Collins Spring—latitude: 37.44; longitude: -110.17—in southeast Utah is a resource so rare that its location is marked on U.S. Geological Survey maps. Back in the wetter years of the past, the spring ran all year long, from a rock face just below the rim.

It fed a skein of descending streamlets and ponds and green gardens of brush and wildflowers, all the way to Grand Gulch, two miles away. Around the spring, cowboys would make camp, taking advantage of the reliable water source. Centuries before them, the Ancestral Puebloans (long referred to as the Anasazi) lived there, and all along Grand Gulch, and beyond—until a decades-long dry spell drove them out. Their abandoned villages and rock art are everywhere in the Grand Gulch gorge. You can see evidence of drought in their paintings and incisions on the cliffs: images of war, men battling with spears and shields. They were fighting over the precious liquid. After the Ancestral Puebloans fled, the climate turned wetter again, into desert but livable desert, but there was no one there to enjoy it until the Navajo people began to arrive from the north 400 years later.

I remember one visit 20-odd years ago, before the current drought began, when we planned to hike down Collins Canyon to Grand Gulch, bivvy at the junction, and travel onward the next day. We left Telluride late and didn’t make it out to the remote trailhead till after dark. We scrambled our gear at the trailhead and made our way down Collins, lighting our path with headlamps. It was a wet year, even for that pre-drought time, and there was a pool where the spring sprouted from the rock. We slithered and sloshed down through puddles and pondlets in the canyon bottom.

This article appears in Issue 22 of Alta Journal.

There were frogs everywhere, tiny frogs, each matte-black and the size of a quarter—mobs and mobs, many tens of thousands of them, and each of them was singing its love song at the top of its lungs: “Brekekekeks ko-ax ko-ax, brekekekeks ko-ax ko-ax.” Their voices echoed off the canyon walls in a splendid Cenozoic chorale. One of our party was so enthralled that she scratched out the place’s official name on her map and wrote over it, “Frog Palace Canyon.”

But drought here moves like quick twitches of lightning. The last few times I visited Collins, the spring had run totally dry; it wasn’t a living spring anymore, just a name, an empty name that had lost its meaning with its water. A khaki crust of dead moss hung below the cleft where the waters had once poured, and the canyon was no longer an amphibians’ Jardin des Tuileries; it was dead and dreamless, like the empty railway station in an existential novel, on a line that will never see another train. Water had long ago shrunk to mud, and mud had withered away to desiccated soil and dry sand. I trudged down the rocks, plashed through dunelets
of bonemeal dust. The leaves and needles of the brush were silvery, famished-looking. Even the stalwart old cedars and junipers seemed to droop with exhaustion. But worse, overwhelming it all, was the terrible silence, haunted by the ghosts of tens of thousands of songs.

This was the desert that seems to be impatiently awaiting us: awesomely voracious and now terribly inevitable. I remembered a paraphrase from the Iranian American poet Sholeh Wolpé; the words seemed to fit the scene around me: As hollow as the empty space in the letter “o” in the word “nothing.”

drought, american west, flash flood, valley of the gods, bears ears national monument, utah, alta journal
A flash flood pours across a road in Valley of the Gods, part of Bears Ears National Monument in Utah.
Gordon Wiltsie

Gordon Wiltsie, the noted photographer and frequent Alta Journal contributor, and I have lived in the West for decades, and we have ended up at opposite ends of the great western drainage: the Colorado River system. My home, Telluride, Colorado, is in the zone where the drought begins, 8,750 feet above sea level, in the southwest corner of the Rockies. The annual runoff from the Rockies’ melting snowpack fuels the river and everything west of the Continental Divide, as far north as the Great Basin and into the Northwest. Wiltsie is at the far end of the drought, on the Pacific Ocean edge, just south of San Francisco, in Half Moon Bay. The great cities of California depend on our snowmelt and the water from the Sierra Nevada, which is stricken by warming temperatures and ebbing precipitation. Simplified, the failing snow in the mountains is an arrow aimed at tens of millions of people living more than a thousand miles away. We decided to trace the drought on a westerly course, from where it begins all the way to where the buck stops, the bitter end.

