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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

In Southern Utah, there is a patch of desert heated by infrared lamps. The lamps hang just above the plants and soil crusts commonly found in this desert surrounding Moab.

These lamps help scientists study how temperature increases impact plants and soils living in this already hot desert. On any given day, science technicians can be seen reaching underneath the lamps to measure the size of each grass blade and the number of seeds on each shrub. The information gleaned helps land managers know what to expect from ecosystems as temperatures increase, allowing them to manage for both ecosystem integrity and multiple land uses as climate changes.

During this partial government shutdown, however, the plants are going unmeasured, cutting off the continuous observations necessary for careful science and creating a gap in this long-term data set.

When the government partially shut down on Dec. 21, sending home employees from the U.S. Geological Survey, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Forest Service, the important science being done across the country ground to a halt—with consequences extending beyond the loss of plant measurements or the paychecks upon which these employees rely.

In parts of the West, where the economy is tied directly to the integrity of federal lands, using science to understand how these landscapes work and respond to change is essential to the economic well-being of the region. Economic drivers occurring on federal lands such as recreation, resource extraction, grazing and wildlife resources rely on science to inform evidence-based management. While research universities generate some of this science, the shear extent of public lands in the West requires the region to rely on government scientists to provide additional research about how to manage these lands.

The partial shutdown has forced federally conducted science and the science occurring on federal lands into disarray. It has delayed or canceled conferences that are necessary for research and for sharing and learning new information. Applications for research permits on federal lands and the hiring of seasonal or contractual employees has been halted. Scientists who need research funding can’t get it. My own research exploring how nutrients move through desert soils has been impacted. Ongoing work to publish research has been delayed without access to my government collaborators, and decisions about federal fellowships I’ve applied for and am relying on to complete my dissertation research with the University of Texas at El Paso have been put on hold.

In the West, the immediate impacts extend beyond the science and scientists themselves to the volunteers, educators and visitors who are no longer able to engage with the science and science resources the region has to offer. The loss of paychecks and visitors measurably impacts our economy. The unquantified impacts do the same, damaging the science being generated with taxpayer dollars and diminishing our ability to use science to the advantage of our landscapes and economies.

While the short-term consequences of disruption to federal and federally supported science are substantial, the long-term consequences can be severe. Entire seasons of data collection may need to be canceled due to the backlog of hiring and funding that is likely to occur. Important cultural and scientific resources on public lands face the risk of vandalization or loss without federal employees and volunteers monitoring them. Over the long haul, disruptions in funding for scientists who rely on consistent access to research sites, laboratories, seasonal personnel and volunteers can easily drive top scientists away from working for federal agencies. The likelihood of losing top federal scientists to university or private-sector jobs only grows as the record-breaking shutdown goes on. Without the best minds working to understand our federal lands and pressing problems, our ability to manage and adapt suffers—and so do we.

Out in the desert, the plants and soils are continuing to respond to the heat-lamp induced warming with no one to track their responses. Meanwhile, the average air temperatures for the region continue to climb. As land use and climate change accelerate in the West, we all lose when avoidable shutdowns degrade our ability to understand, manage and adapt to the changing world around us.

In the West, continuity in science matters. Let’s communicate to our elected officials that Westerners value consistent science funding for the betterment of the lands and economies we rely on.

Kristina Young is a scientist living in Southeast Utah. She is a former Wyss Scholar for the Conservation of the American West and the host and producer of the regional science show Science Moab on KZMU. This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Community Voices

Wallace Stegner (1987): “The West is defined, that is, by inadequate rainfall. … We can’t create water or increase the supply. We can only hold back and redistribute what there is.”

In the 19th century, as settlers moved West, the gold seekers got most of the attention and publicity. But more of settlers traveled West for a less exciting reason—to farm.

In many cases, it never occurred to them that the land might not be suitable for the purpose. Some reports reached the East about desert lands, but they circulated mostly in educated circles. More common was talk of the fertility of Oregon, California and other places. Besides, farming increased rainfall.

As white settlement moved West, the federal government sent four survey parties to case the joint. Led by Clarence King (1867-78), George Wheeler (1872-79), Ferdinand Hayden (1867-78) and John Wesley Powell (1869-1879), they took scientific approaches to their work.

The experience of Powell in trying to give the public reliable information on the West and water, and Congress’ effort to discredit science, provided an early model that politicians follow to this day.

John Wesley Powell was not the usual dashing explorer type. Relatively short, he lost a forearm in the Civil War. After the war, he was a natural sciences professor and later became curator of the Illinois Natural History Society Museum. But to a populace that did not usually see their heroes, he was dashing enough.

He and the nine men he led launched in four boats onto the Green River in Wyoming on May 24, 1869, joining the Colorado River downstream. In Utah, they lost provisions, some instruments and one of the boats. On Aug. 5, they entered the Grand Canyon. Rapids nearly ended the expedition, and the party became divided and demoralized. It split up, with three departing to die on the trail. The rest continued with Powell, and they reached what is now the site of Lake Mead, where he called the journey a halt.

