John Wesley Powell led the first non-Native American expedition down the Colorado River, through an immense area that was a blank place on the map at that time, the last unknown part of the western frontier. A former major in the Union Army, he’d lost an arm at Shiloh, which had remarkably little impact on his ability to surmount the rigors of the journey through ferocious whitewater and the long portages along the canyon walls. His literary achievement equaled the physical one. In this memoir of the journey – essentially a diary reconstructed some years later when, as the second director of the U.S. Geological Survey, he needed funding from Congress – the canyons and the river, and the obstacles and privations, appear before the reader with all the grit and magnificence that inspired them. Wallace Stegner, in his admiring introduction, describes the work as an “account of how, on May 24, 1869, ten men in four boats, loaded with gear and supplies for ten months, pushed off at Green River, Wyoming; and how, on August 30, six men in two boats, down to their last ten pounds of moldy flour and their last fifteen pounds of dried and re-dried and re-dried apples and a few pounds of coffee, came out into open country at the mouth of the Virgin River – blackened, bearded, emaciated, in rags – and saw three Mormons and an Indian seining for fish in the shallows.”1

Today Powell’s account records the former life of a river that is much changed. With the damming and irrigation channels and water contracts that subjugated the river several decades later, much of the whitewater and many of the canyons were drowned, and the river itself was largely drained of water by the time it reached its destination in the Gulf of California. More recently, a lengthy drought in the U.S. Southwest has drastically lowered water levels in the great reservoirs of Lakes Powell and Mead, revealing once again features of the canyons that have not been visible in many years, but further depleting the vitality of the river.

While drought is not uncommon in this region, what is currently defined as drought is expected to become the norm as climate change progresses. Global climate models predict a reduction in precipitation runoff for this region of 10-30% by 2050, making the Colorado unsustainable in its role as provider of water to the area’s 27 million inhabitants.2 According to Richard Seager of the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory, “It’s comparable to the 1930s dust bowl drought, but instead of that lasting just a few years . . . it will become the new drier climate that will be there for ever more.”3 (See Steinbeck under Browse by Author.) More severe droughts, like one that occurred here in the 1950s, would be much more difficult to withstand given the fourfold increase in the area’s population since then.4 And energy for the region is also likely to be impacted, given the potential future reliance on nuclear power, which requires billions of gallons of water each day to cool steam from the reactors. Drought has already caused the temporary shutdowns of reactors in France, Germany, Spain, and elsewhere in the U.S.5,6

Water levels are further affected by the widespread presence of such non-native species as tamarisk, which was introduced into the region as an ornamental tree in the 1850s, and since then has invaded the banks of nearly all of the region’s rivers and streams, crowding out native trees by guzzling all the available water. (Up to 300 gallons per day may be transpired, or lost to evaporation from the leaves, of a single large tamarisk.) The tamarisk is nearly useless to wildlife, as it contains few nutrients. One study along the lower Colorado found that by eliminating the vegetation that supports wildlife, tamarisk had reduced winter bird life to less than 1% of what was found among native plants.7

Ultimately the future of water sustainability in the Southwest rests with the willingness of its users to curtail their consumption. Stegner no doubt understood the pressures of population on water; but he couldn’t help but mourn the demise of the mighty Colorado River as he had once known it. As he writes in his introduction to Powell’s book, “[N]early everyone who runs any part of the canyons now – and they are many thousands each year – either carries this story of Powell’s in his duffelbag or has it read or recited to him around the fire while the tamed Colorado slips past on its way through dams and reservoirs and penstocks and irrigation gates to its death in the sand.”8

1 Stegner, Wallace in Powell, John Wesley. The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons: Introduction. New York: Penguin Nature Classics, 1987, p. xii.

2 Barnett, Tim P. and Pierce, David W. Sustainable water deliveries from the Colorado River in a changing climate. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, pnas.0812762106, 20 Apr 2009. Online.

3 Price, Matthew. Colorado River drought. BBC News, 17 Jul 2008.

4 National Research Council of the National Academies of the Sciences: Committee on the Scientific Bases of Colorado River Basin Water Management. Colorado River Basin Water Management: Evaluating and Adjusting to Hydroclimatic Variability. Washington: The National Academies Press, 2007.

5 Weiss, Mitch. “Drought could force nuke-plant shutdowns.” Associated Press, 24 Jan 2008.

6 Morrisey, Jerry. “Nuclear plant proponents overlook drought’s reality.” Texas Water Matters, 29 Jul 2009.

7 National Park Service: White Sands National Monument: The Tamarisk Invasion. 22 Dec 2004.

8 Stegner, Wallace. Op. cit.