All posts by Dana Smith

Author and Entertainer

Two Harbors Via Hite Marina

There are 30 miles of ocean between Marina del Rey to Catalina Island’s mooring field at Two Harbors. Further east if you were to launch a boat at Glen Canyon Dam on a once and now no more full Lake Powell you would travel 186 miles end to end. At 7.5 knots you will make the trip out to Catalina Island in four hours. The trip from one end of Lake Powell at this same speed would take 25 hours.

Great Blue Heron Hanging Out

Last Friday’s hazy air shrouded our view of Catalina. We couldn’t see the island until halfway out on our trip across. Coastal ocean sailing differs from boating on a lake, sea state plays a bigger role, faraway low-pressure systems can send steep swells, crew can be wearied by rough water, and if another swell is coming from another direction the passage may become difficult to the extreme.

Gales can sweep across the desert and make navigation on Lake Powell all but impossible. Messing about on water with a boat is never risk free. Imagining taking a round trip from one end of Lake Powell to the other would take two days of nonstop sailing and motoring. The same roundtrip to Catalina would require 8 hours, one-sixth the amount of time. Big water can swamp the imagination, it is just too big to grasp.

The ocean between Los Angeles and Catalina can reach depths of 3000 feet. Lake Powell at its deepest measures 404 feet, but on average is just over 130 feet. For air breathing terrestrial types both body’s of water are experienced at their surface. Imagining that I am sailing in deep water concentrates the mind, this is when a sailor spitball’s their vessel is taking on water and since death is so permanent and life so sweet perhaps you might want to come up with a to-do list of ways of staying in the game. Prior to sailing to Catalina, the skipper and his second in command made sure the bilge pumps worked and that the through hull fittings weren’t leaking. There’s a longer list and more thorough inspections are part of responsible boat preparation.

Life aboard a saltwater sailing craft equipped with a functioning watermaker is mind altering. The vessel Spirit when making water can produce 150 gallons in a few hours’ time. Besides making water for drinking and cooking there is water for showering, and for spraying off the topsides and deck. Making water doesn’t cost much once you’ve decided to install a watermaker, this initial acquisition cost is the biggest expense of all, it makes no sense not to put the watermaker into service once installed.

Meet Chickpea 14 weeks old

Desalinating water takes a lot of energy. Aboard Spirit there is an electric generator that is switched on to provide power to the watermaker. Every other day the generator is started to top off the batteries and to fill the water holding tanks. The diesel generator burns about ½ gallon of fuel per hour.

Rural desert dwellers sometimes need to clean up their residential water supply. If the water is really contaminated distilling is necessary, most of the time reverse osmosis systems will do the trick. In Arizona their water board survey teams have studied bringing desalinated water up from the Sea of Cortez by pipeline. This would be useful for residents and useless for agriculture because of how expensive the water would be to desalinate.

In Dubai the United Arab Emirates operate large desalination plants, but then they also are sitting atop some of the largest oil reserves in the world.

As conundrums go, and the drought in the American West is one hell of a nettlesome problem there are simply too few skilled multidimensional scholars capable of grasping both the magnitude and complexity of the challenge.

Crossing by sailboat from Los Angeles to Santa Catalina Island only hints at the enormity of what civilization is grappling with. Setting aside the technical challenges and finding the courage to face the economic and political compromises has so far proven utterly impossible.

Mooring in Two Harbors, Santa Catalina Island

Long ago John Wesley Powell surveyed the Colorado River and concluded that there was not now nor would there ever be enough water for large scale farming. His advice was ignored, our state and national leaders buckled under pressure and have for a century bumbled and stumbled along until now. Both Lake Mead and Lake Powell are 25% full and expert water surveyors working with climatologists put the odds of these two reservoirs ever being topped to full again at a probability of zero chances. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton coming back from the dead and happily remarrying is as likely.

Spurring the states to act the Bureau of Reclamation had urged negotiators to come up with a new voluntary plan. The Bureau set a deadline that has come and gone, and negotiators were unable to agree on anything. Instead, this slow-motion climate related dire circumstance that is already altering the fated promising lives of 40 million citizens rests like a gigantic bowie knife on the neck of the American West’s future.

I keep reassuring readers that the residential water supply isn’t the main source of the problem, it is what is going to happen to the farmers and ranchers, and the tumult that will result. Political leaders’ careers will hang in balance, lawyers will haggle in court for decades fighting over water that no longer exists. Nobody wants to settle, everyone wants to fight, and the real nightmare scenario are the senior water rights holders in rural farming communities going to court to cut off access to water for the millions of residents in Tucson, Phoenix, San Diego, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. This is how water law is settled. The courts have no choice but to follow the law as written, likely it is a lifetime appointed judge that will incur the wrath of any water user that comes out on the short end of the stick. The losers will not just lose access to water, but they will lose their livelihoods too.

“Nobody can tell anybody nothing.” The miserable rotten truth of the matter is agriculture has been hell bent on using water, and they’ll irrigate old school style, like same as 10,000 years ago, gripe bitterly about being asked to change crops or try using drip irrigation technology.

Because of the size of this problem, if you’ve ever gone from Los Angeles out to Catalina that doesn’t begin to scratch the surface to how big this mess is. It’s so big most of us have not the scale of imagination to visualize the colossal pickle we are all in.

Pretty near as best anyone can tell what is happening is that the whole stinking pile of stakeholders are holding onto hope. If we could just wait it out, hope it will rain, that the reservoirs will fill and that the region can just continue on business as usual.

Lake Powell at 25% Capacity

What comes next is unthinkable, but that is what is on offer, a crisis of such magnitude it blows our minds. Policymakers at the Pentagon are one agency that understands. If millions of acres are pulled from production, then add the continued chaos at the border, the weather continues to get hotter and dryer— that’s a combustible confluence of trouble that could trigger what is described as a region of a country that descends into chaos and becomes ungovernable. A long slow utterly ungovernable storm tossed ride on a boat is an unpleasant bit of passage making. Navigating through this peril with blinders having kicked the can down the road until the bitter end has trapped the stakeholders across the American West into a boxed canyon— the game is up, and the time of reckoning has arrived. We can do this, we just can’t keep doing this the way we have— while we can we might choose to take the path of good governance— that’s what we pin our future on— the hope we can make some sense of all this water that’s gone missing and still manage our affairs peacefully.

Big Drought Little Time

California by treaty receives the largest allocation of water from the Colorado River. These are “senior” rights. A stakeholder with subordinated rights is out of luck, in the sun, and destined for hell. The megadrought has let the cat out of the bag and now across the American West our water distribution system is unable to respond— this is water’s version of the deer in headlights moment. 

Stark Beauty

Litigation is slow. The “Millennium Drought”— this dryer and hotter pattern has persisted for 22 years— stakeholders have been dragged to the negotiating table kicking and screaming— the clock is ticking, the water levels on Lake Powell continue falling— the jig is up, the moment of reckoning is here. 

What is terrifying is a desperate subordinated water rights claim held by a water agency in a major metropolitan area could find its supply completely cutoff. The court’s hands would be tied, the law as written could trigger a catastrophic climate induced humanitarian disaster. Pitting a handful of farms in California against a bone-dry Arizona city is something everyone agrees needs to be avoided. Forty million people in the American West depend on the water from the Colorado River. Unknotting this tangled web is a task that will require ungodly quantities of water and time. This relentless drought is dragging the region into the mother of all water wars. 

Go down to any neighborhood saloon. Select a handful of average citizens. Put the facts down on the table. Here’s the water, this is how much we’ve got, this is where it goes, these are the various stakeholders, here’s how much each has been promised, here’s how much there actually is, and what dear neighbor should the nation do? 

Holding your breath won’t work, hoping it will rain isn’t a plan, depending on the summer monsoons is delusional, even if there was an above average year, the immutable fact is the Colorado River is a finite resource, and with each passing year the river yields less water to an ever-thirstier American Southwest. 

Every single precious drop that falls from the sky that is used in Colorado is another drop of water that will never make its way downriver to Arizona, Nevada, Utah and California. Have you seen Colorado in the last few years— how many more people live there— how much more water is diverted near the river’s headwaters, that never makes its way downriver to the states of Nevada, Utah, Arizona and California.

Lake Powell was never a good idea, from its inception there were political forces afoot at the Bureau of Reclamation fueling the drive to construct the dam that should have never been built. Now whether the dam should have been built is a pointless waste of time, the science is in, the situation isn’t going to change, the lake is doomed.

Eight out of every ten gallons of Colorado River water is used by agriculture, and eight out of ten of all those gallons are destined for forage crops, the most valuable of those is alfalfa. Producing meat and dairy takes a lot of water. Only two of every ten gallons is used to grow all the other food that ends up on our kitchen tables. 