A cynic once compared technocracy to a man who chain-smokes in bed: all seems well until the smoker falls asleep and goes up in flames—bed, bedroom, his life. If this drought is worse than any of the previous ones, it’s largely because of us. The captain of the Titanic should have seen the iceberg in his ship’s path, but human ingenuity met reality and was destroyed. It isn’t difficult to see the same thing happening here. For thousands of years, Colorado River droughts have been triggered by a climatic phenomenon called La Niña, far away to the southwest in the Pacific: the ocean’s surface cools along the coast, and snowfall in the Rocky Mountains declines. In the preindustrial past, La Niñas came in intermittent waves; in between, there was enough snowmelt to support human life across the Colorado River system. Now, our modern industrial economy has made the overall climate warmer. There are more frequent La Niñas, and each leads to less Rocky Mountain snow. At the same time, technology has managed to cram tens of millions of people into the faltering Colorado River system, thanks to concrete, steel, and fossil fuel. But we seem to have forgotten one thing: water, which we can’t manufacture—at scale, not yet.

Wiltsie and I begin our journey where the water journey begins, in the Rockies. Atmospheric warming and desertification start right here. The mountain reservoirs have been drying up since the drought took hold. Blue Mesa Reservoir, outside Gunnison, Colorado, is at about 20 percent of capacity and shrinking fast. The San Juan River system, which supplies a large percentage of the Colorado River’s water, is impounded at Navajo Reservoir, just south of Durango, and distributed downstream; now the lake is at about 50 vertical feet below normal. The tributaries that normally feed it are themselves flowing far below capacity. We drive southwest, passing by McPhee Reservoir, which traps the Dolores River just outside Dolores, Colorado; the Dolores is an important tributary of the Colorado itself, feeding into it just west of the Colorado-Utah state line. This end of the reservoir, formerly a playground for boaters, is totally dried up, and you could jump across the Dolores River without getting your feet wet.

drought, american west, colorado river, liza doran, cow canyon trading post, bluff, utah, alta journal
Liza Doran, the owner of Cow Canyon Trading Post in Bluff, Utah, says that drought has sharply reduced tourism.
Gordon Wiltsie

We have acted like the snow and the meltwater are inexhaustible. Our hydrological geniuses even built tunnels under the Rockies to supply Front Range Colorado’s swelling population, which already suffers from its own drought. Colorado Springs gets almost all of its water from the Colorado River. “Water flows uphill toward money,” someone once said, and it is true here. The consequences are dire, even if they are not always obvious. We in the Rockies are obviously hit by the drought, but we are temporarily cushioned against some of its worst consequences. The summer of 2022 has been a wet one in southwest Colorado; in Telluride, we have had one of the best summer monsoonal rains in years. There have been disastrous forest and brush fires east, west, and north of here, while we’ve been hiking through mists and rains, watching clouds billow in the gorges below town and on the high peaks, hunting wild mushrooms in the sodden forests and meadows. Still, it’s all so incidental and fragile, and our thoughts turn inevitably to the drought. This summer’s rains are what they are, one summer’s rain; last year, we had one of the driest summers anyone can remember, and last winter’s snowfall was scanty. This summer is only a short, smooth patch in the road to ruin, and these rains will do little or next to nothing to alleviate conditions here and downstream, all the way to California.

The real source of the Colorado River is the water content of the winter snowpack. There were intimations of the drought before it began around 25 years ago. The ski area near where I live opened in 1972. During its first winter, there was so much powder that a skier actually smothered on the stuff while navigating the front of the mountain. Within a few years, the area closed early when it had a very dry winter; there were local jokes that it would become an obscure park site, like the one at Hidden Valley on the outskirts of Rocky Mountain National Park. Now, thanks to intense trail grooming and snowmaking, the area stays open all season long. It would take another completely snowless winter to shut it down for the season, and luckily or whatever, we still haven’t had another closure since the one in the early 1970s. The climate in the southwest Rockies has always been whimsical; local lore from the gold and silver boom of the late 1800s tells of years when it snowed during all 12 months and other years that were virtually dry. One thing remains certain: there was a lot more snow back then. You have to wonder whether there will be more snowless winters in our future. For now, our tech interventions have somehow coped with the drought.

drought, american west, colorado river, map, lake powell, lake mead, collins spring, marsh pass, pope, colorado river delta, gulf of california white mesa, bluff, navajo lake, durango, mcphee reservoir, alta journal

