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Desert Solitaire

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

Rime of
the Ancient Mariner

– Samuel Taylor Coleridge


Did you know that our bodies are mostly water? The 70% ratio is roughly comparable to the percentage of water on the surface of this planet. How interesting.

Flying high over the Mojave Desert on a trip to Los Angeles I studied the great aqueduct that runs from the Colorado River to the agricultural basins of southern California.

In preparation for the desert backpacking trip ahead, I was reading Edward Abbey’s book, Desert Solitaire, a series of essays, both autobiographical and eco-philosophical. He writes at length about water rights in the southwestern states, and specifically, the intentional raping of the Colorado River, the great Rio Colorado, or “Red River.”

I am a true believer in synchronicity … the Jungian concept of timing. Synchronicity happens when significant connections manifest as part of a normal occurrence, such as when you think “I’ve been thinking of you” and then the phone rings; or “Things happen for a reason” – even if the reason seems obscure in the moment.

At that moment, Desert Solitaire unfolded beneath me.

The Rio Colorado is a product of snow melt. It begins high in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado in a magnificent western glacier of the Rocky Mountain National Park.

Desert Solitaire – The San Juan Mountains

In the distance, the San Juan Mountains hold very little snow in early April.
Photo by Nicholas Borrell

But it is a fact that no Colorado River waters reach the Gulf of California. Along the way, massive dams contain it creating reservoirs to generate the power for Phoenix, Tuscon, Las Vegas, and the megalopolis of Los Angeles. The river water held in these huge lakes is subject to the evaporative cycle as well. As I peer down at the aqueduct from perhaps 15,000 feet on the glide path to LAX, Abbey notes: “60% of the water taken from the river by the California water authority evaporates before it arrives for distribution.”

A great population migration to the southwest occurred after World War II, continuing to this day, creating immense urban zones in areas of little or no water. No civilization can exist without water. We need water for life.

Stored three to four thousand feet down under Phoenix is a great aquifer, a subterranean lake storing water that has taken millions of years to accumulate. The city is pumping this well dry at a rate that will completely empty it in less, possibly considerably less, than ten years. The legal battles over Colorado River waters are being waged as I write this. Las Vegas or “Glitter Gulch”, as Mr. Abbey called it, wants their share as well. Edward Abbey was an eco-terrorist at heart. His instincts were to blow up the dams and aqueducts to let the river run free.

The southwest United States is currently under extreme drought conditions. Snow pack, which supplies the great rivers and aquifers, was at an all time low last winter. Even the smaller communities like Durango, Colorado and Las Vegas, New Mexico, will run out of water in the near future.

Up close and personal

One summer, our family walked a trail following the Colorado up into a valley in Rocky Mountain National Park to the point where the river’s earliest tributaries emerge at the Continental Divide. Like all high mountain streams, the bed consisted of a dazzling array of gravel, stone, and boulders, clearly of glacial origin. These are mineral rich mountains with lots of mining history. Thankfully the headwaters are protected within the park domain and the stream is clear and pure.

Desert Solitaire – Alpenglow

Alpenglow, in the high San Juans.

This spring, I drove the high road to Silverton, Colorado, into the amazing San Juan Mountains. It was an unusually mild, early April day, the roads clear of snow. In town, I stopped to chat with two local firemen who sat in the sun outside the firehouse. I asked: “Is this normal weather for April?” The younger of the two answered: “Hell no, we usually have four feet of snow and more coming.”

Desert Solitaire – Silverton

Near the firehouse in Silverton.
Photo by Nicholas Borrell

I was travelling through Durango with my daughter Zoe, my son-in-law Joe, and Liliana, my first grandchild. Three generations thinking about where we might live in the future. The looming question of water was everywhere.

One afternoon after a soak in a mineral spring, we drove up to one of the large reservoirs that supplies Durango. We drove along the shore and parked. And like all water-seeking creatures in the high desert, we walked down to the water’s edge. The level of the reservoir was appallingly low, perhaps twenty feet below the high water line. With the absence of snow pack this season, this pool was not going to fill up anytime soon. Qué lastima. What a pity.

Desert Solitaire, checking out the water level

Checking out the water level at Vallecito Reservoir. It’s way too low!
Photo by Nicholas Borrell

Is this a permanent condition? Only time will tell.

Richard Henry Dana’s autobiographic tale, Two Years Before the Mast is an account of a young man’s journey aboard an early 19th century trading ship from Boston bound for the west coast of America. Richard’s father, a merchant trader, thought it would strengthen the boy’s health to make such a voyage. It is a remarkable travelogue describing sea adventures and ports of call from the east coast of South America to the barely populated west coast of the Americas. His vivid descriptions – of what we now know of as San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay – stand out in stark contrast to today’s highly developed and populated cities.

Dana describes Los Angeles as nothing but what mariner’s call an “open roadstead”,  a desert coast, where the ship stopped on an unprotected lee shore to pick up water. However, the only water to be had was at a spring at a small mission house ten miles inland. After walking inland ten desert miles, they hired donkeys to carry the water back to the ship. It was not an easy task. LA was, and still is, a desert.

So there I was, up in the air, surveying the Desert Solitaire below.

On the glide path down to LAX (at a time before we got serious about pollution control), not much was visible in the LA basin. Most days you couldn’t see the San Gabriel Mountains from Hollywood. A very different place than Richard Henry visited, for sure.

The cityscapes exist. It is over and done. A hungry monster is pulling endless water into its mouth … and there is a land grab going on planet-wide to control fresh water resources. The family of a recent President of the U.S. has purchased hundreds of thousands of acres in Paraguay directly over the largest aquifer on the globe. What a great investment!

There is no difference between drilling for oil and drilling for water.

We can’t turn back the clock.

I know a city in Arizona with millions of people who may soon be willing to pay as much as five dollars a gallon for the cool clear water of the Pampas.

Desert Solitaire – Lili

Lili loves her water!
Photo by Nicholas Borrell

The water resources, oh heck, all of the resources of the planet belong to all of us.

Will we ever learn?