Two years later, Powell led an 11-person crew on another exploration, this one lasting 17 months. He began writing about the expeditions and became first director of the Smithsonian’s Bureau of Ethnology, and was then U.S. Geological Survey director from 1881 to 1894. He was in a position to influence public policy on much of what he and the other scientists in his parties had learned in the West.

Report of the Exploration of the Columbia River of the West and Its Tributaries was published in 1875. It was not what the members of Congress, who had funded the surveys, were expecting. Nor was Powell’s subsequent report, Lands of the Arid Region of the United States (1878), which contained an objectionable adjective right in its title.

Senators from Western states already admitted to the union—California, Nevada, Colorado, Oregon—were disbelieving. How could they attract new settlers and businesses to their states if they were described as arid—much less as deserts? Territories—the Dakotas, Montana, Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah—had similar concerns.

The arid region, according to Powell’s reports, begins about midway in the Great Plains and extends across the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. Powell pulled in most of the area where rainfall was less than 20 inches. He wasn’t wrong—but his reality did not fit the image of the West that had been created in the East.

Powell wanted planning that avoided the disruption of communities and made the best use of water for the largest number of settlers—not for the large ranches and farm operators.

New arrivals who were allowed to choose from any public lands would likely settle along rivers—that is, in flood plains—or on land with low productivity at high elevations that would gobble three or four times more water than more fertile land in the valleys. The rampant fraud that accompanied the Homestead Act—doghouses built on homesteads by phantom settlers to satisfy the residence requirement in order to obtain the water allotment for larger operations—was another of Powell’s targets. He proposed that settlers choose their lands from those designated irrigable, not from any public lands. In one stroke, large monopolies would have been dealt a blow, and the success rates of families would have risen dramatically.

But small farming families do not fund U.S. House campaigns or provide the money for bribery in an era when U.S. senators were appointed by state legislators.

Nevada’s U.S. Sen. William Stewart had initially supported Powell, co-sponsoring a study of whether Powell’s agency should inventory what public lands were and were not irrigable. The two men traveled in the Middle Border territories together—and the trip did not irrigate the relationship. They addressed the North Dakota constitutional convention and other groups, and became better acquainted with one another’s views.

Thereafter, Stewart emerged as a fierce critic. Stewart, a mining lawyer with dubious ethics who believed the West was there to be plundered—preferably by his big-business cronies—supported irrigation, but not necessarily rules and niceties.

Powell, with 20 years of experience in the West to draw on, filed reports filled with terms like arid and desert, terms that grated on the sensibilities of congressmembers:

“In very low altitudes and latitudes the grasses are so scant as to be of no value; here the true deserts are found. These conditions obtain in southern California, southern Nevada, southern Arizona and southern New Mexico, where broad reaches of land are naked of vegetation, but in ascending to the higher lands the grass steadily improves. … In addition to the desert lands mentioned, other large deductions must be made from the area of the pasturage lands. … If the filling of the streams and the rise of the lake were due to a transient extreme of climate, that extreme would be followed by a return to a mean condition, or perhaps by an oscillation in the opposite direction, and a large share of the fields now productive would be stricken by drought and returned to the desert. … Near to the mountains the grass lands are fair but they have been overpastured and greatly injured. Out among the Basin Ranges little grass land of value is found. … Their streams are spent before the summer comes; and only a few springs are perennial. The result is a general desert, dotted by a few oases.”

Powell recommended that Congress withdraw all public lands “of the arid region from ’sale, entry, settlement, or occupation,’ except those selected as irrigable lands, and to allow titles to irrigable lands to be acquired only through the operation of the homestead laws and the desert-land laws.”


U.S. Sen. Gideon Moody/1890: “Of course, I have got a great respect for scientifically educated gentlemen, and I am always very much interested in their researches and all that, but …”

When congressional hearings were held on the Powell reports, they were rough for him. Wallace Stegner later wrote, “They wanted to know who had defined the ’arid region,’ and implied that it was a fiction of Powell’s own, designed to get him extra powers.”

U.S. Sen. Gideon Moody of South Dakota, a lawyer from Deadwood, asked about wells as a source of irrigation. Wheeler candidly said all the artesian wells in South Dakota could irrigate only a single county. Away went Moody’s support for science—and for Powell.

Some of the 19th century legislators decided there must be alternatives to Powell who would tell them what they wanted to hear—just as 20th-century tobacco industry and 21st-century Republicans, when confronted with unfavorable science, went shopping for different scientists. There were takers—not many, because Powell’s science was sound. But cherry-picking is the name of this game, and enough rent-a-scientists and rivals of Powell could be found.