Still, hope springs eternal. When summer thunderstorms very temporarily halted the death throes of Lake Mead—a reservoir formed by Hoover Dam—there were prolific email postings celebrating the end of the drought: “global climate change is a myth.” “there is really plenty of water in the colorado.” “nothing to worry about.” You wish it were really true, instead of demonstrably absolutely false. Coupled inextricably with the drought are the warming temperatures, which have allowed pine and fir beetles to spread in a virtual blitzkrieg of infestation. Beetles feed on conifers, and the rust colors of murdered trees are appearing everywhere; I can see them from my deck, on the mountainsides above Telluride. In Colorado’s national forests, 1 out of every 17 trees is already beetle-killed, and immense stands of lodgepole pines have been destroyed. The U.S. Forest Service seems to ignore the obvious: deforestation equals erosion, and erosion damages the watersheds that supply the Colorado River. A similar flood of beetles in California’s Sierra Nevada kills trees and helps trigger forest fires of cataclysmic size. Where does one begin? One doesn’t, until we learn to manufacture water, which is of course impossible.

We Rocky Mountain folks probably saw it coming. In 1977, George Sibley wrote a cover story for Harper’s describing how water from the Colorado River was overallocated; the 1920s planners had postulated that the river would flow at a healthy 17 million acre-feet annually, but this was probably wishful thinking. Sibley concluded that “either we had better head into a wet cycle damn soon, or we will be approaching the day when there is nothing left in Lakes Powell and Mead but a gurgle.”

I had my own dark premonition of the drought. I wrote in my first book, The Hidden West, published in 1978:

Say it is 1990 and the Rockies slide into a dry winter. The high peaks are still not covered with snow by January 1, 1991. Wet spring snows come in March and April, but the snowpack in the mountains is still only a third, or a quarter, of the average when the spring runoff begins. A couple of small ski areas go bankrupt that year, but in southern California no one notices the dry winter much. There is still three years’ worth of water stored up in the elaborate system of dams on the Colorado. Los Angeles and the surrounding farmlands still get their annual fix.
In the winter of 1991–92 the Rockies are again hit by drought, and this time the Sierras get it too. Despite the new dam on the Dolores River the bean fields up around Dove Creek are drying up and blowing away; here there just isn’t enough water. Down in the Checkerboard area of the Navajo Reservation, the range begins to die.…
Two years later they are talking about a great drought in the West—the kind that ran the Anasazis out of Tsegi Canyon, and Mesa Verde, and the other ghost cities of the Southwest, eight hundred odd years ago. There isn’t a lawn alive from Santa Monica to Omaha.

In her 1979 classic, The White Album, Joan Didion mused on the delicate history of a glass of water in Los Angeles: “The water I will draw tomorrow from my tap in Malibu is today crossing the Mojave Desert from the Colorado River.” She went on to describe the intricate system that channeled the distant Colorado River across the parched hinterlands to appear at her faucet like a rabbit out of a hat. Was there a fear at the back of her mind, a subliminal jab of panic: What if I turn my faucet one morning and all that comes out is dust?

The drought is part of a worldwide reaction to climate change. Catastrophic floods in Pakistan and China, wildfires in the dry brush and forests from Europe to Australia. Some scientists and mountaineers say Chomolungma, or Mount Everest, may be virtually snow- and iceless within a century. The entire Himalayan range is drying out, which is terrible news for countries fed by the Indus, the Ganges, and the Mekong. Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq are fighting over the allocation of the Tigris and the Euphrates; Egypt and Sudan have formed an alliance against Ethiopia over the Nile. We have entered an age of droughts and water wars, when the line between economic and combat refugees blurs to the meaningless. “May you live in interesting times,” goes the old saying, as true today as it was thousands of years ago.

drought, american west, sheep grazes, navajo nation, monument valley, arizona, alta journal
A sheep grazes in the Navajo Nation near Monument Valley, a landscape hard-hit by drought.
Gordon Wiltsie