The great Southwest expedition leader John Wesley Powell had told leaders long ago, like in 1880’s that this region would not support large scale ranch and farm operations. His advice was ignored. The Law of the River dates to 1922— when there were all of 6.4 million people living in the seven western states. Today forty-million people are dependent on this vital watershed. 

Democracy is on the ballot this November. Anti-democracy forces within the Republican Party are ascendent. A lot of ink is spilled over the situation on our southern border with Mexico and the efforts to stim the tide of immigrants seeking to enter this country. Whipping up Republican voters on this issue is misplaced, it’s the shortage of water, that’s our emergency, reallocating the water from the Colorado River is going be the political hot potato of this new century. 

Expect the Bureau of Reclamation to keep its head low until after the November election, that’s my prediction, then after they’ll announce cutbacks— they will be historic. The Supreme Court will end up having to weigh in. Bankruptcies will ripple up and down along the Colorado River basin as operators are disrupted by the lack of water. Negotiations between the seven states, 30 tribes and Mexico will prove to be intractable. The current regulatory apparatus is broken, archaic, ill-suited to the task. Not the Federal Government. or the State Water Resource Agencies can deliver water to customers that no longer exists. Negotiations will prove futile, litigation will grind on for much of the decade, even still after all the pain and tumult caused by the drought in the end there will be much less water coming down the Colorado River. Pretending there is some sort of work-around isn’t policy, it is denial.

The best way forward is to release the remaining water from Lake Powell (currently it is 25% full) and store it in Lake Mead. Then, repurpose Lake Powell, there is a proposal to make this area a national park, it would be called Glen Canyon National Park. Pipelines would need to be reconfigured to supply water to city of Page and the Navajo Nation. The upheaval in the farm and ranch industry will be ongoing. Rural citizens will be hard hit. Like Nevada’s boom and bust mining industry we should expect there to be more ghost towns. 

Farms that grow vegetables will replace the alfalfa producers. Water efficient laboratory meat production will replace conventional ranching. As we build out our new energy system, we’ll build in good paying jobs to replace those that will have been lost from a lack of water. This reckoning has been a long time coming, it is here, it is time, and it is happening. Our climate emergency is complex, multifaceted, and leaving no corner of our world untouched. Time to put our most talented to work on adapting to the change. That deer in the headlights moment— that’s all of us staring down the threat to civilization’s survival. Lake Powell is telling us we haven’t a choice, our time is up, that we must roll up our sleeves and get to work. There’s not a second to lose.

Reporting from the American West

If you want to work in the news business, you’ll be aiming for a gig on the East Coast. You’ll want to work in New York City or Washington DC. That’s primetime baby cakes, where the biggest and bad-est fish swim. The writers that crack this nut and land a gig just got to feel a sense of having made it to the fattest pay checks. The East Coast hot shots are an elite horde of writers covering a geographic area of a mere few thousand square miles. Still this nation-centric view from our major media outlets provides a much less engaged regional population with those pieces of information they’ll need to know if we have any hope of keeping the wheels on this democracy from falling off this bus of self-governance.

Big jobs require big equipment

Trying to cover the important events out here on this other coast, and this nearby interior region, that’s a John Ford— Darling Clementine— of a job— literally we’re talking about covering the happenings on millions upon millions of acres, more than a handful of important cities, and a whole host of vital political, social and economic forces that shape our nation’s narrative. We’re not all out here drinking whiskey, riding bareback and dipping our toes into the local hot spring. Instead of the news we make digital devices, search engines and social media platforms that have turned our access to information into an out-of-control firehose of partly truth and partly fiction.

To keep in touch with our rural communities I surf the web, when driving across Nevada I’ll pull off the highway, get out of my van, sit down and chit chat with the local hard nuts. Sometimes a tobacco chewing hay farmer might dismiss my questions, rate me as an urban interloper, but more often I find that even that jacked up rural wise guy is concerned about the new nickel mine going in on the same watershed he’s getting his water from. 

Moscow, Idaho street music scene— who knew

Fossil fuel news is odd out here, it takes some realigning your point of view to swallow these gushers. Forget about the environment, that’s not news a front-page editor in Casper, Wyoming can use. More likely it is this moratorium on new leases that will make the cut. Rural communities across Wyoming, Montana, Utah, New Mexico and Colorado want to know what’s going to come of their lives out here and if there’s still any money left to be made drilling, digging or refining fossil fuels. This constituency is all too well represented back in the beltway of broken dreams. 

These are the blips on the radar, the scattered rising and falling indicators of a rural community’s potential economic viability. Water plays the same role. Wildfire, floods, droughts, insect invasions, and fatal traffic accidents don’t rate even a second look, it’s the community billboards that is regarded as Bible here. For sale: mini-Nubian goats— good girls, floppy eared, buttery milkers, disobedient, devoted all heartbreaking barnyard hellraisers, but “neighbor they’re a good business bet.” 

Rare as the wind on the wings of a butterfly— sweet water

Senior editor desk types in Los Angeles at the Times, that’s another level. Getting water to the cities in Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego County that’s the other side of the scarce resources story that pervades the American West. It’s news when the batting order for the San Francisco Giants tanks, and its news when reading about the latest failed salmon run that’s trying to be restored along the ever over tapped Sacramento River.

Chris Mathews of Hardball fame once worked for the San Francisco Examiner. His opinion pieces were published in the City’s afternoon paper. Still, Mathew’s column was a backwater, on the margins, once in a while his latest posting might blow up, go national but those were rare, Chris was just biding his time. When was the last time a printed newspaper headline held in your two hands changed the arc of your morning coffee— as I said, you can’t remember.

Little Ray of Hope

The intermountain town of Pagosa Springs in Southern Colorado is trying hard to save itself, the beauty that attracts so many new citizens is smothering what is so charming here. Outside of town you’ve got rural farm operations, most is hay crop, and is now common due to the drought, the sourcing of water is hard to come by, Pagosa Springs is hard pressed to find more, new homeowners setting up lives here are a mixed blessing or curse. Harder than finding water here is affording to fully fund the water treatment facilities. There are a lot of testy city business meetings here. 

Pagosa Springs, Durango, Gunnison, Crested Butte, Glenwood Springs, Steamboat Springs, Salida, Breckenridge, Leadville— Colorado mountain towns, and not even the most famous, they’re not Aspen, Vail or Telluride, but they’ve been changing, growing, in the last twenty years they’ve been exploding in size, the changes have been exponential. 

One thing is for certain, even if you don’t care not one fig about the environment most sentient beings do understand that once a rural community exceeds a certain density and population, the disposing of human waste by septic system invites all manner of calamity. 

California senators Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein secured protection for vast tracts of the Mojave Desert. That’s 30 million acres of misunderstood and much beloved desertscape. I could explain the Mojave Desert in detail, but you don’t have the spare time, band width or bug repellent— the East Coast scribes what they want to know is how does this far off desolate, waterless, wasteland play into their New York-DC narrative— and for that there are two magic words— Harry Reid. The Majority Leader from Searchlight, Nevada, the pugnacious one-time boxer turned Nevada’s most powerful politician put the American West front and center and onto the pages of our leading newspapers. You almost felt like you could understand Nevada by reading what Harry Reid had to say about his opponents, but I promise you there is no understanding Nevada, not now and not ever. That requires coming to Nevada, sleeping in her forlorn motels, not in Las Vegas but in Beatty, Tonopah or Ely. 

Reporting from the Mojave Desert

Running the show, my juggling show past these locals, now that’s a story, it is also a way of knowing, not just an audience, knowing a place, a community, how they do their doing and why what they’re doing isn’t necessarily conforming to your line of thinking. Rounding up mustang is like that. 

Joking with an audience in Sydney, Montana is as fine an entry point into American West understanding as any you might find gleaming on the asphalt like a lost dime. Most of this land is used to grow wheat, by rain not by irrigation. Farmers stand up their fate to what the chances of rainfall can bring. Sydney citizens know farming luck better than a pesky fly’s survival on the windowsill of a tanning salon. 

And that my friends, that’s why covering this beat will take your breath, spare ink and reams of paper away. This story is that big! Big as Hoover Dam, big as the Grand Canyon, big as Pilot Peak, as old as the ancient Bristlecone pines. 

The biggest story out here is the climate emergency. We know this story, it is told through wildfires, empty reservoirs, heatwaves and the brewing trouble between the seven states that share the waters of the Colorado River. In 1922 after some very difficult legal wrangling there were put in place a series of decisions that are referred to as the Law of the River. For the next 100 years this landmark decision has been upheld by the courts and the states. As is always the case politicians over the course of the last 100 years have overpromised while the rain and snowfall under delivered. 

