Over the next few years Woodhouse, Meko, and some colleagues hunted down and cored the oldest drought-sensitive trees they could find growing in the upper Colorado basin, both living and dead. Wood takes a long time to rot in a dry climate; in Harmon Canyon in eastern Utah, Meko found one Douglas fir log that had laid down its first ring as a sapling in 323 B.C. That was an extreme case, but the scientists still collected enough old wood to push their estimates of annual variations in the flow of the Colorado back deep into the Middle Ages. The results came out last spring. They showed that the Colorado has not always been as generous as it was throughout the 20th century.
The California Department of Water Resources, which had funded some of the research, published the results as an illustrated poster. Beneath a series of stock southwestern postcard shots, the spiky trace of tree-ring data oscillates nervously across the page, from A.D. 762 on the left to 2005 on the right. One photo shows the Hoover Dam, water gushing from its outlets. When the dam was being planned in the 1920s to deliver river water to the farms of the Imperial Valley and the nascent sprawl of Los Angeles, the West, according to the tree rings, was in one of the wettest quarter centuries of the past millennium. Another photo shows the booming skyline of San Diego, which doubled its population between 1970 and 2000—again, an exceptionally wet period along the river. But toward the far left of the poster, there is a picture of Spruce Tree House, one of the spectacular cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado, a pueblo site abandoned by the Anasazi at the end of the 13th century. Underneath the photo, the graph reveals that the Anasazi disappeared in a time of exceptional drought and low flow in the river.
In fact, the tree rings testified that in the centuries before Europeans settled the Southwest, the Colorado basin repeatedly experienced droughts more severe and protracted than any since then. During one 13-year megadrought in the 12th century, the flow in the river averaged around 12 million acre-feet, 80 percent of the average flow during the 20th century and considerably less than is taken out of it for human use today. Such a flow today would mean serious shortages, and serious water wars. "The Colorado River at 12 million acre-feet would be real ugly," says one water manager.
Unfortunately, global warming could make things even uglier. Last April, a month before Meko and Woodhouse published their latest results, a comprehensive study of climate models reported in Science predicted the Southwest's gradual descent into persistent Dust Bowl conditions by mid-century. Researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), meanwhile, have used some of the same models to project Colorado streamflow. In their simulations, which have been confirmed by others, the river never emerges from the current drought. Before mid-century, its flow falls to seven million acre-feet—around half the amount consumed today.