As we drive away, our western drought becomes increasingly visible. Collins Spring is a miniature, a boat in a bottle, of southeastern Utah. “I love the desert,” says Liza Doran, who has operated Cow Canyon Trading Post in Bluff, Utah, since 1986. “But it’s been so hot and dry recently that fewer and fewer tourists want to come here. I went from drip watering to containers for my garden, and even that’s not enough. Even the leaves on the trees in town are sunburnt. Worst of all, the ancient cedars on the mesas are beginning to get sick and fade away.” Doran’s shop carries some of the best work of artists in the surrounding Navajo Nation. She also sources some of her pieces from as far afield as Two Grey Hills, the legendary weaving center, and gets some of her finest animal fetishes from friends at the Pueblo of Zuni. Now, cut off from the buying public by the drought, many of the artists she works with are finding that their careers are in jeopardy. It’s another piece of the mosaic of destruction; it may seem small, but close up, at a human level, it is existential. Even the little Navajo road stands along the highway, thrown together out of scrap lumber and brush, have taken a severe hit from the lack of tourists. Selling a few simple tribal bracelets or pieces of beadwork to passing motorists makes a big difference to a family living below the poverty line. Many Navajos have to haul water in barrels from distant wells to survive. The Navajo Nation, like the other Colorado River tribes, has almost limitless rights to the Colorado’s priceless water, but it has been studiously denied the means to profit from them. Hundreds of Navajo horses died of thirst in May 2018 on the nation’s desiccated rangelands, and sheepherding, the center of the Navajos’ way of life, has been hit hard. One Navajo friend of mine has cut back his flock to a single animal he stubbornly keeps, because, as he puts it, “Navajos are sheepherders; it is part of who we are.”

Many of the little Navajo souvenir stalls along the roads are now abandoned. The first to really suffer from an environmental catastrophe are impoverished people who were least involved in causing it. Today, the Native nations along the Colorado River system have finally united and are suing to claim their rightful share of the water. The question is, Will the United States honor the treaties it signed with them long ago, or will it listen to the cities and developers who have profited from their loss and simply tear up its IOUs? The country’s honor lies in the balance, and if past is prologue, no one wants to bet on the outcome.

drought, american west, lake mead, reservoir, hoover dam, colorado river, alta journal
Lake Mead, a reservoir formed by Hoover Dam on the Colorado River, holds only 27 percent of its normal volume.
Gordon Wiltsie

Wiltsie and I are constantly confronted by more stark reality of the drought as we cross northern Arizona. This country is mostly Navajo Nation, part of the extensive area of Native lands shortchanged by the diversion of Colorado River water. It was marginally wetter in the historic past: on his crusade to ethnically cleanse the Navajos, Kit Carson crossed the saddle west of Kayenta and called it Marsh Pass—he described wetlands and big flocks of migratory birds. Today, Marsh Pass is a misnomer; a better name would be Dust Bowl Summit.

The water and waterbirds are long gone. The land here is basically desert, sometimes livable, sometimes not. John Wesley Powell first mapped the gaunt heart of the Colorado Plateau in 1869, and he saw the country for exactly what it was: a difficult place that would reliably support only a limited population. His facts ran headlong into boosterism; a nation hooked on manifest destiny was prone to manifest imagination. A popular slogan of the day, “The rains follow the plow,” reflected the archaic belief that man’s muscular ingenuity could somehow make nature do his bidding. People who saw what they wanted to see conjured up signs that the Colorado Plateau wasn’t really primarily a desert, that it had hidden riches just waiting to be exploited. One contemporary of Powell’s actually claimed he saw a rich meadow of wild grain thriving in one of the Colorado’s canyon alcoves, but his eyes fooled him. There was nothing there but rock and dry brush, if that. Artists who traveled with Powell and company drew photographically accurate vistas of pure, unadulterated geology with nothing alive anywhere.