There is one more piece to this puzzle worth weighing. We’ve got enough water for people that live out here, but we’re fast approaching the moment when we no longer have enough water for the farmers out here. Victims of wildfire in Santa Rosa, California have moved away to less fire prone regions where they will attempt rebuild their lives. These are some of America’s first climate emergency refugees. Next up are the farms and farmers that can no longer find enough water to stay in business. This isn’t just one town, one valley, off one river. The scale of this pullback will impact the entire American West, it will be historic, it will be epic and it will be a sprawling story that will sweep up almost half of the nation into unforeseeable change, not that we can’t see the change that is coming, but we can’t grasp the implications of these changes to the life and story of our nation. 

That’s what’s rumbling out here. Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are small potatoes, this megadrought is about to deliver a severe blow, who it hurts and where it lands, that’s the question of this water scarce century.

Energy Transition Gaining Traction

If we pull back and fly at 30,000 feet then look down at our landscape, there are many changes barreling toward us. Our electrical grid is antiquated and needs upgrading. Our electrification of our transportation sector requires bringing large scale power charging facilities all along our highways. This buildout is going to be revolutionary and change the way our economy works.

Sun shines bright on our tomorrows

In Central California the shutting down of Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Station in San Luis Obispo has stuttered along, for all intents and purposes this is a failed technology sited atop an active earthquake fault. Retrofitting the facility is beyond expensive. Governor Gavin Newsom has been in negotiations with various interests to put off the power stations closure. Doing so will be costly, risky and with a bit of backbone won’t happen. The facility needs to be shuttered. 

Instead of nuclear power  it is offshore renewable energy systems installed over the horizon in nearby Morro Bay where planning is underway to deploy a network of “floating” wind turbines. Another location north in Humboldt County has also been selected for deployment. These are massive electricity generating systems and this week the California Energy Commission set a goal of building out enough offshore wind power to keep the lights on for 25 million homes. This is where to put our money, time and energy. 

Whole fleets of ships will be built to service the offshore wind turbines. There will be sited along the shore enormous battery storage facilities that are tied into the grid. Many thousands of people will work in this emerging renewable energy sector. The fossil fuel economy will shrink while the renewable sector expands. Our power producing systems will be widely distributed and will be tied together by our upgraded more resilient grid.

Highspeed rail is coming to California. Pieces of the system are already built. In the years ahead you will hop on a train in San Francisco and get off in downtown Los Angeles more or less arriving in the same length of time it would require you to fly. Non-visionary types love to gripe about highspeed rail, that’s their right, but they will be proven wrong. The issue has to do with how many gates are available at our airports. The answer is we’re almost at capacity, there is no land to expand upon, and nowhere to load and unload the extra passengers forecast to be traveling between this key California corridor.

Smaller electric powered passenger planes are coming in the next few years. For now, they’ll be the aircraft we’ll use to move passengers on shorter regional flights. Non-carbon jet fuels are in development, they don’t come cheap, we’re not quite there yet, but stay tuned airline passenger technology is ready for change. Eventually whether by safe non carbon fuels or by battery electric propulsion our entire airline industry will be moving passengers safely without harming our atmosphere. Hope and our future both catch a break.

Even with all our many major technological advances in agriculture there remain many reforms that this sector will need to undertake. Our oceans have been overfished, suitable land for livestock is becoming harder to find, and researchers are making progress on many fronts to help feed our growing world with latest greatest low carbon and less water intense technologies. 

Try not to sneer, gripe, grumble or close your mind to the new world you are about to go shopping in. You’ll soon be purchasing real chicken, beef, pork and lamb. If you prefer fish your favorites will be readily available. These products will taste the same as ever, they will not be genetically modified, but they will be grown in manufacturing facilities. And yes, it’s all very real food, the same food you’ve been eating all your life. It’s just going to be grown in a new way.

Once again, these new products will be decentralized, you can set up production facilities nearer to your markets. Like the renewable energy employee these will be skilled jobs and workers will be paid a good wage.

The American West has become smaller and smaller as our population has expanded out into this region. More of our land will be devoted to recreation. Manufacturing meat, fish and poultry facilities only grow meat, we no longer will require slaughterhouses, there won’t be huge feedlots, cesspools will vanish, and best of all pathogens will have a much less target rich environment to launch their misery upon the world. 

Consumption of water is radically reduced when compared to raising that same whole animal on a pasture. Same goes for how the land use, figure that would be shrunken down by 90%. What is unknown at this juncture is what specific plants will be needed to create the familiar flavors we are all accustomed to. Researchers in Berkeley, California have been working with different foods, there is also the puzzle of creating a matrix for the cells to grow on, and the synthesizing the enzymes that spark the cells to grow. 

Oats, rye, wheat, soybeans, and corn all work, it is the mixture of these foods that produces a palate pleasing flavor. Better still the process converts these food stocks into a final product more efficiently, way more, like instead of 25 pounds of grain to make one pound of meat it is more like 3-4 pounds to make that same one pound. 

Estimates vary but you should expect to be buying manufactured meat products at the grocery store in the United States by 2025. If you can’t wait you can fly to Singapore today and enjoy laboratory chicken manufactured by Just Eat. 

Conventional Power Station Oxnard, California

On the shores of the Salton Sea in California’s Imperial Valley several geothermal power stations are experimenting with removing the naturally occurring lithium from the superheated water used to spin the turbines that make the electricity. Several teams from several different companies plan to begin producing battery grade lithium within the next two years. California is looking for automobile manufacturers that want to come here setup shop. Again, these will be good paying jobs to help propel the local economy because of the water that no longer goes to the Imperial Valley for agriculture, the shortfall in water from the ever less abundant Colorado River will be offset by this new burgeoning electric automobile industry. 

This is what the energy transition looks like. We’ve got a fossil fuel system that because of the instability of the price of a barrel of oil keeps sparking wars, recessions and out of control inflation. In this new energy system, the price of wind and sunlight remain the same— economists forecast access to clean affordable energy will help reduce the uncertainty and price spikes that have been all too common in the carbon energy sector.

Our neighborhoods are about to go through a revolutionary transition. Smart meters with two-way communications capabilities will be able to talk to all our battery electric automobiles. In this networked battery storage system, we can move electricity into your connected car or send it off to power some other need on this networked grid. While you are home, and your car is parked its batteries can help keep the grid stabilized. 

Heat pumps have been around a long time, they run on electricity, but the appliances of today are many times more efficient than the heat pumps of yesteryear. Whole teams of installers will be busy retrofitting the 100 million homes across the nation to take advantage of this electricity powered appliance. These will be good paying jobs, the work is challenging but socially important and rewarding, getting paid to save our planet will put a smile on a technicians face.

Moore’s Law is our friend. Researchers are developing more efficient electric motors, smaller more powerful and quick to charge batteries, and as we scale this industry up the costs will continue to go down. The price of a lithium battery has decreased by 90% in just this last decade. 

Our energy revolution has arrived. I drove our electric car to San Francisco last week, listening to a podcast, engaged the car’s autopilot (it works well enough, not entirely as fully autonomous as imagined), whisked right through toll booths as my transponder tallied my toll up. On the way home prior to arriving I checked my Nest app on my smartphone and engaged the air conditioner to cool the house. Once home I plugged the electric in and the vehicles software will take care of the rest recharging the batteries late at night when load demands are low and rates are cheapest. I don’t suffer range anxiety, make the most of recharging on long trips, and take advantage of stops to take a short walk— about 30 minutes— while the batteries refill before continuing along to my destination. We are already deep into the energy transition, we proven that our renewable energy economy doesn’t have to self-destruct, if we can quicken the pace of change, and the odds are with us, humankind stands a good chance of landing this out of control world on its feet. 

Enjoy the ride and relish the hope, we will go further, be happier, and do what we do best, make this a better world.

Colorado River Basin Blues

Federal officials from the Bureau of Reclamation gave Colorado River basin stakeholders until noon hour on August 16th to hash out a new water allocation deal. For the last 62 days water resource managers haggled, horse traded and gridlocked one another into sharing the pain losing access to water can bring. 

John Entsminger, general manager of the water authority and Nevada’s top Colorado River negotiator, tried cutting a deal but was unable to get anyone to negotiate. I think his way of explaining the mess was that none of the various stakeholders were making a good faith effort to negotiate, nobody was taking the crisis for what it is, a natural disaster of the first order— I think you’d describe the megadrought as historic.

California’s Imperial Valley and Palo Verde Valley are the systems championship water grabbers in this tragedy of the commons. Nearby Yuma on the Arizona side of the river has got its share of woes too. Parkers and Bullhead City are about to go through a few things and that’s the way it will just have to be.  

