Too much tinder, not enough water

As 2022 lurches toward an uncertain finish, with blizzard-battered western New York still counting its dead and California bracing for yet another round of torrential rains, two recent Colorado-centric events deserve the attention of anyone concerned with the outdoors. Unfortunately, any meaningful response seems unlikely. Worse yet, Colorado is only a bellwether for much of the nation.

The first of these events is the one-year anniversary of the Marshall fire in Colorado, a conflagration that on Dec. 30 forced the evacuation of more than 35,000 people–killing two—as it incinerated more than a thousand homes and seven businesses. Although an anniversary may not fit the dictionary definition of an “event,” in this case the event merely started on Dec. 30 and is still unspooling: 12 months later, just one of the 1,084 missing homes has been rebuilt and fewer than 170 building permits have been issued to reclaim what was lost in just a few hours.

To date, no one knows why the fire started, although some possible causes—such as downed power lines—have been ruled out. That in itself is remarkable. Nor has there been a conclusive accounting of the financial losses sustained—a process made more complicated by the surge in interest rates over the past year—but the total is expected to exceed $2 billion. In short, this continues to be an unfolding story for those who once lived in the devastated area.

But there’s more. As documented in an extensive ProPublica story published two days ago, the Marshall fire underscored in the most dramatic way possible the growing danger of developing the so-called wildland-urban interface, or WUI. Once understood as a zone of transition between unoccupied land and human development, WUIs are now recognized as having encroached on urban areas that formerly were considered “non-burnable.” It’s not just that development has pushed ever more steadily into wildland areas; it’s that “wildland” increasingly penetrates urban areas, with trees, shrubs, grasses and even wooden fences mixed in with homes, power lines and businesses.

As ProPublica reports, fire experts who recently thought that fire threats were confined to the WUI now believe that the entire state of Colorado may be at risk of conflagration. Even without that more expansive view, however, the fact is that the number of new homes built in Colorado’s classically defined WUI more than doubled between 1990 and 2020. Nationwide, meanwhile, the WUI is growing by 2 million acres a year, with more than 46 million homes in 70,000 communities now within the path of a firestorm, according to a June report from the U.S. Fire Administration. One of the most generally unrecognized danger zones: the southeastern states, where the Fire Administration says the potential for larger fires will increase by 300%-400% by midcentury.

So that’s one alarm bell sounded at the end of 2022. The second is being rung by the Colorado River Water Users Association, which concluded its annual convention a couple of weeks ago pretty much as always: looking helplessly at the impossibility of squeezing a 10-pound ball of crap into a five-pound sack. Unlike recently recognized firestorm dangers, the inevitable collapse of a seven-state compact dividing the Colorado River’s waters was foreseen decades ago. The drawing down of the river’s two largest reservoirs, lakes Mead and Powell, has been many years in the making; that they are now nearing dreaded “dead-pool” status cannot be a surprise to anyone.

And yet. With drinking water for 40 million people at stake, not to mention irrigation for farmers tilling millions of acres of former desert, the various vested interests remained unable to agree on how to reduce water allocations by 15%—in 2023. More cuts undoubtedly will be needed in the years ahead, as decades of drought continue the aridification of most land west of the 100th meridian, affecting not just the Colorado basin but also the upper Missouri, the Platte, the Arkansas and the Rio Grande rivers. But with the Colorado River convention ending without a plan, the seven states now have until the end of January to somehow reach an agreement before the federal government, via the Bureau of Reclamation, imposes its own “solution.”

Why the scare marks around “solution”? Because anything the Bureau of Reclamation—or anyone else—concocts is only a rear-guard action. There is no long-term way to water an area that 150 years ago was more accurately described as the great American desert, any more than there is any hope of transforming the Sahara into a garden. John Wesley Powell tried to tell that to a disbelieving Congress in 1876. Texas historian Walter Prescott Webb was equally ignored in 1957, when he wrote in Harper’s that the West is “a semidesert with a desert heart.” What happens when the rivers run dry? When the aquifers finally collapse from over-pumping? When the cost of such fantastical dreams as diverting the Yukon or tapping into the Great Lakes is finally, fully comprehended?

But even today, as the alarm bells ring ever more loudly, we go blithely about our business as though there’s nothing to worry about. A concluding anecdote in an excellent Dec. 23 report in The New Yorker says it all. According to reporter Rachel Monroe, a boat captain who has spent decades on Lake Mead—where six of seven boat launches had to shut down last year because the water level is so low—isn’t worried because his neighbor, a retired intelligence operative, “told him that water shortages were created by the government ‘to promote the climate change.’ If the region ran out of water, he assured me, they would step in and fix it.”

Magical thinking isn’t unusual during the Christmas holidays, but it won’t be helpful in the harsher time that awaits us. Too much fire and not enough water: they’re opposite sides of the same coin, elemental forces that we can resist only so long. And there is no “they” to fix it.

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Author: Andy Zipser

A former newspaper reporter who worked at a variety of newspapers, from small community weeklies to The Wall Street Journal, I finished my "normal" work life as the editor of The Guild Reporter, official publication of the union representing newspaper workers. On retiring, I and my wife bought a campground in the Shenandoah Valley and--with the help of our two daughters and their husbands--operated it for eight years, first as a KOA franchisee and then as an independent family-owned RV park. We sold the campground in May, 2021, and live in Staunton, Virginia, a short walk from our grandsons' home.

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