If Powell had had access to the anthropology and paleohydrology of today, he would have been even more of a naysayer. Long before we began tampering with the climate, the Colorado River country was dodgy. Archaeologists have recently discovered the 13,000-year-old campsites of mammoth hunters on the rimrock above Lime Canyon, near Bluff. The climate was totally different then, cooler, with up to 20 inches of rain a year, compared with today’s less than 10. Dense forests grew at less than 5,000 feet above sea level, where only scant desert foliage thrives today. The era of water, forests, and megafauna inevitably vanished, taking the mammoth hunters with it. People lived off smaller game like desert bighorn sheep, deer, and rabbits, as well as wild plants like ricegrass. Life got smaller, but it survived.

drought, american west, idle irrigation sprinklers, colorado river indian reservation, ehrenberg, arizona, alta journal
Irrigation sprinklers stand idle on the Colorado River Indian Reservation near Ehrenberg, Arizona.
Gordon Wiltsie

Eventually, agriculture filtered in from the Valley of Mexico, and the crops of corn, beans, and squash were enough to foster another period of comparative plenty, though people continued to rely on hunting and gathering for most of their diet. Civilizations like those of the Hohokam and the Ancestral Puebloans grew during a fortuitous spell of wetter weather. Understandably, the Ancestral Puebloans knew all about water. Their art, painted on their exquisite pottery or inscribed on rock, shows fish, marine birds, and tadpoles and frogs; one bowl from the Mimbres culture actually depicts a man fishing, with a piscatory godling in his head directing things. One of the few surviving murals on the walls of a kiva, a subterranean Ancestral Puebloan temple, shows wildlife vomiting what look to be streams of life-giving water. Prayers to the sky for rain were commonly etched on cliff faces and boulders, signifying the hoped-for bounty of tall corn and boundless herds of game animals. Desert people know water’s existential importance like no one else.

We modern desert dwellers know nothing of this, cushioned by the ephemeral comforts of a technology that is only making things worse in the long run. I am reminded of the character in the 1936 film Things to Come who cries out, “Stop this progress before it’s too late!” No one in the film listens, and no one in the American West seems to be listening now.

It wasn’t for want of trying that the Ancestral Puebloans and the Hohokam perished. The Hohokam built great systems of canals, and the Ancestral Puebloans put together networks of movable corrals to catch wild game. But the climate had the final word; when the rains eventually failed, the Hohokam canals ran with dust instead of water, and the Ancestral Puebloans dispersed, living high in the defensible cliffs and constructing the network of tall watchtowers that guarded Hovenweep and the great mini-Gibraltar storehouse on Utah’s Cedar Mesa that we call the Citadel. Located on a sheer-sided promontory that is accessible only by a single narrow path blocked by a defensive barrier, the storehouse itself is a long walled structure built around the sandstone knob at the apogee of the formation; there are no obvious doors, only windows designed for defense. It is a monument to scarcity, of water wars over diminishing fertile lands.

drought, american west, colorado river, ancestral puebloan petroglyphs, newspaper rock, bears ears national monument, utah, alta journal
Ancestral Puebloan petroglyphs decorate Newspaper Rock on the edge of Bears Ears National Monument.
Gordon Wiltsie

We turn off the highway to Tuba City and head northwest. Navajo Mountain dominates the skyline to the northeast; there are mountain lions in its high forests. Everywhere else is high desert and rookeries of slickrock. Beyond, invisible, are the San Juan River and its confluence with the Colorado, both sunk deep in their canyons. We pass Navajo hamlets and farmsteads, and then the town of White Mesa, and then we arrive at Page, where the buzzards of the drought come to roost. Here is the artificial heart of our attempts to control the Colorado River: Glen Canyon Dam, which backs the river up into a giant reservoir, Lake Powell. We should be prepared for it—Wiltsie and I both visited Lake Powell in its pre-drought heyday, and we both know what has happened to it since. I have driven through Page several times since then, but my eyes must have been closed.

We hire one of the most experienced boat guides in Page to take us around Lake Powell just above the dam. The high-water mark of the lake hovers high above us, an eerie blanched line along the ancient cliffs. The skipper points out islands rising everywhere and newly exposed peninsulas where desert plants are already growing. Our skipper loves the lake and the coves and grottos, which he can explore by boat; it reminds me of the rabid skiers back home in the Rockies, totally tuned to the world of snow. Visiting boaters in Page talk of moving their craft far north to Flaming Gorge in Wyoming. It holds the Colorado’s shrinking emergency waters, but as desiccation moves inexorably upstream, one wonders if this, too, is an ephemeral fantasy.

The Glen Canyon Dam seems like a soon-to-be-forgotten artifact. It is a monument to human technology, with its chain-link fences, official notices, traffic barriers, and no camping signs, all overshadowed by hydroelectric lines leading to distant metropolises. Yet Lake Powell is close to dead pool status, when its turbines can no longer generate power. Today’s imperious constructions are tomorrow’s archaeological sites.

