Summer of chaos
Dec. 17, 2021
The western United States, where water once ebbed and flowed through arid sagebrush, ancient wetlands and wooded forests, has been carved, plugged and drained beyond recognition. Streams flow uphill, backwards and even across watersheds to support endless acres of cropland and cities tens of millions of people strong. The mighty rivers that carved the Grand Canyon and the Columbia Gorge over millions of years can now be controlled by someone sitting at a desk in an office, their seemingly limitless waters harnessed as fuel for the West’s skyrocketing economy.
But all the shaping and damming has turned a free-flowing landscape into a system of bottlenecks. Water managers can no longer leave hard decisions up to nature: They must now choose which users of a watershed (including the very species that evolved with it) are entitled to water when there’s not enough to go around and figure out how to get rid of excess water when there’s too much. But they cannot control how much water they have to work with, or when they’ll have it.