Rivers of doubt

The irony of the situation was lost on no one, particularly my overly astute 8-year-old son.

“Mom, mom, mom,” he blurted my name in rapid succession, just in case I hadn’t heard the first two. “Did you just see that?” he asked, his face plastered to the car window, looking out at the barren concrete structure we had just passed over. “It said ‘Salt River.’ What do you think that means?”

Allow me to preface this by saying that my firstborn is a complete geography geek; a bonafide “mapamatician.” He is obsessed with maps the way other boys are engrossed with GI Joes, reptiles or sports heroes. I bought him a National Geographic atlas last year for his birthday, which he totes around constantly like a security blanket. In fact, any absence of it for more than a few hours results in severe separation anxiety and a frantic domestic upheaval in search of the coveted large yellow and green tome. Which, I might add, he has read cover to cover multiple times, making him a veritable walking GPS. Pop quizzes are common, and I am happy to report that for the first time in my life, I can recite every capital city in Europe (although the Slavic nations still give me trouble, much to his chagrin.) Likewise, I can now point out Oceania on a map and list, with reasonable accuracy, the biggest cities, deserts, fresh-water lakes, skyscrapers, mountains (both tallest and highest elevation – there’s a difference, you know), rivers, volcanoes, rainforests and even the biggest island within a lake, on an island within a lake, on an island (in the Philippines.)

So, to say it has been a learning experience is putting it mildly. It has been more of a hurricane of facts (unless you happen to be from the eastern hemisphere, in which case it would be a typhoon.) However, despite his voracious appetite for virtual travel, he had yet to stumble upon this particular geographical anomaly of the Southwest until a recent trip to visit his grandmother (another Southwestern peculiarity known as “Arizona Snowbird”): the concrete river.

Otherwise known as the Salt River, the massive manmade arroyo is all that remains of the mighty waterway that drains eastern Arizona’s White Mountains. A formidable tyrant known by the lucky few who are able to score a permit and time it right, the Salt is reduced to little more than a trickle just east of the Phoenix metropolitan area, thanks to a series of reservoirs and dams. As it approaches the outskirts of Phoenix proper (an oxymoron if ever there was one), the Salt all but disappears into a series of canals, pipes and tunnels. Its main “vein” (the aforementioned concrete monstrosity the size of an eight-lane interstate) is as dry as a shedded snakeskin, save for the rare storm that temporarily resurrects the raging torrent. And while I have yet to follow the manufactured streambed beyond its I-15 underpass, it is rumored to continue west of there for a few miles before joining the Gila River, also terminally dry in modern times.

Alas, short of handing him a copy of Cadillac Desert and promising to help him

with the big words, I found myself at a loss for explaining how an entire river could just disappear. Not only that, but was it even correct form to refer to such a feat of modern civilization as a “river?” If there’s one thing my kids have been lucky enough to learn firsthand, it’s that rivers are living entities, consisting of rocks, fish, birds, willows and most importantly, moving water. But this, this nonriver, was an affront not only to armchair geography buffs everywhere, but nature itself.

“I guess it’s just dried up,” I answered finally, as I let the concept of a waterless “river” sink in. “There are a lot of people who live here, who need water to drink, wash their clothes, take baths … ,” I continued.

And with that, the subject was dismissed, as conversation turned to other childhood wonders of the big city, like “magic stairs” (escalators), water parks, mini golf and laser tag.

And as much as I would like to point the fickled finger of hypocrisy at Phoenix (not to mention Las Vegas, Los Angeles and all those other evil met-atrocities), the fact is, as fellow denizens of the West, we cannot take the moral high road. (Besides, as much as I hate to admit it, Phoenix holds a certain attraction during these dreary days of “April-ary.”)

Right here, in our own back yard, the Dolores River is seriously overallocated and goes through a similarly disturbing dewatered transformation below McPhee. Likewise, the San Juan has become increasingly sought after, being reduced to a silt-logged trickle by late-summer.

And as much as I hate to rain on the river parade, it’s probably not going to get much better. A report released this week by the Bureau of Reclamation (remember, these are the people who have taken great pride in conquering nature for the last 60-plus years) casts a dark cloud of doubt on the future of water supplies in the Upper Colorado River Basin (Utah, Colorado and New Mexico). According to the report, which is being hailed as the most comprehensive look at the effects of climate change on river basins in the West, the impacts are startling:

• A “slightly” larger increase in temperature of 5 to 6 degrees F° in this century

• A 2.1 increase in precipitation by 2050

• An 8.5 percent decreases in annual runoff by 2050

• Warmer winters resulting in more rain and less snow, and a shift in the run-off season from April – June to December – March.

• A “significant” increase in reservoir evaporation, decreasing summer water supplies to farmers.

And while the report is being framed by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar in the optimistic light of serving as a “blueprint” for Colorado River water user on “steps that need to be taken,” it is a wake-up call nonetheless.

Because sooner or later, that river of excuses known as Denial is going to dry up. And without a map to lead us in the right direction, we might all end up lost.

– Missy Votel