The locals can plot the trend for themselves. Mike Friedman, who runs the recreation program for Canyon Point, Utah’s Amangiri hotel, told me months ago that the boat-dock anchors at the once-thriving marina at Rainbow Bridge, on the northern edge of Navajo Mountain, were suspended more than a hundred feet in the air. The marina, separated by miles of impassable mud from what remains of Lake Powell, has reportedly been hauled away to deeper water. We have seen the photographs on the internet, and we have read the facts and figures: Lake Powell is about 170 vertical feet below normal, and Lake Mead, on the other side of the Grand Canyon, is the same. Both sinking. Nothing could have prepared us for this.

We head west.

drought, american west, dead pine trees, lightning fire, jacob lake, arizona, alta journal
Dead pine trees after a drought-induced lightning fire near Jacob Lake, Arizona.
Gordon Wiltsie

What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas”—so goes the city’s slogan, with an implied prurient wink. This is supposed to be where Americans go to break the rules, to “have fun,” to kick over the traces, but despite the ridiculously gorgeous showgirls on the Strip, the ramshackle brothels in the surrounding desert, even the people on the Strip handing out leaflets advertising sex workers, call girls, courtesans, whatever, there’s not a sense of actual passion here. Or even lust. Brecht’s cynical line comes to mind: “Money makes sexiness.”

The heart of Las Vegas, its sole reason for existing, is gambling. What do I know about gambling? If it’s truly gambling, why does everyone lose? Las Vegas, which receives over 40 million tourists every year, thrives completely on the “house” winnings, which ought to tell you something.

And if you believe, as many do, that gambling is as addictive as hard drugs, Vegas evokes tragicomic visions of a metropolis built on addiction. Think of crack houses on every block, opium dens instead of offtrack-betting parlors, slot machines that pay off in fentanyl or OxyContin tablets, or maybe just puffs of amphetamine smoke.

We drive into the city from the east, and we are immediately inundated by appeals from attorneys. We pass through forests of signage, giant billboards rising to the sky, lit up all night. In this city without clocks, we see illuminated faces and names of “personal injury lawyers.” The sky is filled with enormous heads, with toll-free numbers and promises that all sound the same: all these lawyers are somehow Number One in making their clients rich. “get knocked down in a cross-walk and you’re set for life.” “you don’t pay until you win.” “millions!!!”

One Las Vegan tells me there was a time when all the billboards advertised doctors who reversed vasectomies.

We don’t know what to think. We pass a sign advertising a mecca for shooters, where you can pay to shoot a “real machinegun.” Wasn’t there a mass shooting here in Las Vegas, just a few years back? And then, in the bowels of the Strip, we see looming ahead of us a monolithic block of a hotel-casino with that name, “trump,” blazing on top: a tower of Mordor, Alamut, Cíbola, Gomorrah, take your choice. It sure isn’t the Shining City on a Hill.

I visited Las Vegas long ago and loved it. It was human then. You could walk everywhere—to all-night cafeterias where old Broadway Joes with pompadoured wigs, straw hats, and half-lit cigars were going over the horse-racing tip sheet. You could moon at the World’s Largest Rhinestone in the Liberace Museum, eat world-class massaman curry at 1 a.m. I even gambled once or twice: lost 10 dollars in a row on a suspicious one-buck slot machine and then put a quarter into a machine at a gas station and won $40. There was a magician on the Strip, maybe second-rate but that night a veritable magus, tossing clouds of doves from an empty hat, making a silver dollar vanish and reappear as a bouquet in a cloud of white smoke… He did everything except that impossible trick the magi whisper about: guessing a card you’ve never seen, in an envelope inside a locked desk in a locked room. It was all a kind of sorcery.

Wiltsie was also here long ago, but neither of us can recognize a thing. The old Vegas has literally vanished from the face of the earth. Now there’s something between an anthill and a giant machine, in which your geodesic compass is knocked awry and you don’t have any idea what direction you’re heading in. Cars are everywhere, and people walking to and from them. Plus Calcuttas of traffic, where you spend forever waiting for the light to change, then take “left lanes exit”—but you end up facing the opposite way at the same light you just waited at.

