I am fairly new to Montana, and I now walk the streets of Missoula with an uncanny feeling that I'm a messenger from the future.
No, I'm not a nut job claiming to hail from Mars or another galaxy. But I do come from a place that has become a mutated version of itself in the past 15 years. Comparing it to another planet is not all that far-fetched.
I arrive here from the high mountain desert of northern New Mexico, from a place drought-deep in wildfires that outsize Montana's Lolo Creek Complex fire by hundreds of thousands of acres. I come from a place where the annual precipitation in 2012 was 8 inches.
I'm from the tiny town of Las Vegas, N.M., where two manmade lakes have dried up, one of them the city's back-up water supply. The main water supply? A stream that we call a river, which is actually the size of Missoula's neighborhood creek. That river supplies 15,000 residents and commercial buildings, hospitals, school, hotels and three colleges. How? It seems nothing short of a miracle.
To be sure, there are significant water restrictions in Las Vegas. No outside watering is allowed, ever. Laundromats and car washes are open only a few days a week. The three landscaping options locals in my city avail themselves of are native plants (yucca, cacti, red-hot poker plants and anything else tough enough to survive without water), bleached Astroturf and just plain dirt.
The lush green lawns of Missoula seem luxurious by contrast and are certainly pleasing to the eye. But as I walk around my neighborhood, I am perpetually traumatized by sprinklers. I resist the impulse to drag hoses away from sidewalks when I see concrete being watered. I harbor secret longings to sidle into side yards and turn faucets off. Perhaps the reflexive impulse to disconnect hoses seems melodramatic. But I trail my previous home behind me, its charred trees feathering in my wake.
I've heard about the abundance of the Missoula aquifer. Missoula's privately owned Mountain Water Company describes the aquifer on its website as a "seemingly endless source of clean, fresh water." That word "seemingly" sets off warning bells. How things "seem to be" sounds like the start of a story that could take on epic proportions. A rough trap to fall into—like one of those pyramid schemes. Untenable.
The Mountain Water Company site explains that annual rain and snow "recharge" the aquifer via the area's many streams and rivers. You'd need an endless and healthy water cycle for perpetual recharging, but precipitation is declining here just as it is throughout the entire West. In 1998, Missoula received roughly 21 inches of precipitation. The average yearly precipitation it receives now is closer to 13 inches. In 15 more years, what will the number be?
Southwestern droughts are moving north. Colorado, once a green haven for New Mexicans like me, is drying up. Endless stands of trees have been killed by the pine beetles—beetles that can survive through the now-mild winters—and whole forests have been transformed into tinderboxes. Snow that once lingered on 12,000-foot peaks well into July is now gone by the end of June, and rivers in Colorado drop lower than anyone has ever seen. And I don't need to mention the gory details of last year's two suburban Colorado Springs fires.
I'm not advocating bucket baths. What I am saying is that water conservation is vital. Being mindful about how and why we use our limited drinking water could make all the difference in how Missoula fares when full-fledged drought arrives. I cannot see into Montana's future to predict when this will be, but in August of last year, the Montana state website showed that Madison County—not far south of Missoula—was experiencing "Severe Drought." And if you're worried about cash flow, Missoula's already higher water rates, double what residents of my small town currently pay, will only increase as the aquifer shrinks.
Las Vegas, N.M., sported green lawns on every street only 15 years ago. People washed their cars weekly, took 20-minute showers and didn't worry when the plumber took three weeks to fix the leaking faucet. Hindsight is 20/20 now that farmers downriver no longer have enough water to irrigate their crops and have packed up and moved away. What good is a lawn or a clean car when you can't grow food and don't have enough clean drinking water to go around?
Emily Withnall is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News (hcn.org). She lives in Missoula.