Back in June Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton told the seven western states to either come up with their own voluntary plan or otherwise Washington would go full draconian on their sorry little stubborn water using souls. That day arrived today.

Commissioner Touton keeps her head down and mouth closed, her job has been to set the terms of the negotiations and then let the states, tribes, and Mexico figure things out. These are the best of the best water management professionals all squeezed cheek to jowl into a Denver hotel meeting room with orders from high on up back in the states to do something, do anything, but for God’s sake the one thing not to do surrender even one drop of their current allocation, get some other stakeholder to take one for their team. 

Most of the problem is caused by the deal the seven states cut back in 1922. One hundred years ago during a wetter and cooler weather cycle they divided up the river water like there was and always would be plenty to go around. There have been a few rough patches in the last ten decades but the last two and a half decades, as we’ve entered into the teeth of the climate crisis, nearly one quarter of this past century has seen an ever decreasing less abundant river. 

I wouldn’t venture to even begin to explain how complicated the 1922 compact turned out to be, but most experts I follow can barely make even the slightest explanation of the tangled mess without speaking uninterrupted for at the least one hour’s time. With today’s announcement there will be immediate reductions in water deliveries with warnings that in the next 24 months further deeper cuts will need to be taken on top of the current cutbacks.

What we are all about to go through will be different and dependent on whether you live in a city or outside of town in the countryside. Urban and suburban water users use only fraction of all the water that comes down the Colorado River. It is the rural farm and ranch operators that are going to have to change how they do things, in some cases farms and ranches be shutting down altogether selling off their equipment, liquidating livestock and fallowing the land. 

Recreation along the river will be impacted and so too will wildlife habitat. Everyone will be paying higher prices for food and water bill’s will be going up. Cheery news indeed. Everyone knows about the hydroelectric power station at Hoover Dam, it is famous and produces a lot of electricity. Most expert forecasts see the power station becoming much less productive as the reduction in water will reduce the power the station can produce. 

Fortunate for us the renewable energy systems will be deployed to make up for whatever the 300 hydroelectric stations all up and down the Colorado River basin can no longer reliably produce. What we can’t do is make up for the missing water. 

Sure, why not, you’ll read about plans to make desalination plants along the coast of California, maybe pipe water up from the Sea of Cortez, build a desalination plant on the Salton Sea, the processed water would be expensive, too expensive to make sense to use for agriculture. High rollers in Las Vegas might enjoy buying access to this kind of fancy water but the ordinary working stiff is going to use less to keep their water bill down.

Lawyers from the region are preparing to draw up a new compact to replace the framework agreed to in 1922. There is no time and agreements as complex as this will require years, decades— if the basin stakeholders can ever come to terms is uncertain. Nobody wants this to be litigated, but there’s really no way around it, this is an intractable stalemate that will vaporize political careers and trigger untold emotional frustration. If water remains as tight as it is now the negotiations will likely be absurd, incredibly consequential, and result in some of the hardest choices any negotiator has ever attempted to settle. It remains a zero-sum game, if the Imperial Valley gets water some other valley doesn’t get water. The severity of this crisis is of such scale and scope to be unimaginable.

I’ll leave you to chew on this. Alfalfa is grown across the Colorado River basin. Alfalfa is the third largest crop across the United States with corn and soybeans holding the first and second positions. Alfalfa grows best in a hot climate and thrives when you can pour water on a alfalfa field like there is no tomorrow. By comparison corn and soybeans are insignificant in size in the Southwest. Wintertime in Yuma there is a sizable salad growing industry, it is important and where most all of the leafy greens we find in stores is sourced from. 

Alfalfa is used by the dairy industry. A milk cow thrives on alfalfa. Then there are foreign markets that buy our alfalfa and growers in the Imperial Valley have discovered they can haul alfalfa out of Long Beach on the cheap by shipping containers back to China and Vietnam. Let’s just not go down the rabbit hole of whether drinking cow’s milk is good for you or not, let’s leave that out of this tangled web for a moment. 

An ordinary household with a relatively normal American family, maybe they have a dog, cat even might have a swimming pool will use about 1 acre foot of water to run their house for a year. Now how much water does that farmer need to produce one acre of alfalfa? One acre of alfalfa requires about seven-acre feet of water. You with me still, come on don’t give up so easily. There are millions of acres of alfalfa grown in the Colorado River basin, from the Front Range to the Western Slope, from near Many Farms where the Navajo grow plenty, farms have been growing alfalfa in Central Arizona, it is an important crop, each cut on each acre, on average weights about 6 tons is worth $1500 and in the desert Southwest you can cut that acre up to 10 times per year so long as between each cut you can pour another seven-acre feet of water on that crop while it grows and gets ready to be harvested.

Some alfalfa is grown off underground aquifer water, most of that water is ancient and has accumulated over millions of years, hydrologists are sure this water is going to give out soon enough, can’t pump water out of the ground faster than it accumulates, eventually you are going to be pumping sand, and sooner than an alfalfa grower is willing to believe.

Even if you can imagine growing alfalfa for the local dairymen in the region, and some of our milk does end up being exported too, but even if you can wrap your head around growing alfalfa to make food that ends up on our kitchen table it is hard to imagine that so much of this crop ends up being exported overseas. Estimates are all over the place but right now we appear to be selling about one fifth of all the alfalfa we produce in the Southwest to foreign buyers. And that’s why I want you to forget about alfalfa and start to imagine swimming pools. Imagine millions of swimming pools full of water, I’m talking about a lot of water, enough to fill a reservoir the size of say maybe Lake Powell, you know something like the second largest water reservoir in the United States, one of the largest in the world, imagine all that water being used for swimming pools that end up over in some faraway place. In exchange for all that water a handful of growers are paid somewhere in the vicinity of a grand total of $3 billion dollars. Got that picture in your head now. That’s one hell of a lot of all our water that goes to the benefit of a mere handful of self-appointed over-entitled people.

We’ve got well over 40 million water users in the Colorado River basin that have agreed to let a few thousand alfalfa farmers siphon off most of Colorado River basin water, the water all of us depend on, this is water rightfully belong to all the citizens in these states, this is the people’s water that they are using to make a buck while assuming that this is somehow even remotely some kind of sensible deal.

And now you know what kind of mess all those fancy stakeholders have on their hands back in that hotel in Denver where for the last 62 days not one or another of them could figure out how in the world to untangle this tragedy that has fallen upon our region. Water grabbers are a painful lot, willing to inflict all manner of hell and cruel capitalism upon our natural resources. You can hardly believe our shipping all this water overseas at the expense of the many and to the benefit of a few is a fact, you have to take a moment, you have to stop what you are doing and think this madness through, see the fool crisis plain and naked as the day you were born. Time for change has arrived. We keep going the way we are we won’t call it the Mojave or the Sonoran— we’ll name it in honor of TS Elliott, it’ll be known as the Wasteland.

Can Kicking Over— Hard Part is Here

Half-truth tellers, braggarts, and exaggerators are stealing water from Americans. Take the executive director of this outfit called the Agribusiness and Water Council of Arizona. With millions of acres farmed in Arizona less than half is dedicated to the food that ends up directly on our dinner plate while a whole lot more of the crops that are grown ends up getting stuck inside the mouth of various grass burning barnyard animals that then end up on our kitchen tables. Figure meat and dairy production is worth over $2 billion where lettuce out of Yuma adds up to about $700 million. Add up the market value lemons, cantaloupes and pecans and you are hovering right around $1 billion all in.

This gentleman Chris Udall who runs this water council lobby shop wants everyone to know all about how his organization is just worried to tears about the water used to grow lettuce in Yuma (half the truth) while never once mentioning anything about the hay, dairy and cattle operators (the whole truth). You want to get serious about life you’ll want to get a cowpuncher all worked up over the cost and quality of his romaine lettuce in his Caesar salad. Those boys get off work and they like settling in for whiskey drinking, dingo dog storytelling and when they can some good old-fashioned water thieving and hoodwinking reminiscing of which the 1950’s is best remembered for.  

Water resource managers across the Colorado River basin can’t tell nobody nothing, not like they don’t know what the problem is, where the water is going, and what to do about it. You can know it from the top of your head to the tips of your toes, but it is an unspeakable crime to say it out loud. If you are an employed official and say alfalfa into a microphone during a regional water crisis meeting, you are soon to be an unemployed water resources official just as sure as night follows day. Dedicated southwest alfalfa growers will take you and your smart aleck unwelcomed comments out into a field build you a memorial, buy you a gold watch and send you off into early retirement.  