We flee, and somehow end up at the Worst Hotel in the World. If I could reduce my impressions of the city to one thing, it would be the chicken-fried steak I order for dinner. It comes in less than four minutes, barely lukewarm from the microwave, and it’s like—what? Methuselah’s sneakers? Wiltsie’s hamburger is inedible. Maybe it’s the atmosphere: a few feet from our booth, gamblers play away at the slots, a deafening din of beeps, whirs, ka-chings, and whangs…

The cowboy version of Las Vegas is long gone. The city glows in the dark from as far away as the space station. It’s a desert oasis, sprinkled with golf courses. The Bellagio musical fountain show erupts every 15 minutes in an 8.5-acre human-made lake in front of the resort. You visit Las Vegas to waste water, not just money.

The demand for cheap water is an addiction that begs for more always…across the whole Colorado River drainage. In Phoenix, far to the south, developers have exhausted the aquifers, fed by the river’s drought-stricken tributaries, like the Salt and the Gila.

drought, american west, colorado river, lake powell, bathtub ring, depleted water levels, alta journal
A “bathtub ring” shows how much water levels in Lake Powell have dropped since 1999.
Gordon Wiltsie

Charles Bowden wrote about the final crisis decades ago. Despite this, developers are envisioning a huge new suburb on the city’s outskirts, near Buckeye. And in the meantime, a Saudi corporation has been buying up vast tracts of land and water rights outside Phoenix; the company is growing alfalfa to ship home, to feed the Arabian Peninsula’s own cattle. Which brings up one of the drought’s seldom-discussed aspects: more than half of the Colorado River’s water goes to growing feed for beef cattle. The addiction for hamburgers that is triggering the destruction of Amazonia is competing headlong with the cheap-eats hunger of the U.S. masses.

Las Vegas gets 90 percent of its water from Lake Mead, which would have made sense long ago: Mead is 27 percent of normal and shrinking. Its mudflats spread just outside the city.

Lake Mead is presently about 170 feet below full capacity and is projected to fall another 30 feet by the summer of 2024. There were six marinas on the lake before the drought; now, only one is operating, and the rest are stranded far from the water. You can’t launch your boat on dry land; worse, you can’t drink dust in faraway Malibu.

Below Mead, there are a few smaller reservoirs, like Lake Havasu and Lake Mohave. Beyond there, the river simply dries up, ending more than 50 miles short of the Gulf of California. The Colorado River drainage basin and delta, once a rich swampland of over 200,000 square miles, has shrunk to 20,000, surrounded by a new barren desert of our own making. The Mexican farmlands around the delta are dried up, poisoned by the saline, polluted remnants of water we have allowed to dribble down to our southern neighbor.

When we divided up the Colorado River in the first half of the 20th century, we guaranteed Mexico 1.5 million acre-feet of usable water annually, but greed has a way of destroying law. The old story: water flows uphill toward money.

In Las Vegas, a city built on gambling, there is an old-timer’s story about the fate of a gambler—perhaps a metaphor for the city itself. In the receding reservoir of Lake Mead, occasionally someone finds a gunshot body interred in an oil drum.

drought, american west, colorado river, las vegas, urban sprawl, las vegas strip, nevada, alta journal
Urban sprawl—in need of water—stretches to the horizon beyond the Las Vegas Strip in Nevada.
Gordon Wiltsie

The locals like to say, “Sometimes someone comes here and runs up a big bill gambling that he can’t pay. The Mob is after him, and the guy gets so depressed, he beats himself up, shoots himself, and then climbs into a drum full of concrete and dumps himself in Lake Mead. It happens.”

I have to laugh—is the city a bad gambler, or a suicide?

That evening, we pause on the roadside, on the outskirts of Las Vegas. Tomorrow, we will be heading farther west. We want to see the last acts of the drought in California.•

NEXT: The road trip continues west. We traverse Death Valley, climb the summits of the Sierra Nevada—conceived as the Snowy Peaks by Spanish explorers—descend into the once-green Serengeti of the Central Valley, then aim for San Francisco, where what’s left of the rain goes back to the sea.

Rob Schultheis is the author of books about the American West (Fool’s Gold), wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (Hunting Bin Laden), and the cutting edge of extreme sports (Bone Games).