The Big Hole River in early July. The clear, blue skies mean the photo was taken before the most recent fires in the nearby area.
About 20 years ago, the Outdoor Writers Association of America had its annual conference in St. George, Utah. The event was in early June, so we missed the intense desert heat they probably have in mid-summer. St. George is in Washington County, in the southwest corner of Utah, close to both Arizona and Nevada.
St. George was one of the fastest growing cities in both Utah and the country, and it was obvious that the town boosters took pride in that. In 1990, the population was 28,754, and that almost doubled to 49, 628 in the 2000 census. St. George is a desert town, at the northern edge of the Mojave desert. It has average precipitation of 8.8 inches per year.
I recall asking one of the local hosts about all this population growth and where do they get the water to support population growth, because it certainly doesn’t come from rainfall, and snowfall amounts to around one and a half inches per year. “Oh, we have wells with plenty of water,” I was told. Tapping into an aquifer can produce water, but what happens when the aquifer is tapped out?
According to the city’s website, the city gets its water from the Virgin River, and there are two reservoirs that capture river water and deliver it to the city’s water treatment plant. The website also states that the city cut water use by some one billion gallons from 2010 to 2015.
Another website acknowledges the limitations on depending on Virgin River water and proposes a pipeline from Lake Powell to guarantee enough water to sustain population growth, projected to reach 500,000 people by 2065 (Kem C. Gardiner Policy Institute, University of Utah).
Lake Powell is also a victim of the drought and is currently at critically low levels. The St. George Spectrum and Daily News recently reported that the pipeline proposal is considered by many as a boondoggle and critics are protesting any further diversion of Colorado river water.
St. George continues to boom, with a 2010 population of almost 73,000 and 2020 population of 94,535. County population is estimated at over 177,000 as of 2019.
A lot of St. George’s appeal is its mild winter weather. It is also a golfer’s paradise. There are some 12 golf courses in and around St. George with, judging from photos, lush green fairways and water features. If that’s not enough, there are another dozen courses at Mesquite, Nevada, just 35 miles away.
I’m not writing about St. George to promote more growth, as much as to point out the insanity of what we’re doing in the West, and only now, in this desperately dry year are people starting to face the reality of what’s happening.
Last week, the New York Times reported on Oakley, Utah, a town of 1,750 population, about an hour’s drive east of Salt Lake City. The city just took a major step, imposing a construction moratorium on new homes that would connect to the city water system.
In Arizona, developers in desert areas between Phoenix and Tucson must prove they have access to a 100-year supply of water to get approval to build new homes. The reality, however, is that the agriculture industry already has claims on that water.
The city of Bozeman, already Montana’s worst-case scenario, has imposed watering restrictions as Hyalite Reservoir, the city water supply, is getting seriously drawn down.
Meanwhile, here in our corner of Montana, the drought continues. River flows keep dropping. The river flow on the Big Hole River at Maidenrock Bridge was just 371 cubic feet per second last week, compared to long-term median flows of 708 CFS. FWP has closed the river to fishing downstream from the Tony Schoonen (Notch Bottom) access site to the confluence with the Beaverhead River. The entire Jefferson River is closed to fishing. The entire Madison River downstream from Yellowstone National Park is on hoot owl restrictions.
The American West is ground zero for climate change, and drought comes with that warmer climate. Water demands should be the first consideration for everything.
Paul Vang’s new book, “Golden Years, Golden Hours,” is available at How Novel, The Second Edition, Isle of Books & Books, or online at http://writingoutdoors.com.