We are less than one week away from all hell breaking loose out West where things are not just going to get wild, things are already plenty wild enough, things are about to get full on crazy as a cowpie. Folks in the upper basin states of Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico are about to square off against the lower basin states of California, Nevada and you guessed it Arizona.

The head in sand approach to fixing the West’s water shortage problems is about to have a head on collision with this nasty creature known as the megadrought. Anyone and everyone except for perhaps this lobby shop outfit knows there is all kinds of hell and misery heading right toward the good members that they are in the business of representing. There is a lot that needs to get done if we stand any kind of chance of surviving this climate change catastrophe. Let me just give you a little itty-bitty list of possible fixes. Wireless soil moisture meter switches could be one place to begin. Try what is called micro drip irrigation systems is another ready for primetime technology just sitting there asking to be strung on out across the fruited plains of our parched landscape. And damn it there are some souls giving these emerging technologies an honest go gosh try but there’s just too dang many footdraggers and naysayers gumming up the transition to a more enlightened use of our water resources.

I just like the sound of a farmer who has taken the time to laser level his field of melons. Laser leveling should be written into the law same as on—the—level—politicians. If everything was on the level most of our problems would be solved and we could get onto fixing bigger problems until there ain’t nothing left to fix but a cocktail.

Glimpse at Lake Powell

Water managers have the most miserable jobs known to civilization. Work in the mortuary business is more fun, at least it is more honest. Every stinking time you think you’ve left some boneheaded water use policy for dead the thing scrambles back to life and goes on the attack again. Advocating for new dams, reservoirs and water pipelines falls from the lips of every trick roper just this side north of the border. Of course, this avoids any discussion of exactly where in the hell any of this non-existent water is going to come from.

What we have is not a water storage problem, what we have is a water use problem. And not to put too fine a point on this water use problem but what we really and truly have is an industry that uses most of all the water that falls from the sky and is threatening to go Medieval on our water resource managers if they don’t get every last single drop to grow whatever the hell they want, and don’t you dare tell them what they can and cannot grow.

Temporary fixes are headed to the Colorado River basin. Senator Krysten Sinema snuck climate emergency drought relief funding into the legislation passed this last weekend. All in there will be $4 billion for the water managers to work with. They’ll be paying out money to have operators fallow their fields. This will forestall the worst of the worst of the damage done by the drought, but it doesn’t do it for long and we’ll be right back in the same corner next summer. If you can’t grab water, might as well grab a few billion that you can use to keep your water grabbing constituents afloat, at least until you can come up with something better.

Water politics is one nasty bit of business. Remember it was a thousand years ago that the Anasazi vanished without a trace. The idea of our modern-day civilization being forced to abandon the Southwestern United States seems inconceivable. What is beginning to shape up is that our drier and hotter climate is making a mess of our economic system, the whole enchilada is breaking down. You can retire to a region in drought, you can go there to be there, but you won’t have enough water resources to do much of anything else. A steady diet of Jack Rabbit isn’t the stuff from which dreams are made of.

All of us detest all the traffic we’re always going nowhere bumper to bumper in. Take half of a small town’s reason for existing away (rural agriculture) and you haven’t got enough left over to even run a drive-thru java joint. So yeah, I’m very worried about the lives of the people that live anywhere near where all this water is no longer going to be available. Whole communities are going to just dry up and blow away, same as a thousand years ago people will have to pick up and move.

The population of Page, Arizona sits right at 7,487. The citizen in faraway Phoenix might depend on the same water but they can’t walk out their back door and look off into the distance and actually see the megadrought and the water missing from the nations second largest reservoir. Some vendors have provided houseboats for tourists coming for holiday. That’s not looking like an industry with a lot of upside, in fact I’d say that many of the larger houseboats will be too big to move and will end up being cut up for scrap. Liquidation takes a toll on hope. Imagine getting out of the alfalfa growing business altogether and sending all that water down the Colorado River. Sometimes we pretend like we’re not picking winners and losers, but that’s really what is on view here. That’s the plain truth. Everything and everybody depends on water for one thing or another to do with their ability to exist and thrive. It isn’t like we won’t inhabit such places like Page, there will be people, but the next generation will be here living and working in ways our modern day water managers dare not even speak of. This new century could use a reboot and a do-over, failing that we are likely to see wholesale changes in what we do for work and how we grow the food that makes its way to our kitchen tables. Next week change takes a first tentative step in that direction.

Nevada Lithium Miner Days

A down on his luck husband from Winnemucca, Nevada had been drinking hard, there were words, he got into a quarrel with his wife took her outside and shot her and his son dead. An all-points bulletin went out for a man by the name of Ty Victor Albisu, the Highway Patrol believed the murderer to be armed and dangerous, the suspect was seen headed north on Highway 95 toward the border, the Paiute Shoshone town of McDermitt is there. A day later, it was on the Solstice this past June, longest day of the year, when the suspect was found ten miles off the main highway out a dirt two track road, the Winnemucca husband and father was dead in his car of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. 

Thacker Pass

There was nothing suspicious. Appears a defective propane heater caused the fire. Two Winnemucca men were pronounced dead at the scene. This was March of this year.

Last year Winnemucca City Council denied a license to a vendor that wanted to open both a dispensary and cannabis consumption lounge.  Dispensary was approved the lounge part of the permit was turned down. No problem, this is Nevada there are work arounds. 

In 2017 Nevada’s Tribal Marijuana Compact was passed by legislature in Carson City. There were some questions about what Nevada’s tribes could or could not do and this new law settled those concerned with keeping Nevada in the business of catering to whatever a human being might want, need or desire. Just so happens that right there in the heart of Winnemucca is located Indian land, the term of art is colony. With the expert guidance of Tribal Cannabis Consulting the tribe opened a drive-thru dispensary, cannabis café and consumption lounge. Quinn River Farms out of McDermitt was licensed and provides product for this Winnemucca dispensary. That’s how things get done in Nevada. You really do need to reconsider moving here. 

 The Winner’s Inn Casino and Hotel is a 2-minute walk from Winnemucca Convention Center, 7-minute walk to the Amtrak station and about a one-minute ride in a getaway car to the interstate. One time while passing through on the interstate I’d gone in for a late afternoon dinner, the Winner’s Inn was known for serving the best prime rib in Humboldt County, by coincidence we were treated to an official weigh-in for a prize fight scheduled to take place that evening at the convention center. The two game faced boxers removed their robes and stepped on the scales. The weight of each fighter was officially announced then recorded by prize fighting officials, these were a gallery of men all had the look of citizens with priors, they had the suspicious demeanor of a perpetrator that knew too much and were under the bosses orders to keep their mouths shut. One fighter seemed to have struggled to make the official weight, the boxer was whisked away, the trainer knew his kid needed a meal and fast before his legs went out from under him. 

Life is writ large in the 7th largest state in the Union. To get some idea of its size if you were to take off by car from a casino south in Laughlin and go north to a gas station in McDermitt that drive would be the equivalent of traveling from Atlanta to Washington DC. 

Civilization is tenuous in Nevada, the potential for weakness of appetite haunts Nevadans, it is too common to find yourself overcome by the solitude and Great Basin abyss, you’ll end up going feral, you’ll end up running with coyotes, roaming with mustang, bagging a bull elk out of season, it’s all too sure the tempting pull into lawlessness is endemic. 

Detective Matthew Morgan working with the Winnemucca Sheriff’s Department died on June 25, 2020— the cause of death— an overdose of fentanyl and methamphetamine. Everything is in play here in the Great Basin— the brothels, the crap tables, the mob bribes, booze and tobacco, these are self-indulgent Nevadan behaviors, a native son can’t see vice as a human flaw.

There are 17,000 living in Humboldt County, Nevada. Most live in Winnemucca. Up in McDermitt there are 400 Paiute Shoshone living on 19,000 acres. The tribal members live along the Quinn River. 

Quinn River Valley Irrigation Pivot

South of McDermitt is located the Quinn River Valley farmlands. Hay and alfalfa are irrigated. Paradise Valley to the east also is hay farming land. Then, over to the west is Kings River Valley where there is also hay farming. Humboldt County exports most of the hay to California and Idaho, tallied up all this hay is worth about $135 million. 

Paiute Shoshone tribal members find some work on the farms, most don’t find any work at all. You are an eighty-mile drive back to Winnemucca if you live in McDermitt. Gasoline for a roundtrip in a pickup truck, that’s got to take 10 gallons of fuel, figure $40 just to go to town for groceries. 

The Montana Mountains separate Quinn River Valley and the Kings River Valley. The road running east to west between the two valleys runs through Thacker Pass. Lithium has been discovered up on this mountain, science identifies the geology of this spot a caldera. To halt its development the Paiute Shoshone in McDermitt have claimed that in 1865 members of their tribe were massacred there by soldiers from the United States Army and that the mine would desecrate the land their ancestors died on. 

