Glen Canyon is one of the great wonders of the American Southwest. The ravine is carved deep, with rugged walls of sandstone and rusted gorges. Rock formations spire towards the sun as cliffs paint the purple horizon and provide space for numerous grottoes and crooked, long trails. Aside from the inspiring geology, Glen Canyon is also a prime location for wildlife. Here, perhaps sometime soon, the carved canyon walls and sage coated landscape will once again be home to an impressive array of desert wildlife. Yes, once again, things may get back to normal, now that Lake Powell is all dried up.
Glen Canyon was dammed in 1963, just one of a series of such projects along the Colorado River in the appropriately named “Golden Age of Dams.” Glen Canyon specifically, with strong support from then senator Barry Goldwater, was targeted to serve as a giant reservoir for municipalities in Arizona. In typical political hypocrisy, Goldwater, a champion of small government, was a great friend to the Reclamation Bureau — big construction is good for big business.
Plugging the Colorado along Glen Canyon effectively destroyed the surrounding, unique landscape and its wild inhabitants. The waters that rose behind the dam created Lake Powell, which served as an excuse to sprawl industrialization ever more into the landscape — complete with suburbs, shopping malls, roads, billboards and the age-old tourist activities of drinking beer and riding pontoon boats on the open water. And who can blame the tourists? What a show! A grand lake in the middle of a vast desert. The American government could do anything — anything but avert natural processes.
With all the planning, politicians and corporate executives could not accurately predict river flow, did not take into account the consequences of a booming population in the desert, had no idea of climate change and, through subsides and land grants, totally ignored the true environmental costs of their actions. Today, in the wake exists a human and ecological crisis.
Building dams has many unintentional consequences. One such effect is drastically altering the sediment flow through the river system. Before dams came to the Colorado, its rivers carried sediment along the entire length of the system, guaranteeing deposition in the Gulf of California. This supplied and built the Colorado River Delta. Today, all the sediment is trapped behind the concrete of dams. This fills reservoirs like Lake Powell, but starves the downstream areas. This concentration of sediment raises the level of dissolved metals, such as arsenic, manganese and lead (among other known neurotoxins) in the reservoir system, raising public and environmental health concerns. Open river systems allow these metals to flow in a dilute manner without such concerns.
Aside from sediment, dams also prevent water flow further down stream. In the recent drought stricken years, with all the dams along the Colorado, the river system no longer completes its voyage to the California River Delta. Instead, the waters evaporate in the great Sonoran Desert in the Southwest United States and the arid lands of Mexico. Where there was once free-flowing water, numerous aquatic plants that served as a sink for the resource, and groundwater reservoirs, the area is now all dried up. The surrounding communities are left without water. Local aquatic wildlife populations are eradicated, and water dependent terrestrial species are lost from the area.
It is important to note, that large-scale industrial projects, like dam construction, are all but impossible on a community basis. By paying true environmental cost, and having to use the resources available at hand (or sourced from the market), natural systems would be exploited in a much more sustainable manner. These heavy infrastructure investments are a direct result of state intervention in the market, complete with heavy subsidies making the price of construction artificially cheap. Just after a few decades the 1960’s dam boom is causing an incredible amount of hardship. Water in dwindling in the desert, reservoirs are all dried up and there is now an unsustainable human population to take care of. In the years that come, as the drought gets worse, there will be heavy migration from the region, including Mexico, as climate change and water scarcity create difficult environments for food production. Political governance cannot overcome natural boundaries — the drought will push the limits of the state. Political failure is on the horizon.
Seems drought is in the news everywhere these days, I can even hear the newsboys chant: “Extra, extra, drought grips the Southwest!” But, drought is a big story for a reason. Conditions in the arid terrain are the most severe of the past 500 years. If current climate models are correct, conditions are here to stay — as well as water scarcity.
So, what to do? In a piece for the L. A. Times, Jay Famiglietti (senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory/Caltech and a professor of Earth system science at UC Irvine) suggest three strategies: Immediate mandatory water rationing, acceleration of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (and the birth of numerous associated agencies) and, finally, a task force to brainstorm long-term management strategies. Typical for a government man, nothing but top-down decree — the very mentality that got us here in the first place.
Rather than pick apart state solutions to resource issues (at this point it is a waste of time, failure is everywhere) I will instead offer some common sense solutions that may help ameliorate the crisis. First up, reclaim governance from the state. The practice of adaptive collaboration and stakeholder approaches to natural resource management demonstrate that governance in common (without politicians) is not only possible, but ultimately desirable. Easier said than done, but the sooner the better.
Input reduction is the best all around solution to all environmental woes. As giant corporations, such as Nestle, tap groundwater reservoirs for water intensive projects, as governments shower water intensive big agriculture with subsidies and as capital increases demand for lush golf courses, giant lakes and continued sprawl into arid landscapes, commons governance regimes offer redemption.
Efficient use of resources is successfully managed in the commons. Technical changes, such as micro-irrigation, can transport water to crops via pipes as opposed to the open ditches used by industry that encourage evaporation. Most importantly, commons governance would demand liberation from the growth mentality. Instead of encroaching on natural lands, it would serve human interest to invite desert flora back into communities. Xeriscaping is landscaping designed to save water. This includes using native, drought tolerant plants such as sage, juniper, rosemary and many others. Pursuing wastewater reclamation, or using gray water to water crops as opposed to freshwater from current municipalities is another conservation mechanism that would develop under common regimes. Environmental cost demands the maximum sustainable use of resources. Under common regimes, common markets will work for the optimal allocation, conservation and preservation of ecosystem services.
When resources are cheap, they will be wasted. State decree offsets the true environmental cost of resource consumption to benefit special interests — profit is privatized as risk and cost is socialized to the greatest extent possible. This is as evident in the Southwest today as it was in the 1960’s and, for that matter, throughout the history of states themselves. Even under current conditions big infrastructure projects, such as a housing and retail development (estimated to be larger than the Mall of America), is underway just south of Grand Canyon National Park. Along with the development the Grand Canyon Escalade, a tram, will shuttle around 10,000 visitors a day to the bottom of the canyon. If that isn’t enough to get the blood boiling, 420 acres of dramatic wilderness at the confluence of the Little Colorado and tributaries of Colorado itself may soon host shops, restaurants, hotels and other follies. These projects are not only unsustainable, they are maniacal.
As drought takes its hold on the industrialized Southwest, Glen Canyon stands as an inspiration. Once clutched by the state and engulfed by Lake Powell, it is now a liberated landscape. It is state infrastructure that decays on wild lands. Long live the commons.
Long live Glen Canyon!