Book Excerpt: After the Blue Water Left

EDITOR'S NOTE: Today, we're pleased to present an excerpt from the new book A New Form of Beauty: Glen Canyon Beyond Climate ChangeThe book, published by University of Arizona Press, combines Peter Goin's photographs with essays by Peter Friederici in an examination of how the Colorado River basin, particularly Glen Canyon and Lake Powell, is being impacted by the longest dry spell in modern history — one that shows alarming signs of becoming the new normal. A selection of photographs from the book follows the excerpt. It will be released October 31; to learn more or order the book, click here.

Hite is the little marina and National Park Service enclave way up in Utah where the Colorado River slowed and Lake Powell began. No: scratch that. It was.

1999: From the roadside pullout high on the cliffs above, the sparkling blue water is alive with boats, a tourist brochure come to life. The lake is brimful: no bathtub ring mars the rocks. The little settlement below hums with activity. Big SUVs back down the ramp to launch speedboats equipped with giant outboards. Families emerge from a little store laden with sodas, bags of ice, bait. Up at the overlook, an interpretive sign tells the story of Cass Hite, an early gold miner in this country. He left behind his name, but little else. No wonder: he was looking in the wrong place. The riches to be found here, it’s clear, were not buried in the ground, but rather to be extracted from the desert’s real treasure—its water.

2004: The blue water is gone, dozens of vertical feet of it seemingly evaporated into the hot air. In its place, much lower and narrower, a chocolate-brown river runs between cracked mud flats. A lone generator runs somewhere, but the traffic is gone, the store and ranger station shuttered. Ridges and swales of sand and clay have pooled in parallel series, making the roads and buildings seem an afterthought, hopeless as shaking a fist at the dry desert wind: it is a wilderness of sediment, crinkled and fractured, reminiscent of the pile of gunk left in a driveway after a really dirty car has been washed. Long cement ramps slope down from the buildings toward the river, turning into gravel and then into dried mud in a drawn-out and finally hopeless pursuit of boat-launching opportunities. Up here, on the rim of the interpretive sign, someone has pasted a bumper sticker: “Free the Colorado.” The years of what look like drought have been a boon for those who have always hated the dam and what it stands for, returning dried-up stretches of once-drowned tributaries to something of the sandstone grandeur that they’d once had.

Next to the bumper sticker someone has scrawled, in jagged black pen strokes, “Will the last person to leave please turn the Hite out?”

2014: Desolation is the new normal, at least if you are measuring according to what we once thought of as the typical give-and-take of a reservoir. Lake Powell has experienced a lot more taking than giving, and the water has not returned to Hite. From above many of the mud flats look green with tamarisk and tumbleweed. But the lake is a fading memory. And it becomes increasingly hard to remember what the place looked like when the water was higher. Stand on a canyon rim, and even though you know that the water below has through eons carved out the cubic miles of rock that are now filled with air it is a big leap to imagine the land the way it once was. Same with the many dozens of vertical feet and trillions of gallons of Lake Powell that have evanesced into sky: even where their passage is marked with the chalky white of the bathtub ring, the mind’s eye has trouble painting deep still water on the scene.

This is a landscape of grief, in other words, where the heart’s desire to remember with precision what the place was like—whether that means for you the predam canyon, or the sparkling lake—collides with the brain’s trickling loss of memory. It will not be the same place again, and we cannot remember our way back to just how it was. Grabbing onto the way it was is like grasping for lost youth, a quest as pathetic as it is doomed. Sure, the geographical coordinates may be the same. But what is at Hite now is neither old river nor not-so-old lake. It is a new sort of place, one that poses new questions for us.

The most immediate is: is this what the future looks like for us, not just on the once-shore of a once-lake but throughout the arid West and so many other arid places worldwide—a cracked and blighted desolation, dirt gathered under unwashed fingernails, tumbleweeds clogging the irrigation canals, hordes of modern-day Okies fleeing a new Dust Bowl and facing an uncertain welcome in what they hope will be wetter climes?

There is a fair chance of that. And so a prudent society, in the face of impending shortages, might decide that the population in its most arid regions should at a minimum not grow any more. Maybe it should even shrink to accommodate the great likelihood of future shortages.

Between 2000 and 2014 Arizona’s population grew by well over a million people—almost 25 percent. The Arizona Department of Water Resources, expecting continued population growth, predicts that the water demands of the state’s residents will grow by another 20 to 25 percent within the next twenty years.

The job of the engineers and the politicians and the bureaucrats is not going to be enviable: figuring out how to get water to the places that need it, or whose people are most willing to pay for it. Figuring out whose taps to shut off.

And the job for the rest of us everywhere is also a challenge: figuring out how to reimagine this place, and every place.

Copyright 2016 by University of Arizona Press. Republished with permission. To purchase A New Form of Beauty: Glen Canyon Beyond Climate Change, click here.

All photographs by Peter Goin.

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