The Long Dry History of the West

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Bill Sniffin
Bill Sniffin

Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over. – Quote attributed to Mark Twain.

Dry as a bone.

That describes the status of much of the American West in recent years, although Wyoming has had a reprieve in recent years.

Worrying about drought has always been an everyday occurrence in Wyoming. Most of our state is known as “semi-arid,” a nice way to refer to a high plains desert country that gets sparse amounts of rain and suffers from low rates of humidity.

For example, here in Wyoming, one of the largest glacier systems in North America is shrinking rapidly.

The vast Wind River Mountain range, which I can see from my backyard, has seen its glaciers disappearing over the last 30 years at a precipitous rate.

The Winds are home to glaciers covering 17 square miles, including seven of the 10 largest glaciers in the Rocky Mountains, according to Greg Kerr of the University of Wyoming.

Two glaciers, Gannett and Dinwoody, have lost gigantic amounts of water due to shrinkage in the past decades. Gannett has lost 48,000 acre-feet of water and Dinwoody has lost 52,000 acre-feet since 1958. This amounts to 1.5 billion gallons and 1.6 billion gallons of water. A single acre-foot of water is a huge amount of water - meaning an acre (43,000 square feet) under one foot of water deep.

These are just two of the 63 glaciers in the Winds, Kerr said.

As I travel around the country, here is what we have seen recently:

• During a recent trip to Southern California, folks there were talking about it being the driest it has been for over 100 years. Water cops patrolled neighborhoods levying big fines for folks washing their cars or sprinkling their back yards

Gov. Jerry Brown is desperately trying everything to get people to conserve more and to locate more water. So far, no luck.

• Las Vegas is so dry the city has offered to pay people to get rid of their lawns and install desert-like landscapes.

During a recent trip to Hoover Dam, we were astonished to see how shallow Lake Mead had become. The “bathtub ring” along the shoreline revealed that the lake is about 50 percent of what it used to be.

The Colorado River and its string of reservoirs have been drawn down by 14 years of the worst drought in 1,200 years, according to reports.

Federal officials are warning Las Vegas that, this year, they intend to reduce the amount of water released from Lake Powell, upriver 180 miles, into Lake Mead and are encouraging even more stringent conservation measures by folks in that party city.

As an aside, we also spent time walking along and examining the gigantic new suspension bridge that replaces the highway over Hoover Dam. The new bridge is the highest such span in the country at over 1,000 feet below the Colorado River below.

View from the bridge of Hoover Dam is pretty amazing. Also pretty dry there.

• In Dallas, the local reservoirs are down to some of their lowest levels ever. Lake LaVon is down to a third of its capacity. It is the main source of water for the Dallas Municipal Water District.

Lake LaVon is now a huge field full of barren stalks. It reminded me a lot of how empty Boysen Reservoir looks this time of year.

Historically, Dallas yards are green all year round. No more. Brown as Wyoming yards.

• A sign that the federal government believes that states can no longer afford to fight wildfires is a proposal by President Barack Obama to have the feds pay for fires like they pay for floods and hurricanes.

He thinks this is all part of climate change and individual states should not have to foot the bill for something this is not a local caused issue.

This is good news for Wyoming, which had its share of wildfires in recent years.

• With snow recently falling on the Wyoming in frequent dumps and our reservoirs starting to fill up, Wyoming suddenly is starting to feel like maybe our long-term drought is old news.

Snowpack levels are above average all over the state although the readings at this time of year often mean little. Most of our moisture comes in March and April.

The Jackson Hole Ski Resort is reporting abundant amounts of snow this season. Sheridan got 16 inches of snow last week. Cheyenne and other places got buried, too.

Drought, what drought?

Check out Bill Sniffin’s columns at He is a longtime Wyoming journalist from Lander who has written four books. His most recent book is “Wyoming’s 7 Greatest Natural Wonders” which is available at

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