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Published: February 2008

Drying of the West

Drying West

Drying of the West

The American West was won by water management. What happens when there's no water left to manage?

By Robert Kunzig
Photograph by Vincent Laforet

When provided with continuous nourishment, trees, like people, grow complacent.

Tree-ring scientists use the word to describe trees like those on the floor of the Colorado River Valley, whose roots tap into thick reservoirs of moist soil. Complacent trees aren't much use for learning about climate history, because they pack on wide new rings of wood even in dry years. To find trees that feel the same climatic pulses as the river, trees whose rings widen and narrow from year to year with the river itself, scientists have to climb up the steep, rocky slopes above the valley and look for gnarled, ugly trees, the kind that loggers ignore. For some reason such "sensitive" trees seem to live longer than the complacent ones. "Maybe you can get too much of a good thing," says Dave Meko.

Meko, a scientist at the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research at the University of Arizona, has been studying the climate history of the western United States for decades. Tree-ring fieldwork is hardly expensive—you need a device called an increment borer to drill into the trees, you need plastic straws (available in a pinch from McDonald's) to store the pencil-thin cores you've extracted from bark to pith, and you need gas, food, and lodging. But during the relatively wet 1980s and early '90s, Meko found it difficult to raise even the modest funds needed for his work. "You don't generate interest to study drought unless you're in a drought," he says. "You really need a catastrophe to get people's attention," adds colleague Connie Woodhouse.

Then, in 2002, the third dry year in a row and the driest on record in many parts of the Southwest, the flow in the Colorado fell to a quarter of its long-term average. That got people's attention.

The Colorado supplies 30 million people in seven states and Mexico with water. Denver, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Tucson, Los Angeles, and San Diego all depend on it, and starting this year so will Albuquerque. It irrigates four million acres of farmland, much of which would otherwise be desert, but which now produces billions of dollars' worth of crops. Gauges first installed in the 19th century provide a measure of the flow of the river in acre-feet, one acre-foot being a foot of water spread over an acre, or about 326,000 gallons. Today the operation of the pharaonic infrastructure that taps the Colorado—the dams and reservoirs and pipelines and aqueducts—is based entirely on data from those gauges. In 2002 water managers all along the river began to wonder whether that century of data gave them a full appreciation of the river's eccentricities. With the lawns dying in Denver, a water manager there asked Woodhouse: How often has it been this dry?

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