Humboldt County Hay Crop

There is no evidence the massacre was fought on this ground. There is just too little information. It is just as probable that the massacre took place on nearby hayfields, fields that have been plowed and harvested for most of a century. If you dig a little further into the issue what comes to light is that not all 400 tribal citizens in McDermitt are of the same opinion about the development of the lithium mine. Some portion of the tribe see the opportunity of finding a good paying job in a place where few if any have been available. To that end courses at the community college in Winnemucca that prepare a student for work in the mining industry are available and the new mining company has already promised to make a priority of employing the Paiute Shoshone. 

Hay farm operations will need to reckon with the changes the mine will bring to Northern Humboldt County. Maybe a century ago it made sense to allocate 90% of all the water up here to hay growers, but it is time to recalibrate, we don’t travel by horseback, more and more people don’t drink milk, and exporting the hay to markets in other states is essentially exporting all the available public water for the benefit of a handful of private growers. Anytime one industry is found to be using most of the water from one watershed it is going to turn out that one day that deal is going to need changing. The world’s climate emergency has arrived, and that time for a new bargain has come.

Environmental organizations have been opposed to the Thacker Pass lithium mine. They can’t be faulted entirely, the history of mining companies operating responsibly is not promising. The mining company out of Vancouver, British Columbia has submitted plans and its permit has been issued. Lithium America’s offices are in Reno. Trucks will take the lithium to Winnemucca where Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway will then ship the metal to nearby manufacturing facilities. Tesla, Ford and General Motors all have built or are building enormous battery manufacturing facilities, some are here in Nevada others as far away as Michigan and Tennessee.

The fight between forces for climate action and environmental justice will continue. Hay growers in Northern Humboldt County, Nevada will have to surrender some of the water they’ve been using. In a resource constrained world some compromise to what we grow and how we eat are going to be necessary if we are going to avoid incinerating humanity into extinction, we need to try something.

The Paiute Shoshone people have proven to be responsible stewards of the land they first settle on 15,000 years ago. Lithium America would do well and be wise to seek the tribes help. Our first people lived here and in balance with the natural world for all these many thousands of years, it is not by accident, it happened by a people that had the wisdom to listen to the earth, to understand her limits. In this crazy world you would be hard pressed to imagine that in this most remote unpopulated northernmost corner of Nevada that our first people would be called upon once again, after the Indian Wars of the 1860’s, after signing the peace treaty, after agreeing to surrender vast swaths of their land, that having done all of that, that now the climate emergency would come near two centuries later to ask for further sacrifice, and that it is the Paiute Shoshone, the hay growers, environmental organizations and the mining company that through cooperation, mutual assistance, that all of these various stakeholders are going to make this all work. 

Now this Bobby Garza character, back south down in Winnemucca last month ran into trouble when he was caught trying to use a stolen credit card, sheriff while attempting to arrest the 37-year-old suspect got into quite a scrap. Like so many Nevada men he has got some history with the courts and is likely to be put back into the gray rock hotel for a spell. By the time he gets out the lithium mine should be up and operating and with luck and sincere rehabilitation it is one of those 600 good paying jobs this ex-con might hope to land. 

Orovada, Nevada Gateway to Thacker Pass

Nothing about rural Nevada changes, it remains remote and empty, most what you’ll find is the truth of what you truly are, friend or foe, good or bad, often you’ll live by the pursuit of vice, a few odd characters take the riskier path and try their luck with virtue. That’s just less common out here, no man of appetite and excess is wired up to behave problem free, that is just not in the nature of the animal, and once you’re out in Nevada you need to understand yourself, look into that image in the mirror and see that you have limits and boundaries to all that goodness locked up inside that human heart you have been given. Plenty come here to whet their appetite and uncage their spirit, but most are satisfied after a lost weekend to return to where they make their home and fend off such feverish temptations. Most of us are wiser for this, Nevada can be tough as a stubborn burro, even the good souls have to fend off the demon temptation to go bad.

Tight as a Tick Dry as a Bone

If you are living in San Francisco, don’t have a car, rent an apartment, don’t have a garden, haven’t got out on a road trip, then it is likely the 20-year drought gripping the American West may well have gone unnoticed. If on the other hand you are Max Gomberg the Director over at the California States Water Resources Control Board your time has run out. Gomberg just quit.

Video Credit Alex Arguello CalFire

Lake Shasta was completed in 1945 and filled for the first time in 1948. As of July, this year Lake Shasta is filled to 38% of capacity. The two other lowest measurements occurred in 1992 and 1977. The landmark Northern California reservoir isn’t a stranger to the problem of inadequate rain and snowfall, it is the problem that keeps on keeping on. 

Lake Shasta feeds the Sacramento River, the water appears to the unaided eye to be flowing, but the water is hotter and threatening the salmon runs and by threatening I mean extinction, like you know it’s over. Scientists have responded and have diverted water that would have been used for irrigation to reduce water temperatures in the river so that the salmon may survive. The Federal Bureau of Reclamation because of the drought has had to zero out water deliveries to the agricultural operators all up and down the Central Valley, from Redding to Bakersfield. 

Not doing too well

Governor Gavin Newsom’s administration has just released a scaled back version of a new piece of Sacramento Delta plumbing that is going to go exactly nowhere, I think of this proposal as a way of placating agricultural interests struggling to find water south of the Delta, as the saying goes this tunnel has as much a chance of passing as a snowballs chance in hell. 

Much of what happens to the political careers in Sacramento are the result of keeping key constituencies flush with water. Talk of saving salmon isn’t even half the problem, saltwater intruding up into the Delta risks contaminating the drinking water of millions of Northern Californians. The scale of such a catastrophic drinking water crisis is the King Kong of water disasters, the only special interests pretending that cutting off the drinking water to 4 to 8 million people are a few hundred farmers that stand to profit from such a calamity. The Army Corp of Engineers rates this potential disaster as potentially the worst infrastructure crisis facing the nation. 

Northern Nevada

Here’s the thing Gomberg wants us all to know and no politician dares to say out loud. The days of growing whatever the hell you want are about to come to an end. Millions of acres are going to be fallowed, water thirsty crops are going to go the way of the dodo bird, and if you don’t like it well that’s just too damn bad buckaroo— 

I traveled through New Mexico during April. Historic wildfires intentionally started by the United States Forest Service have burned hundreds of thousands of acres near Santa Fe and Las Vegas. For the first time in decades the Rio Grande is set to completely dry up as it passes through Albuquerque. Further downriver at New Mexico’s Elephant Butte Reservoir this key piece water storage infrastructure is at just 10% of capacity. Veteran high-country hikers are reporting conditions so severe that this spring aspen trees have not leafed out and appear to be dead or dying as the alpine ecosystem is nearing irreversible collapse. 

Great Basin Desert Lake

What individual published pictures do is give us just one piece of a global climate crisis that is overtaking life on earth. From the snow on top of the Rocky Mountains, the runoff we see in the Colorado River, to the missing water that no longer fills Lake Powell— all are part of a complex plumbing system that have run out of time and are about to cause the mother of all water manager problems. 

Utah’s Great Salt Lake has shrunk by 2/3rds exposing its salty sandy lake bottom to winds that threaten to scatter heavy-metal laden dust storms east where local Utah citizens will be at risk of illness and death if exposed to such air pollution. The circumstances are so serious the state legislature has funded a feasibility study to pump Pacific Ocean water from California 600 miles overland where the salt water will be used to restore the Great Salt Lake to its original level. 

Costs Extra if you start doing that

The same multi-billion-dollar emergency efforts are underway in Southern California’s Salton Sea where both the United States and Mexico are studying whether a pipeline from the Sea of Cortez can be built to save Imperial County residents from the same kind of dangerous toxic airborne dust.

The climate crisis is getting hard to ignore, most now say it is impossible. The wildfire in Yosemite, the Oak Fire has already consumed 19,000 acres, forced 3000 to evacuate and destroyed 41 structures. Smoke is moving both north and to the west, the California Air Resources Board has issued warnings to reduce outdoor activities in the San Francisco Bay Area. Pets, children and adults are advised to remain inside. This is now a regular feature of our summers here.

Making matters ever more complicated is the Army Corp of Engineers rushing plans to fortify coastline, skilled scientists at the agency are now recommending regions to prepare to strategically retreat from rising sea levels or in select regions of our coast where urban population is high, they are initiating plans to build multi-billion-dollar sea walls. The costs are staggering. 

About 30 million people are living in Albuquerque, Tucson, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco. This group of urban and suburban citizens are our residential water users. For the moment the concerns of this group include having access to water for swimming pools, watering lawns and washing dishes, laundry and flushing toilets. 

