Scars on a Dry Land

categories: Cocktail Hour


It was a small moment during this hottest of summers. I had already driven through the crisped cornfields of the Midwest  and witnessed a smoke cloud that seemed to cover the whole state of New Mexico.  Meanwhile, back home in North Carolina, my wife described the weeklong string of 100-degree days with 99 percent humidity as being “like living in someone’s mouth.” So I had already grown used to heat, and to scenes of heat’s destruction.

But this was the moment that got me thinking: I was flying in a small plane over the dry cracked wilderness of northeastern Utah, courtesy of Bruce Gordon, a pilot and owner of EcoFlight (see “The Plane Truth”). With us were a documentary filmmaker and two representatives of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, which works to preserve Utah’s remaining wild desert lands. We had just flown over a sight of stunning beauty: a brown river named the Green snaking through canyons of purpled gray. We banked down over Nine Mile Canyon toward great towers of rock. They looked like giant red sand doodle castles, and atop these castles the Ute Indians had built dwellings that stood high above the desert floor. If ever I had a sense of the land as remote, sacred, vast, and removed from the unrelenting assault of our own hectic time, this was it.

But then, a second or two later, I saw them: The first square of shaved land, devoid of all vegetation, that signaled another oil drilling site. Then another, and another. Earlier we had seen hundreds of them, both gas and oil, each trailing a squiggling tail, like a group of giant square tadpoles. The tails were roads, and those roads always connected to larger roads, like the new four-lane highway leading down to the Book Cliff divide, site of the U.S. Oil Sands Project, Utah’s very own tar sands. There were not as many roads or sites here, but it was stunning to see them in such a remote, beautiful place. The message was clear: we will not leave anything alone. If these lands were once sacred, we will desecrate. We simply don’t care.

I pointed out that the land was scarred, as if someone had taken a knife to a beautiful person’s face.

“They used to say that the vegetation would eventually re-claim the sites,” said Steve Bloch, the energy program director for the wilderness alliance, through the headphones. “But scientists no longer think so. Not enough water.”

These scars were permanent then, or as permanent as anything can be in nature.

* * *

We are a short-term people, hungry for now. The West is a long-term place. A place where the stones in an Anasazi Cliff dwelling sit just as they did a thousand years ago, and where nothing rots and decays. Here you can see the scars across the dryness. And here you will see the same scars in a hundred, or a thousand, years.

“Not enough water,” Steve said. There it was in three words. It is the whole country’s motto this summer, but it has been the West’s motto forever. The native people built a civilization adapting to that fact. The conquering Europeans, for the most part, tried their best to deny it. And are still denying it.  Wallace Stegner wrote: “The history of the West until recently has been a history of the importation of humid-land habits (and carelessness) into a dry land that will not tolerate them … Inherited wet-land habits have given us a damaged domain.”

In other words, there has been a history of pretending. But in a land of so little water, even less water, from either the sky or melting snow, tips the balance and reveals the place for the desert that most of it is. This year has been the hottest on record in the West (and the rest of the country). Which, combined with a virtually nonexistent snowpack, turns rivers into mudflats and sparks blazing fires. But this has been a freak year, some say. Remember that the year before gave us one of the largest snowpacks ever recorded. Perhaps the skeptics are right. But the secret worry, even of the skeptics, is that this is not a freak year.

Scarily, there is mounting evidence that this is the case. Researchers recently concluded that the extended dry period in the West from 2000 to 2004 was the worst in 800 years — that is, since the years between 1146 and 1151. Worse, there are fears that this will become the “new normal,” that the aridity we saw during those years, and are seeing this summer, are what we can expect over the next century. Even drought-resistant plants will die, reservoir levels will continue to fall, crop production will continue to drop. Worse, as vegetation withers, it will no longer be able to absorb carbon dioxide, exacerbating climate change.

It is not a pretty picture, but it is an honest one. Scientists Peter Gleick and Matthew Heberger, writing in Scientific American, compared the situation in the West to the devastating “Millennium Drought” that Australia has faced over the past decade:

The Millennium Drought did have one benefit: it got people’s attention. Australians responded to these extremes with a wide range of technical, economic, regulatory and educational policies. Urban water managers in Australia have been forced to put in place aggressive strategies to curb water use and to expand sources of new and unconventional supplies. They have subsidized efficient appliances and fixtures such as dual-flush toilets, launched public educational campaigns to save water, and more. Between 2002 and 2008 per capita urban water use — already low compared with the western U.S. — declined by 37 percent.

There is no silver lining here. But at least the drought forces us to see things as they are. In flusher times there are parts of the West that can whistle along and ignore reality, pretending to be something they are not. But in a year like this, that is impossible. We are forced to look things in the eye and strip away our illusions, to prepare ourselves, as much as we can, for what is to come. There can be no more pretending

  1. Tommy writes:

    Warmer air holds more moisture. I read a prediction 15 years ago that an increase in ambient temperature of two degrees Celsius, could reduce precipitation by 20%.

    There was a bad drought in Northern California in the mid to late 1970’s. In the City of San Francisco, the public water utility employed an advertising campaign, urging their customers to conserve, by publishing and promoting many water conservation tips and techniques. The residents of the City of San Francisco responded, and reduced their consumption by 50%, voluntarily, and with no appreciable reduction in their standard of living, forcing the utility to come out and say, Whoa, the droughts mot that bad -because they weren’t getting their revenue.

    Education’s the key.

  2. Kristen Keckler writes:

    Dave, your gorgeous descriptions of the landscape (“We had just flown over a sight of stunning beauty: a brown river named the Green snaking through canyons of purpled gray. We banked down over Nine Mile Canyon toward great towers of rock. They looked like giant red sand doodle castles…) help us zoom in on and understand what’s at stake here. I lived in North Texas (for 11 years) and I can honestly say the summer of 2011 scared the heck out of me. Not a drop of rain in, like, three months! Sure, we weren’t supposed to water our lawns in Dallas, but some people did anyway. I did, however, recently hear something on NPR that made me more hopeful–about San Antonio’s efforts to at water conservation. Whole towns have and will continue to dry up unless people work together for a solution.

  3. Rahul Dave writes:

    Wow. Thanks, Dave!

    Even the extremes with a big snowpack and then drought could possibly be signs of climate change induced variability. In other words, the same (slowly increasing) mean, the bigger standard deviation.

    In Boulder this week..a kind of lala land, but despite the smog and the traffic and everything, the land is beautiful here as in much of the west, and people are trying to take care of it.

    • dave writes:

      Exactly. I said “There is no silver lining,” but for me there really is. It is the beauty of the places, Boulder included, and the awareness of the fight–which is often lacking in the East.

      As for Boulder, I will let Hadley say it:: “Wow, I never thought the mountains would be ….like this.” In other words she had the same reaction I had the first time. She was blown away.

      • Rahul Dave writes:

        I gotta say Hadley is right! I still get that feeling everytime when I see those flatirons pull out of the flats.

        (But then I got engaged on one of them :-), so I’m not exactly unbiased…)

  4. monica wood writes:

    Wow. Beautiful, David. Beautiful.