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Western Drought Settles In


By Kirk Johnson

Dean E. Murphy


At five years and counting, the drought that has parched much of the West is getting much harder to shrug off as a blip.


Those who worry most about the future of the West politicians, scientists, business leaders, city planners and environmentalists are increasingly realizing that a world of eternally blue skies and meager mountain snow packs may not be a passing phenomenon but rather the return of a harsh climatic norm.


Continuing research into drought cycles over the last 800 years bears this out, strongly suggesting that the relatively wet weather across much of the West during the 20th century was a fluke.


In other words, scientists who study tree rings and ocean temperatures say, the development of the modern urbanized West one of the biggest growth spurts in the nation's history may have been based on a colossal miscalculation.


That shift is shaking many assumptions about how the West is run. Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, the states that depend on the Colorado River, are preparing for the possibility of water shortages for the first time since the Hoover Dam was built in the 1930's to control the river's flow.


The top water official of the Bush administration, Bennett W. Raley, said recently that the federal government might step in if the states could not decide among themselves how to cope with dwindling supplies, a threat that riled local officials but underscored the growing urgency.


"Before this drought, we had 20 years of a wet cycle and 20 years of the most growth ever," said John R. D'Antonio, the New Mexico State engineer, who is scrambling to find new water supplies for the suburbs of Albuquerque that did not exist a generation ago.


The latest blow was paltry snowfall during March in the Rocky Mountains, pushing down runoff projections for the Colorado River this year to 55 percent of average. Snowmelt is the lifeblood of the river, which provides municipal water from Denver to Los Angeles and irrigates millions of acres of farmland.


The period since 1999 is now officially the driest in the 98 years of recorded history of the Colorado River, according to the United States Geological Survey.


"March was a huge wake-up call as to the need to move at an accelerated pace," said Mr. Raley, assistant secretary of the interior for water and science.


Losing Water at Lake Powell


Some of the biggest water worries are focused here on Lake Powell, the vast blue diamond of deep water that government engineers created in one of the driest and most remote areas of the country beginning in the 1950's.


From its inception, Lake Powell, the nation's second-largest artificial lake, after Lake Mead in Nevada, was a powerful symbol across the West. Some saw it as a statement of human will and know-how, others of arrogance.


Powell, part of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, has lost nearly 60 percent of its water and is now about the size it was during the Watergate hearings in 1973, when it was still filling up. White cliffs 10 stories high, bleached by salts from the lake and stranded above the water, line its side canyons. Elsewhere, retreating waters have exposed mountains of sediment.


The tourist economy here in Page has been battered. The National Park Service, which operates the recreation area, has spent millions of dollars in recent years just to lay concrete for boat-launch ramps that must be extended every year, a process that one marina operator here called "chasing water."


Daniel C. McCool, a professor of political science at the University of Utah and director of the American West Center, says Powell is the barometer of the drought because what has happened here is as much about politics, economics and the interlocking system of rules and rights called the law of the river as it is about meteorology.


Part of the lake's problem, for example, dates to a miscalculation in 1922, when hydrologists overestimated the average flow of the Colorado River and locked the number into a multi-state agreement called the Colorado River Compact.


The compact, along with a subsequent treaty with Mexico, requires Lake Powell to release 8.23 million acre-feet of water each year below the river's dam, Glen Canyon, no matter how much comes in.