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The drought in US south-west is the worst in 1,200 years. It might be here to stay

·5 min read

If water is the lifeblood of planet Earth, the American south-west is in big trouble.

John Wesley Powell, the one-armed US army civil war veteran who led the first white expedition down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon – a daring boat run in 1869 – later became an ethnographer who wrote a prescient 1878 government paper titled: Report on the Lands of the Arid Regions of the United States. In it, he unflinchingly described the scarcity of water, and summarized that much of the American south-west, if it must be settled, should be settled lightly and modestly. Overpopulate it, and it will be unforgiving.

Related: The only thing as certain as drought in Australia is the stupid call to build new dams | Maryanne Slattery

Wallace Stegner, the dean of western writers, observed, “As a government scientist, Major Powell was now defying ignorance. He was taking on vested interests and the vested prejudices by which they maintained themselves.”

In short, Powell was a sage.

Nobody listened to him.

Decades later, the US Bureau of Reclamation oversaw the construction of two massive arch-gravity concrete dams on the river: Hoover Dam in the 1930s that impounded Lake Mead; and Glen Canyon Dam in the 1960s, that impounded Lake Powell. Some people called them “engineering marvels”. Others said the dams defiled the Michelangelo of American rivers.

They changed everything. Phoenix and Las Vegas grew as if water came from the Big Rock Candy Mountain, where the bluebird sings to the lemonade springs and every day is pay day. Just flip the switch; turn on the tap. Or maybe they grew like invasive weeds, sprouting swimming pools, golf courses and lawns – a greedy developer’s dream. Farmers greened the desert. Cattle grazed the valleys. High voltage lines lit up casinos, stadiums and homes, keeping them warm in winter, cool in summer. It felt almost providential, ordained by God.

Today, the Colorado River provides water for 40 million people in seven states, but stricken by a devastating drought, it’s not what it used to be. Lake Mead and Lake Powell are both at about 30% capacity, down more than 140 feet from “full pool”. If the lakes go much lower, the dams will be unable to generate power. The snow pack in the Rocky Mountains – that feeds the 25 tributaries of the once mighty Colorado – is low yet again. And climate models say the entire region is going to get hotter and drier. More arid, less livable. The lakes reside in picturesque red rock country, but now sit surrounded by what looks like bleached bathtub rings as they evaporate in triple-digit summertime temperatures.

Welcome to the worst drought in an estimated 1,200 years.

“It isn’t sneaking up on us,” says John Entsminger, the general manager of the Las Vegas Water District and Southern Nevada Water Authority. “Since 2002, our population has increased close to 50%, about 750,000 people in the last 19 years or so, and over that same time our aggregated depletions from the Colorado River have gone down 235.” He asks, “Is this a drought, or is it just the way the hydrology of the Colorado River is going to be?”

Probably both.

After 11,700 years of relative stability, what geologists call the Holocene epoch, Earth has entered – or rather, human beings have created – a new epoch, the Anthropocene, brought about by our burning of fossil fuels and loading the atmosphere with the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane.

Utah’s Governor Spencer Cox has asked his constituents to pray for rain, as if that’s leadership. Neither is in the forecast.

Civilizations blunder into self-destruction because they ignore the signals all around them, and refuse to change

When the Bureau of Reclamation planned and designed the dams, they were warned that their data sets were too small; that the desert has moods, that rivers fluctuate, water comes and goes, and the bones of previous civilizations are everywhere.

Some 700 years ago the Anasazi people disappeared from the Colorado Plateau. In his book, Collapse, the geographer Jared Diamond says multiple factors were involved, “but they all go back to the fundamental problem that the US Southwest is a fragile and marginal environment for agriculture – as is also much of the world today”. Civilizations blunder into self-destruction because they ignore the signals all around them, and refuse to change. The subtitle of Diamond’s book says it all: “How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.”

How then to succeed? The Kentucky poet-essayist-novelist Wendell Berry, who is also a farmer, says, “We have lived our lives by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. We have been wrong. We must change our lives so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption, that what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and learn what is good for it.”

If the biodiversity is dying, if the humpback chub, south-western willow flycatcher and desert tortoise are threatened or endangered, and if nothing changes, then they, like the Anasazi, will disappear. And modern cities will be next. Imagine Phoenix at 130F. It’s coming.

To survive will take a tremendous amount of cooperation, innovation and sacrifice. A true test of American character. In her book, A Paradise Built in Hell, the author-essayist and Guardian US columnist Rebecca Solnit documents how people often pull together during crises, from the London Blitz to Hurricane Katrina, and show a great sense of community, purposefulness and even joy. She concludes that in a world of everyday pain, “This is the only paradise that is possible, and it will never exist whole, stable and complete. It is always coming into being in response to trouble and suffering; making paradise is the work that we are meant to do.”

And it must begin now.

  • Kim Heacox is the author of many books, including The Only Kayak, a memoir, and Jimmy Bluefeather, a novel, both winners of the National Outdoor Book Award