The same is not true of Rio Verde Foothill residents living near Scottsdale, Arizona. Having opted out of incorporating into the city limits of Scottsdale in the shortsighted effort of keeping their taxes lower the residents have been cut out of access to Scottsdale’s municipal water system. Instead, citizens in Rio Verde have resorted to punching wells nearly 1000 feet deep, at that depth a water well can cost a minimum of $40,000. Now those efforts have turned into a giant crap shoot. It is more common than not to punch a dry hole than to find water, and punching wells isn’t contingent on finding water, you pay to play whether the driller finds water or not. With hat in hand the 2000 plus homeowners have found water 110 miles east in the Harquahala Valley purchasing groundwater that is then hauled at great expense by truck to fill the cisterns in their Rio Verde Foothills homes. As you might imagine this has not done a thing for their property values or politics. Some of Arizona’s most conservative libertarians are mad as Wyatt Earp losing a poker hand to Doc Holiday.

By my count this was about exactly right

If you start sticking your nose around the rural American West, you’ll find some communities that still have access to drinking water. Ajo, Arizona south of Gila Bend and adjacent to the Barry Goldwater Air Force Test Range is one such community. If you live in town on 5 acres or less the local Ajo Water District will hook you up, but there are rules and water is carefully regulated for residential use only. Local farms and ranches enjoy no such access. Some have drilled wells, but water is found deep if found at all and pumping it to the surface can be prohibitively expensive, it’s the equivalent of spending $10 to grow a $1.00 carrot. You get the idea.

Urban and suburban citizens are unaware of the mounting crisis rural farm and ranch operators are facing. Millions of acres that have depended on subsidized Bureau of Reclamation water are being cutoff, there is no water to allocate. Some farmers are trying their best to adapt, other farmers are confronting the reality that the only crop they’ve ever grown is the only crop they know how to grow and at this stage in their lives it is too late to start all over again. The cost of feed has spiked, and livestock operators are hauling their herds to auction zeroing out their operations.  

Was once a time when a farm or ranch operator awarded hard work with a living wage. A farmer could afford a new pickup truck, pay his debts down and put a little something away for the future. Businesses on Main Street in such rural communities could sell seed and feed, tractors and other farm implements and the whole virtuous economic cycle could keep our rural communities afloat. 

Almost Nothing Here Maybe Some Antelope

Because of the megadrought many rural communities are being tipped into recession or worse. In this urban/suburban versus rural drought emergency climate change has brought our farms and ranches to the brink. “There ain’t nothing but no good lousy stinking big rocks and hard times for as far as an eye can see—” 

Olive orchard growers in Northern California once flooded their fields, but scientists cracked the olive tree code and state of the art is now to use drip irrigate, and the olive trees are only watered when a specific moisture content measurement triggers a radio signal to the switching equipment that turns the drip irrigation system on and off. Drought tolerant the olive trees thrive when the miserly drip irrigation technique is utilized. As is true of every kind of enterprise there are winners and losers, good moves and not so good adaptations. We’ve only scratched the surface of agriculture’s reconfiguring production in a water scarce world 

Pecans in New Mexico are a more complicated story. So are the almond, pistachio and walnut crops of California. 

It isn’t just this year’s wildfire, drought or loss of water for agriculture that we fear, it is the possible permanent climate emergency that has our water managers terrified. So far, we’ve set policy by extending and pretending, our stakeholders continue to hope forests will become more resilient and less fire prone, the term of art is thinning and culling. Meteorologists keep hope alive and are desperate to report that the rain will return, that the drought will break, that our farms and ranches will return to business as usual. 

Rare piece of Nevada river

Decommissioning coal, natural gas and nuclear power stations turns out to be harder to do than we might have imagined, many of these legacy industries have organized and are fighting back. Our changing world is colliding with our unchanging minds. We have turned not giving up on its head, and instead of making the necessary changes there are fossil fuel interests that insist there is nothing that any of us can do, that we can’t change, and the world would be foolish to even try. This Gomberg guy from California’s State Water Board has had it with this conspiracy of naysayer’s intransience. 

What is so absurd is that scientists have already invented all the necessary technology to get the world off its carbon addiction. It isn’t like we don’t have the tools so much as we haven’t yet summoned the will to do the hard work. 

Looking for a hopeful sign it might well have happened this week. Democratic Party Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced that he has secured the vote of Joe Manchin and apparently the United States is on the brink of passing the most ambitious climate emergency bill to ever make its way to this or any President’s desk for his signature. Now that is some serious never give up and not taking no for an answer. When it comes to a brawl this Biden guy can take one hell of a punch, answer the bell and still win the fight. Now come November all we have to do is vote like our lives depend upon it because in fact the whole ball of wax is going to be on that ballot. Friends, this is what flirting with end times looks like. One hell of fix we’re all in. When it’s all said and done, just me I suppose, but I say we’ll make it, just barely, but as the big boss Warren Buffet has said, “It’s never paid to bet against America.”

The Living Breathing Heart of Summer

Summertime has always had a soundtrack. The really best summer’s you’ll see by sunrise when coming back from an all-nighter. Slightly buzzed the lack of sleep aches in your body, eyes hurt, you’ll collapse but sleep fitfully, you haven’t stayed in bed until 2 in the afternoon since forever— and now you’re all out of sync, tomorrow is already ruined, but not that all-nighter, that one will live forever,  you bet the house on that one, you bet the best on that howler of a time.

Avalon in summer

Image a teen club. The club from my town during summers operated out of the cafeteria hall at the high school. My pack of jackknifes, looters and thieves would bike over after stopping to play in the ditch with pollywogs. This all brewed until ready mob, we’d meet up and rot in one of our bedrooms until we couldn’t stand the smell of our adolescence any longer— we gotta get out of this place if it’s the last thing we ever do— that was gospel, our blues, a pack of troublemakers  anthem.

Playing for the crowds of summer—Edmonton

Peak summer experiences have no roadmap, there is a sense of arrival, there’s no telling for sure how to find your way— in some instances it is place— the harbor at Avalon aboard our sloop, midnight dancing cheek to cheek with a bikini clad heartthrob in a scorching Scottsdale, with the old man at dusk trout fishing on the banks of the Trinity River, Boston’s Beacon Hill on the Fourth of July listening to Fiedler and the Boston Pops with real canon fire synced to the Overture of 1812. The glory of season is a cherry tree in a yard along the Puget Sound, a lost weekend on Shelter Island in San Diego, ballroom dancing on Nob Hill at La Colonial until closing time, then after hours at Baker Beach, then sleeping all day until dinner hour and audaciously getting a shower putting on your best threads, raring to go and  to do it all over and over again. A proper summer rave requires you have a touch of madness in your blood, you are out of control, nothing can stop you, you will taste the sweet scent of summer, savor this delight, store it up in your heart, let the light give you peace and hope for more, then more still, there can never be enough deli trays, summer is too rare and too much the showstopper in your life. This is the standing ovation as season.

 

1939 Chevrolet circa 1967

One long lost summer ago there was a trip in my ’39 Chevy to Tahoe, Yosemite and Big Sur. The great grand circle, my partner in crime Ralph Rose, long since passed from bone cancer, when we were still not yet out of our teens. Every day of that grand expedition was based upon a pair of aces standing at the end of their adolescence knocking on the door of the opening chapter to their adult life. What a send off that summer was. We returned changed by that summer.

Sunrise on Limantour Beach

Sprawled out on our backs with a stoned throng in British Columbia lost deep in the Kootenay’s along the banks of the Slocan mesmerized by the Northern Lights, then moon ring, then lightning, then satellite track, then full moon, then fog bank, then we decided, all of us committed to the one and the same eye-witnessed proposition, that by all in attendance none had seen a more phenomenal sky— ever— that night sky was a glory.

There was dinner for two at Jack’s— this a classic fine dining joint on Sacramento in San Francisco. First opened in 1863 frequented by Mark Twain, Clark Gable and Cary Grant— all and many more famous and celebrated enjoyed dinner for two at this fabled white linen establishment. The summer of 1980 I would have dinner for two at Jack’s, and since I was a street performer I paid my bill with a stack of one dollar bills— the staff all promised to come down to the wharf to see my show— they meant it at the time even if they never showed for my act. That evening a woman from London accompanied me to dinner, her name was Marigo, she was privileged and pampered and she was fond of this street performer. Together we went out on the town— it was a near miss that summer night, we came close to never being seen again, lost in the after hours, somewhere out there on the sidewalks, gallivanting by whim and wonder. It was a rare and spellbound summer night. Whatever magic means there was some of its mystery in the night air.

