(Note: In order to get the full effect of the photos, go to landdesk.org.)
There is something about water in the desert. Its redolence is that of blood on the tongue, or metal against teeth. Iron, I suppose. When the dusty-wash wanderer senses its presence, he celebrates, albeit quietly and with reserve.
This spring, at a time when the potholes should be filled up with relatively fresh snowmelt or April-shower water, the scent of water is rare. And so, when a friend and I finally come across a pothole with stagnant, scummy water within, after trudging through dry dust and gravel for a couple of hours, we rejoice just a little. The simple knowledge that we could find something to drink amid this desiccated age is somehow reassuring.
The fact that we’ve been wandering around Bears Ears National Monument for two days without encountering a single human being is similarly reassuring.
It’s mid-April, which is surely spring break somewhere, and when I had set out five days earlier in the Silver Bullet to meander around public lands in the Four Corners Country, I figured I’d be contending with the coronavirus-prodded crowds that had flocked to these places. My fears were for naught—sort of.
I spent the first night in a Bureau of Land Management campground in the heart of the San Juan Basin gas-patch. It’s a favorite place of mine. The views are spectacular and, typically, I’m one of the only people staying there, perhaps because when the howling wind dies down the relentless din of pumpjacks and compressors and other oil and gas infrastructure is audible. But this time the place was almost full, albeit not with some sort of recreational crowd. I had the sense that at least a few of the campers resided there, leaving early each morning as if commuting to a job in Farmington, maybe, or Bloomfield. That’s more a sign of the housing crisis than industrial-scale recreation, I suppose. And, indeed, most of the RV parks I passed were filled up with what looked like long-term housing.
In any event, all I had to do was walk out of the campground, into the badlands below, to find complete solitude, my only company the eerie rock formations jutting up into the blue and the intricate, dehydrated seedpods of wetter springs past rattling in the breeze.
The unseasonably high temperatures of the previous week cooled across the region. That should have slowed the precipitous loss of snow from the high country. But warmth was replaced by wind, incessant wind, tent-blowing-away wind, drying wind (crowd-reducing wind?). Wind that picks up dust from the low country, lifts it up, carries it eastward, and deposits the dust on the surface of the snow, thereby decreasing its albedo and causing it to melt faster (more on the dust-on-snow phenomenon in a near-future Land Desk dispatch) and to evaporate rather than melt into the streams.
Since reaching an April 1 peak, the snowpack in the San Juan Mountains, headwaters for the Rio Grande and several major tributaries to the Colorado River, has plummeted. The summer prognosis is not good: The federal Bureau of Reclamation will almost certainly declare a water-shortage on the Colorado River this year for the first time ever. The Dolores River below McPhee Dam is likely to be reduced to a fish-killing trickle this spring and summer thanks to low river flows (and because the water is being sent to farmers’ ditches, instead).
Prior to the dam’s construction in the 1980s, agricultural diversions from the un-dammed river dried up the stream completely, leaving only a series of deep, non-native catfish-laden pools in the Dolores Canyon. When the dam was first built it actually helped the fish, because water stored in the reservoir from spring runoff could be released slowly throughout the summer, while still keeping ditches full and crops wet. But climate change and the resulting perma-drought have thrown all that into disarray.
These dry-times were apparent everywhere I went on my little tour, from the dust that rendered Ute Mountain invisible even from the Great Sage Plain, to the bare hillsides where a couple of Aprils ago mariposa lilies had covered the earth like snow, to the nearly dry bed of the North Fork of the Gunnison River as it runs through Paonia—a state it normally reaches only in July.
And they were also apparent in Bears Ears National Monument, where a friend had met up with me for a couple of days of wandering. We head down a canyon that slices through sandstone that is especially pliant in the hands of those great sculptors, wind and water, resulting in deep potholes and sensuous stone curves and pleasing patterns. The upper part of the canyon is parched and even the deepest potholes water-less. Finally, near a place where the canyon-floor steps down dramatically at a pour-off, we see—and smell—water. We want to get closer, so we make our way into the deeper gorge.
Here we find more than water. Abundant cottonwoods are just beginning to leaf out, the luminous green of the leaves dancing against desert varnish. In a deep alcove where we expect to see a cliff-dwelling, we come across instead what appears to have been a communal corn-processing facility. Smoothed-out indentations cover big blocks of sandstone where corn had been ground, and a packrat’s nest brims with corn cobs. Later, while hiking along a slope above the canyon, we come across not one, but two ancient Puebloan kilns—parallel rows of stones with charcoal at one end.
We don’t see any humans, but humanity is all around us. After living here and building societies and civilizations over thousands of years, the Pueblo people moved on and continued the great migration to today’s Pueblos of New Mexico and Arizona. Perhaps they were spurred to move, in part, by a long drought not unlike what we’re experiencing now. It makes me wonder what kind of migrations the current aridification may prompt.