The Drought Diaries: Abandonment

By Eilene Lyon

“We know surprisingly little about vanished civilizations whose majesty and whose ultimate demise were closely linked to liberties they took with water.” – Marc Reisner, Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water

It’s no secret that the southwestern United States is a dry place—and getting drier. We’ve entered our third decade of drought and there is no end in sight. The two largest reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, stand at 32% and 24% of capacity, respectively. According to the Lake Powell Water Database, inflows to the lake so far this water year (at day 200) are 59% of average. The tracked upstream reservoirs are at 64% of capacity.

Glen Canyon Dam in Page, Arizona. This dam on the Colorado River fills the reservoir known as Lake Powell.

Spring runoff might improve those figures, but given that our snowpack in Colorado is roughly 92% of the median for 1991–2020, that’s a mighty big IF (as in “IF it rains sometime soon and in a good quantity”).

The population of the six states making up the region was 61.02 million at the 2020 census. That’s an increase of 12.58 million (+26%) since 2000. Every one of those states grew in population over that 20-year period. As water resources continue to become depleted, how will it change the flow of people into and out of the area?

Lenticular clouds above the desert near Lake Powell.

The current drought seems to be mimicking that of 1271–1300 CE, a time when the Ancestral Puebloan communities of the Four Corners were abandoned, sites such as Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon, Hovenweep, and Canyon of the Ancients. (We know about ancient droughts, thanks to the brilliance of tree-ring data. Obtaining good core samples is a difficult process, as I discovered during my internship at Mesa Verde NP.)

The changing climate nearly a millennium ago not only made agriculture nearly impossible, but food shortages appear to have led to violent upheaval, causing the survivors to scatter. Our understanding is necessarily theoretical, but the fact of these empty villages stand as testament. (Native tribes do not consider them “ruins.”)

A desert pothole (aka “tank”) in Capitol Reef National Park, the type of place where you will need to find water if you ever got lost in the desert southwest.

Is this the fate that awaits the denizens of today’s Southwest? Will Phoenix, Las Vegas, and San Diego become ghost towns after a spate of violent altercations and mass death? It doesn’t seem too likely, but who really knows?

What is probable begins with agriculture—the number-one consumer of water. Already, almond groves in California are being ripped from the ground and replaced with less water-intensive crops. That’s just a start. Fields all over these states will be fallowed. Herds of cattle will shrink as grazing lands wither and become desertified—a process that’s been ongoing for over a century.

Mesa Verde National Park. (Alec Krum on Unsplash)

As agriculture is abandoned, more water will be available for urban areas, but where will all these people get their food? If California continues its trend toward becoming a net importer instead of exporter of food, is that a sustainable scenario? Or will people flee the region in a mass exodus?

I have no answers for all the questions I’ve raised here, but they bear thinking about, and developing plans for the most probable scenarios.

Feature image: Chaco Canyon National Park (E. Lyon 1988)

P.S. As the drought continues, if you consider relocating, you might want to move to those places in WHITE in the map above.

41 thoughts on “The Drought Diaries: Abandonment

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      1. We are on well water and I have to use it to keep my garden alive. We don’t have a lawn and grow mostly native plants. But I’m a sucker for flowers and a small veggie garden.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Whenever I’ve been in Vegas I couldn’t shake the feeling that the whole place was living on borrowed time, water-wise. I like your advice to move the areas of the country that are not impacted by the drought.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Like the Reisner quote suggests, some of us live like water is an endless commodity, even in the desert. All the fountains, golf courses, and even reservoirs, are extremely wasteful. I think Vegas is in the running for future ghost town, for sure.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I live in an area in Alberta that was affected by the 1930’s ‘Dust Bowl’ Drought. Farm and range land practices today are considerably different! The same can be said for flood management since we live in a part of the province that experiences both!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. The increasing dryness is obvious even in our own county home in SW Colorado. Over 30 years the piñon pine tree die-off and increasing cactus population is clearly visible even to my untrained eye.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. What a nightmare scenario. What have we done to our planet? And when will we really start doing something to at least slow the destruction caused by climate change?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. We visited this area in 2008 so I remember Lake Powell and the white ring where the water used to come up to. Drought is not a problem we have, but that doesn’t matter – we’re all on the same planet and will sink or swim together (to use an inappropriate metaphor given the subject)!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. As Margy commented, at least we have better processes in place to prevent another Dust Bowl. Still, as this sort of thing continues, agriculture will probably abandon some areas and repopulate (where possible) in areas with more rainfall. Unfortunately, we’ve put cities and towns in those areas.


  5. Interesting post Eilene. The U.S. Drought Monitor looks pretty scary with over half of the nation in drought-like conditions. I guess I’d better quit complaining about our repeated soggy days we’ve had the last three Springs.

    Liked by 1 person

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