There’s only one path to summer— take this one

The best of my life has been found working during the hot days of summer. The street act was designed to take advantage of this season. Warm weather in the shade if there was sun, if it was too hot we do shows at night, always in shirts, shorts, skirts and sandals. Summertime was for fat hats and squirreling away a nut to make it through next winter. By spring you could see you might make it, that the season you love most is near at hand, that soon you’ll be dancing with her, stealing her charm, touched by her heartwarming light touching the skin on your face.

 

Wilderness in Alberta

Like you I can remember the songs, the parties, the people. I remember sleeping under trees. I can remember wishing for more days like these. There’s still more, still more summer to spend and no time to lose. Be quick my friends these chances are short and misjudgment the thief can steal your chance in a flash. Today I’m planting my parasol in the sand. I’ve a book to read and a swim to take, and forgive the harmless glance at the bikini clad women and all the pleasures that come in the simplicity of enjoying such natural beauty— and appreciate that there are those who are so willing to share a simple pleasing passing feminine line and curve, a bit of the sublime, rumor has it that the bikini and martini are equally intoxicating— beauty on a beach is peak summertime fun.

Dusty Days on the Klamath

North of Yreka the Klamath River passes beneath Interstate 5 while flowing west through the Siskiyou’s to the Pacific Ocean. Over the last two decades the megadrought has pummeled the region. For 13 of the last 20 years the governors of Oregon have declared a drought emergency east of where I am standing in the Klamath Basin. Fish runs are going extinct, farm fields are left fallow, and ranchers livestock have been sold off. Last years fire season was record setting, the Bootleg Fire one of Southern Oregons all time biggest, resulted in the nearby Klamath Basin forests being severely damaged, the intensity of the regional 1 million acres burned leaves one to see the region in an almost Biblical end times sense. Nothing about this new century resembles the serenity, peace and productivity of the last century. The global climate emergency has battered this region with a procession of no rain, low humidity and ever higher temperatures.

This morning I’m looking out upon the Klamath and I see a benign and otherwise unremarkable river— nothing appears amiss. To my eye the water appears neither too high or too low. But, this visual observation does not account for the fallibility of the mind’s inability to size what we see to the scale necessary to arrive at a workable fact. If you’ve ever driven across California’s Mojave Desert while cresting one mountain you’ll see a valley before you then another mountain range in the distance. Guessing how far it is in miles to the crest of the other an observer tends to find their best guess can be off by miles— you’ll guess 20 then discover that next mountain range is 50 miles off in the distance. Scale, time and distance can play tricks on us.

Up and down the Klamath River fishermen, farmers and ranchers attempt to read the river, estimate its resource, try to predict by Farmer’s Almanac the appearance of La Niña, and way too many of the stakeholders misjudge the bounty of the river. That is the nature of a hope and dream, giving up on a life you’ve made, handed down to you by a self sufficient mother and father goes against our own inner nature. People do not give up so easily.

The hard times have come to the Klamath, one piece of the challenge has to do with 200,000 irrigated acres up on the Klamath Basin. These are hard facts to swallow, folk in Southern Oregon have held out hope, if it would only just start to rain again.

Circumstances on the much larger Colorado River touch the lives of 40 million people and as many as 50 million acres of farmland. You’d still need another 800,000 acres to get to your first million acres in the Klamath Basin and you’d still be shy of the unfolding crisis further south on the Colorado River. If you read about the drought that has gripped the American West it is on these smaller watersheds where journalists focus, where the size, scale and scope of the tragedy remains imaginable. The unfolding disaster on the Colorado River, the crisis taking hold on Lake Powell and Lake Mead overwhelm, the immensity of the problem is astronomical. The Klamath River is the same drought driven tragedy scaled to be approached by the concerned mind of a citizen giving the regional crisis thoughtful time and consideration.

A man or woman that works land for hay or row crop will be hard pressed to accept their land being removed from production. Putting aside all the variety of options, to grow a less water thirsty crop, to only grow food destined for the kitchen table, rolling back and then eliminating livestock— these possible solutions are so far inconceivable compromises to the changes this region faces. What the Department of Agriculture and Bureau of Reclamation have been doing is waiting, hoping against hope that it will rain again. Stopgap measures like paying farmers a stipend for a crop they don’t grow, then compensating them for water that is no longer available only kicks the can down the road, puts off for another year the hard decisions, allowing time for reality to sink into the minds of those still desperate to hold on. We’ve done pretty near darn everything but what needs to be done— this first kind of suffering is about trying to survive the next kind is the pain of letting go.

Eats a man or woman’s heart out to near dust in the Klamath Basin remembering the old days, back when irrigation ditches ran full and crops yielded commodities for market measured to the hilt. Some folk drive north to see family or farming friends. They’ll get out of the drought and circumstances faced up there are different, there’s water still, not near enough, but that’s in the educated eye of a scientist, to the Klamath Basin farmer it appears the region north is drowning in water abundance.

Just prior to my arriving at the Klamath River we’d driven past Lake Shasta, the reservoir is 1/3 full, you can see the situation with your own eyes, it’s right there, and hard to take. Most of what is happening in the Klamath Basin happens by no-see-um water, this is groundwater, sometimes they’ll describe the aquifer as a water bank, but that only makes the challenge that much harder— the basin’s water is getting drawn down, the underground water is running out, there is no bank where things are being saved, things are getting close to empty. Sometimes the big operators drill deeper and pump more water with larger pumps, but that only forces the water level lower and smaller operators wells go dry and the misery and bankruptcies only make matters more heartbreaking.

There is no changing minds when a well runs dry. Telling your neighbor there has got to be water same as there ever was, same as there always will be won’t get you one more drop when a drought turns a working farm into a dustbowl. Foreclosures return the waterless land to banks. When money is available the government buys the depleted land back. If you are out hunting for prosperous future for you and yours you’ll want to reconsider if your plan is farming and ranching along the Klamath. Odds have run out up here.

The United States has signed and senate ratified treaty obligations with the tribes that live along the Klamath. The tribal narrative is complex, no two tribes fate is the same. America’s first people live on land that has been reserved for their people for all time. When we entered into these agreements the United States by law transferred water rights to the tribes so that they would have enough water to guarantee their land would be workable. Ninety percent of the tribal lands were surrendered with the promise by the United States that the 10% the Native Americans would be confined to would be by deed and force of law receive enough water to make their ancestral homelands viable. Imagine life 150 years ago and being forced to give up 9 out of every 10 acres of your own land and now all these decades later having some agent from the government deciding that circumstances have changed you can keep the land but they want the water they promised back.

The Klamath Basin and Klamath Falls are distinct tales of two fated pieces of the same place. Oregon Institute of Technology is an important player in this economy. Still, the surrounding agricultural activities have been the most important part of what happens here. Sailing friend has retired here with his wife and family. There is a good hospital here. The drought crisis reverberates up and down Main Street. Retail businesses are all impacted. Klamath Falls won’t collapse but opportunity is hollowed out, there are easier places to build a life, here is going to be defined by hardship until the transition to new economy is complete.

Here is a glimmer of hope and a likely path out of the crisis here in the Klamath Basin. The economy will need to be reimagined and account for every last drop of water allocated to each and every stakeholder. Farmers and ranchers will be fewer, where land can be removed from production agencies will expedite such acquisitions, where crops are grown they’ll need to pass a test to be sure they do not use too much water and that what water is used is delivered with the latest high technology irrigation equipment. Such industries as deep well geothermal power plants need to be considered. More citizens that can work remotely need to be recruited to the region. We’ll want to get the community involved with the development of laboratory meat industry and see if local agencies can attract new industries to the region. What logging that is done should be scaled to pay a living wage and the cutting of logs should be done selectively not by clear cut. I’m especially partial to horse-logging and a team of horses and a skilled woodsman can do wonders for a community both economically and emotionally. Horse-loggers are some of the happiest of all the variety of woodmen I know. Logs shouldn’t be shipped out without milling. Better still would be to have local labor use the lumber to build prefabricated trusses and walls for modular homes. It’s estimated California needs to build between 3 to 5 million new homes to meet the demand of a growing population and it is up here in the Klamath that imagineers, investors and entrepreneurs need to focus their talents. Our climate emergency is moving faster than forecast. Time is of the essence and the scale of these changes touch the lives of all of us.

The fate of every outpost in the American West is bound by water. The Klamath has been a dream killer— an out late with the boys and never came home— a hope for something more than what one river can provide. Here is the searing edge of the limits to what is possible. Mother Nature and human nature have squared off— the limits to what is possible have landed square in the heart of the climate emergency— this painful fate is local the cure for its problems global. Easy answers are none, the hard work to a better world is everything—