When all the rivers are used, when all the creeks in the ravines, when all the brooks, when all the springs are used, when all the reservoirs along the streams are used, when all the canyon waters are taken up, when all the artesian waters are taken up when all the wells are sunk or dug that can be dug, there is still not sufficient water to irrigate all this arid region. –John Wesley Powell, 1893. Speech to International Irrigation Congress in Los Angeles
The 100th meridian is the traditional demarcation of where the American West starts.
As Powell famously stated:
Passing from east to west across this belt a wonderful transformation is observed. On the east a luxuriant growth of grass is seen, and the gaudy flowers of the order Compositae make the prairie landscape beautiful. Passing westward, species after species of luxuriant grass and brilliant flowering plants disappear; the ground gradually becomes naked, with bunch grasses here and there; now and then a thorny cactus is seen, and the yucca plant thrusts out its sharp bayonets.
East of this line means verdant farms; west of the line begins the high plains with its higher elevations, harsh winters, brutally hot summers, and a paucity of water.
Yet, here we are in 2021. Las Vegas, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, and Denver all see record population growth in this arid region. But, as I wrote before, the climate’s changing; getting hotter and drier overall. And, more specifically, the 100th meridian weather patterns continue to move east.
If you look at the map at the start of the article, you can see that our current drought conditions in the US reflect the shift with no doubt. The so-called “new normal” is now, normal.
And where to get this information? The interesting, well-done, and ultimately eye-brow raising Drough.gov provides much information of interest to anyone who recreates in our public lands.
You can look at the info by region, state, and even look at historical trends that show that the current drought is not merely a blip.
Most of Utah, for example, is facing extreme or exceptional drought:
My old stomping grounds of Colorado does not fare much better:
And note that the US is much drier overall. Even in the “wet” East coast:
Though some advocate “forest management” as a solution, it’s the equivalent of putting up sandbags when floods occur – Helpful but does not acknowledge the underlying cause.
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If you see an area with drought this late in the winter season for Utah, as one example, more than likely you know there will be springs not flowing as well and a good chance of an early and harsh fire season. Extrapolate as appropriate for Colorado, the Sierra, and other areas.
As with any data, I think it makes me pause and think about experiencing the outdoors personally. We’ll have to adjust to what we think of as “the seasons.”
Again relating to what I know about where I live, a warmer and drier winter means more use and travel to my high desert area even in the now-shorter “off-season.” And I look over to the La Sal and Abajo Mountains and wonder if I’ll get in a ski tour? But that’s just an impact on my personal life. The more significant issues and questions go outside of my specific backcountry experience.
For example, I still strongly assert that backcountry campfires need to go the way of other antiquated practices such as burying garbage. When there are droughts in previously wet areas, campfires strictly for comfort and aesthetics in a backcountry environment are questionable at best. The numbers tell the story.
Drought.gov may not be the cheeriest website or the most glamorous. But for anyone who wants a larger picture of how their outdoor experience gets impacted, the site makes for a fascinating portrait of today’s operating norm.