Seeing Red

Amy Irvine McHarg
Winter 2011

The sky is falling. Particle by red, raw particle. And it’s falling on some of the world’s best snow.

Dust from the deserts of the American Southwest – Mojave, Sonoran, Great Basin and Chihuahuan – is getting scooped up in spring gales charging fresh off the Pacific. The airborne grit gets hurled across the western states before it is plastered onto the gleaming white snowfields of southwest Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. Home to the sweet and steep slopes of Telluride. To the frozen, front-pointable waterfalls of Ouray. To bluegrass fests, meadows of mushrooms, cannabis cafés and robust herds of elk. The effect is dizzying. Because these mountains, a rugged and rarified range where 14,000-foot, incisor-like peaks gnaw at an endless, crystalline sky, loom so large. On the horizon. In the psyche. To see iconic monoliths like the San Juans in such an altered state of color is sort of like having seen Marilyn Monroe after she had dipped her head in a bowl of henna.

You can see the red storms gallop in from 100 miles out. Even before they hit, the scene is palpably apocalyptic. And then: Dogs and cats roll like tumbleweeds. Cars undergo spa-quality exfoliation. Your nose blows rust-colored snot for a week. When the air clears, the San Juans, mountains that span 10,000 square miles (where some swear that grizzlies still lurk), are cloaked in reds and browns. Think of Mordor’s Mount Doom. Think anything but John Denver’s Rocky Mountain High. And in the storms’ odd aftermath, those who venture into the backcountry for spring corn get the wax stripped clean off the base of their boards.

But there’s more to this story than the fate of one’s skis. Like asphalt on a hot summer’s day, the darkened snowfields absorb rather than reflect the sun’s rays. This means that a single dust storm can melt the snowpack weeks ahead of schedule. Down below, in the flatlands, the runoff runs so high and fast that there’s no way to store it. By midsummer, reservoirs get tapped hard. Crops, wildlands and lawns are left wanting. An annual loss like this can total over 35 billion cubic feet – water that would supply Denver for three years.

That’s a lot of snowflakes. And in terms of its effect, what happens in Colorado definitely does not stay in Colorado. When San Juan snowflakes melt, they trickle their way into important rivers: The San Miguel, known for its angling holes full of wily native trout. The Dolores, where bighorn sheep have successfully been restored to narrow sandstone cliff bands above the water. And the San Juan, which borders Navajo Lands and harbors on its shores some of the world’s densest clusters of prehistoric art and ruins. All three rivers eventually merge with the Colorado River, one of the West’s most vital waterways, which provides power and water for Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona and California. About 30 million people (and counting) rely on this watershed alone. Of the 5 trillion gallons the river provides, those western states manage to use every drop, which means they cannot afford to miss even one bucket full of San Juan runoff.

What happens when, as climate change models predict, we begin to experience prolonged, reduced precipitation in the American Southwest? This alone could decrease the flow of the Colorado River by 10 to 30 percent in the next 30 to 50 years, enough to wipe out the sum of California’s annual allocation of water. Building more reservoirs is clearly not the answer. Now figure in an increase in the activities most destabilizing to delicate desert soils; the Bureau of Land Management – which manages a significant number of the West’s acreage – found that, in less than a decade (according to the Washington Post), “off-road-vehicle use rose 19 percent, the number of oil and gas wells increased 24 percent, and grazing acreage climbed 7 percent.” The verdict: By 2050, the instability of the region’s soil “will be equal to that of the Dust Bowl days.”

Until now, the mountains – the San Juans as well as other ranges around the globe – have been a tabula rasa for humans. Onto those pristine surfaces we have projected an ancient story, the one in which we use our will and cunning to make the desert bloom like a rose. A blood-red rose. Staring into the rain barrel of our not-so-distant future, we might reimagine ourselves as interdependent elements, rather than the center of interest, within a tapped-out watershed such as the Colorado River Basin. Perhaps it comes down to wiping the slate clean, to erasing the tally of our good fortunes – the dollars earned, the lawns greened, even the days skied. Then, we begin again: And this time, we chalk up the worth of every single snowflake that it takes to water our lives.

About the Author

Amy Irvine McHarg is a sixth-generation Utahn, author and wilderness advocate. She resides with her family, a herd of goats and a pack of unruly canines on a remote mesa between Utah’s red rock desert and Colorado’s San Juan Mountains.