Henry Gates: The Manipulation of the Arid West

Man has been controlling the west’s arid landscape ever since the white mans arrival 160 years ago. As I stare upwards in my sleeping bag, I see the star-lit sky. I do not see the moon, but rather the bright planet of Venus, the red planet of Mars, the Big Dipper, and the constellation of Orion. Then something flashing interrupts this innate beauty I am witnessing. It is the invention of man, made for carting us all over the world in exponentially fast times. There are 300 people above me, headed to New York, Atlanta or some far out destination. As I lay down on the sandy banks of the Green River watching them fly by, I contemplate if they have ever been to a place with this amount of beauty or will ever go? I wonder if they realize the immense carbon footprint they are leaving behind? I am perplexed in my sleepy mind state thinking about everything man has done to make this landscape his own, especially in the arid American West. America has inhabited the west since the mid 1800s and ever since America has been controlling and manipulating this fragile landscape.

The Colorado River runs through some of the most arid country in the world. The catchment for the river runs from the upper reaches of Wyoming in the Wind River Range, flowing through Colorado, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and California. When people started migrating out west they soon realized the tough and very dry habitat they would be living in. Upon the Mormons arriving in Salt Lake in 1847, they immediately started digging trenches to capture snowmelt of the Wasatch Range. As Reisner in Cadillac Desert observes, ‘Without realizing it, they were laying the foundation of the most ambitious desert civilization the world has ever seen. People would soon come to realize that they would need massive irrigation ditches to water their farms and feed their livestock. The Bureau of Reclamation was set up in 1902 to build dams and irrigate and become the leader in the club house in terms of human ingenuity. We would create the Worlds largest dams, run aqueducts through deserts and over mountain ranges to provide irrigation, electricity, and water for cities in the West.

But what have these feats of human ingenuity led too? The West has some of the most unnatural cities in the world. These include Phoenix, Tempe, El Paso, Reno, Las Vegas all receiving less than ten inches per year of rainfall, and some lucky to get two inches per year. We have created these metropolises in which you can go play golf, see a movie, or go dine on top of an air conditioned building. If not for these irrigation wells these places would have been nothing but barren desert. We have been able to irrigate much of the West supplying much of our winter vegetables to all of America. The government has also set up areas of recreation by damming up the Colorado and creating massive lakes for people to take their boats out on.

The Bureau of Reclamation sees this as mans progress and America moving forward and leading the world in engineering. Our ingenuity has sprouted up civilizations that people never would have thought possible in this landscape in the 1600s.

But what has been the cost of creating these feats of nature? The Colorado and its tributaries have been dammed up twenty two different times throughout its course. The dams have numerous effects on the ecology of rivers. One of the biggest components of dams, is that they control the flooding of rivers. They hold much of the spring runoff from upper tributaries and are released in the summer months when farmers are in dire need of water. However, this harms many natural processes of different species along the river. The cottonwood tree needs spring floods to disperse its seeds and have the seed germinate in shallow pools that are out of reach of the main flowing river. As a result we see many old large cottonwoods but very few young saplings, showing that this species is decreasing. It has also led to the rise of the invasive species tamarisk. By not having large spring flows young tammies are allowed to have little saplings take hold along the banks, which the natural spring flow should be washing out. Since major damming projects occurred in the 60’s these plants have spiraled out of control. The waters have also become much colder in rivers due to the damming process. This has made it much harder for native fished to produce offspring after adapting to the natural processes of the river. Many of the fish species are endemic to this area, meaning they only live in this area of the world. If we loss these fish species because of the effects of dams, they will soon become extinct from our Earth. These are just three of many harmful ecological effects dams have.

Also, with dams the reservoirs are sitting still in some of the hottest most arid places in the world. While this water is at a stand still it evaporates. We los thirty two percent of the average annual flow of the Colorado River to evaporation. This is just under one third of the water that could be going to growing more crops, providing drinking water to more towns, or left in the river to help support native fish and other flora and fauna in the riparian area. Environmentalists would make an outcry for the destruction of the riparian landscape and the disinigration of precious water into the atmosphere from the lifeblood of the West.

As my classmates and I have traveled around this beautiful area we have seen the effects of these man made follies. We have traveled in many places seeing the effects of government policy, or lack of, and have tried to learn from where they went wrong. It would be dishonest to say we have not been a part of this problem. Many of the aforementioned ‘problems’ have made it hospitable for me to live in this barren place. But we can also be a part of the solution. By taking what we have seen in this area, we can spread our knowledge to other folks who have not been fortunate enough to witness these things first hand. If we would like to live in a more natural place, and have our kids live to see these great wonders we need to live differently in the arid West. But to do this we need change. We are a generation where we can either sustain this natural beauty or risk losing it forever. When we return from this great adventure we need to spread our knowledge and help the constituents of the West and East become more knowledgeable and know where our power, water and food is coming from. WE need to be the change we wish to see in the WORLD!

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