burns like this to control invasive species, but it’s unfortunate that we were unaware before arriving. No surprise to us was the water level of the lake … it is only 5.9% of normal operating capacity, and the amount of mature vegetation that has grown up between the ends of the boat ramps and the water tells us this has been the case for quite some time. With very little online research, I found data showing that the last time this lake was “full” was around 1960. The more we explore the west and, in particular the southwest, the more shocked we are by the drought conditions.

Google Earth image of O.C. Fisher Reservoir, San Angelo State Park. You can see that the reservoir used to be more than twice the current size.
The boat ramps above appear to have been permanently closed due to low water levels.

In the book Lasso the Wind: Away to the New West, author Timothy Egan explains that the southwest was never meant to be populated with places like Phoenix and Las Vegas. Kit Carson said southern Arizona was “so desolate, deserted and God-forsaken that a wolf could not make a living upon it.” While that may have been an exaggeration, the point he made was that this land was not meant for habitation by anything but the most specialized of creatures. The Native Indians knew that, nomadically moving with the weather, crops and wildlife. Between 1850, when California became a state, and 1890, when the United States declared the western frontier closed, millions of mostly European-born Americans flooded the west looking for their slice of the pie and, wanting to ensure settlement by Anglo-Americans, the government looked for ways to make this land more hospitable. European-born Americans were not interested in living where the land is hot, prickly and in a perpetual state of beige, they wanted greenery and cool running water.

The government’s solution was to damn up the Colorado River to contain multiple pools of water to supply green lawns and shrubs in places like Las Vegas, Phoenix and Los Angeles … places that nature never intended to be green. After all, there is an endless supply of water beneath the earth, isn’t there? Theodore Roosevelt disagreed: “Leave it as it is, you cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.” Even so, in 1902 he signed the Reclamation Act to address water scarcity and lack of settlement in far western states, and in 1905 construction began on the Laguna Dam, the first built on the Colorado River. In 1922, the “Law of the River” allocated the waters of the Colorado to the various states and cities and 14 additional dams were built to control the river, diverting it to reservoirs in the name of settlement of land that was never meant to be settled. Ecosystems were destroyed, cultural remains and ancestral villages flooded and the landscaped permanently changed in the name of “progress.”

The problem is that when the water was allocated in 1922, it provided a substantial enough supply to allow for growth of Denver, Salt Lake City, Albuquerque, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix and Tucson. It did not take into account the growth of those cities. In 1920, the combined population of those cities was about one million people. By 2020, the combined population had soared to over 44 million! The Reclamation Service also didn’t consider that this part of the country is subject to periods of drought. The current drought is currently in it’s 21st year and shows no sign of ending.

To add insult to injury, when the water was allocated to states, there was zero water allocated to the 30 native Indian tribal lands that are located near it’s banks. Tribes have been seeking correction of that “oversight” in the form of lawsuits for the past 60 years. While they have had some victories in court, they lack the infrastructure to draw and pipe the water to their towns, leaving cities and states downstream free to poach the water that the tribes are unable to collect.

Photo from August 2021 showing the water line of a seriously depleted reservoir at a campground near Scottsbluff, Nebraska.

Everywhere we travel in the west we encounter similar signs of drought. It would be interesting to look 50 years into the future to see the condition of those major cities as well as the rural areas. How will they survive without water? How will the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon and Utah’s Canyonlands look with just a dry trickle where rushing rapids used to be?

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