The other day I walked on the floor of Lake Mead, a cracked, sun-baked Martian landscape that was once over a hundred feet underwater. On the horizon, the eerie geological formations that frightened the early white explorers have displayed the last tub rings in the rock.
Beyond the southwest, the message from a large, rapidly evaporating man-made lake is that we cannot find a solution to this problem. The region is the vestige of an era of ingenuity and promise. The Hoover Dam, like its upstream companion that created Lake Powell, demonstrated the might of American engineering at the height of its powers. Dams were built around the idea that we are taller than any obstacle in nature; we can blast and dig and cut our way to create a hydraulic machine.
And for over 80 years, things have for the most part worked as expected. As it flows 1,450 miles from melting snow in the High Rockies to a trickle in the Gulf of California, the Colorado River serves 40 million people. It winds through fields, forests, and cliffs in the upper basin and passes through the Grand Canyon and other national parks in its lower half. But over the past century, natural flows have declined by about 20 percent, largely due to climate change.
As long as the world continues to heat up, no amount of new dams can resuscitate a gasping resource. Doing whatever it takes – growing more food and building smarter communities with less water – cannot go further.
A previous megadrought in these areas may have forced ancestral Pueblo cultures, also known as Anasazi, to abandon their cliff homes in the 1200s. This is a theory, as they did not. left a detailed story. Only empty dwellings.
Scientists know about their disaster by studying Tree Rings, a nature book with chapters on wet and dry years. Of course, that was long before we started pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. It was believed that their peril came from years of drought and not from a warming of the earth. In the modern age, the dry years can be managed somewhat. The climate cannot.
An old tree would suggest we can live this, as well as. But what if the tree can’t survive this year or next? Then we will be left with human artifacts, the shell of Las Vegas, a finished lake, to tell the story of what happened. The cause will not be a mystery.
Timothy Egan (@nytegan) is an opinion writer covering the environment, the American West, and politics. He is a National Book Award winner and most recently author of “A Pilgrimage to Eternity”.
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