Thus came rain-follows-the-plow. According to a pseudo-science of the time, if land was plowed and cultivated, rainfall would increase. We are not making this up. The term was coined by Charles Dana Wilber, who wrote:

“Suppose (a section of farmers) 50 miles, in width, from Manitoba to Texas, could acting in concert, turn over the prairie sod, and after deep plowing and receiving the rain and moisture, present a new surface of green growing crops instead of dry, hard baked earth covered with sparse buffalo grass. No one can question or doubt the inevitable effect of this cooling condensing surface upon the moisture in the atmosphere as it moves over by the Western winds. A reduction of temperature must at once occur, accompanied by the usual phenomena of showers. … To be more concise, Rain follows the plow.”

In addition, Powell had his rivals, and congressmembers gave them forums to smear Powell and/or just to spread a less reliable version of science. Paleontologist/ichthyologist Edward Cope planted nasty stories about Powell in a New York newspaper.

After Powell’s death years later, his geographer colleague, William M. Davis, would write, “Powell’s large share in promoting a correct knowledge of the arid parts of the United States and their possible utilization will not be realized by readers today unless they recall the time when so much was said about taking the words ’Great American Desert’ off the map.”

But Stewart and company did not represent all congressional sentiment and in 1888, Congress closed public lands to settlement until Powell’s agency could classify the lands of the West as irrigable or otherwise.

But the West was a big place, and lawmakers like Stewart wanted the classification of lands done yesterday. Powell estimated it would take six to seven years to complete. There were speculators, rainmakers and others of more serious intent who were not willing to wait. As the years passed, pressure built on members of Congress to throw open the public domain. When they were pressured, they needed someone to blame. Powell was handy.

Just as current lawmakers attack Barack Obama for using the power Congress gave him to create national monuments, legislators were soon blaming Powell for the moratorium on settling public lands they had enacted. They found other grounds on which to make a case against him, too. He believed in small farms, because it appeared that no more than 20 percent of the public lands were irrigable, and he considered it criminal to let people settle on plots “where they cannot maintain themselves.” Nor was Powell as susceptible to influence as congressmembers. “It is to be borne in mind that this survey is not primarily designed for the benefit of private person,” he wrote. Of couse, he considered rain-follows-the-plow nonsense.

But members of Congress were losing their patience, and they finally repealed the closure of public lands before Powell’s work was complete. The public domain was thrown open to however anyone wanted to use it.

As “private persons” tried to make irrigation work in the West, the West became littered with failed irrigation projects. One was headed by Francis Newlands, a Californian whose political career had stagnated here. He turned to Nevada for better luck after marrying money. He lost about a half million of it on his Truckee Irrigation Project, deciding thereafter that the public’s money was needed for desert reclamation—“reclaiming” the desert for agriculture. In 1902, as a U.S. House member from Nevada, he won passage of the Reclamation Act. The Act provided for the kind of farms that might succeed in the wet and fertile East—160 acres (320 for a married couple).


Leah J. Wilds, Danny A. Gonzales and Glen S. Krutz/1994: “And finally, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation water is among the most inexpensive (at least for irrigated agriculture), highly subsidized, and inefficiently used water in the American West.”

Some projects, such as construction of the Hoover Dam, require government aid, because so much capital is needed that private companies cannot accomplish it. But it should have occurred to someone that the reason commercial irrigation projects failed was not that they were underfinanced, but that most of them simply didn’t work or make profits—meaning that a government program would face the same problem. It might also have prompted officials to start with model projects and see what worked and what didn’t. Instead, within days of the enactment of the Act, five projects were announced in five states—followed by dozens more. Within a decade, the program was bankrupt.

The money troubles didn’t slow reclamation down. Congress pumped a loan from the treasury into the act, keeping it alive. In 20 years, the loan was unpaid, and most projects were losing money.

As the reclamation projects failed, they drifted along on federal loans, interest exemptions, subsidies and extended payment periods. Eventually, the federal government started building often unnecessary hydroelectric dams to generate revenue to pay for the money-losing reclamation projects. As the projects piled up, the pool of red ink became wider and deeper, which is more than could be said of the water that fed them. Western farmers were being subsidized to grow crops that Eastern farmers were being paid not to grow. In fact, if the West had more rivers, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers might have bankrupted the United States of America.

As competition for dam-building grew between the two federal dam building agencies, dam building took on a life of its own. (It’s not clear why two agencies were allowed to perform the work.) Hundreds of dams went up, and slowly, likely sites for dams dwindled. Possible uses for dams—water supply, irrigation, flood control, hydroelectricity—became satisfied.

Yet the dam-building went on—not for any particular reason, except dam-building itself. It became a bureaucratic perpetual-motion machine. Internal federal paperwork later disclosed showed the worthlessness and lack of necessity of dams built.

Worse, dams became part of doing business in Congress—“a kind of currency,” water historian Marc Reisner wrote in 1986. Congress had literally become unable to function without water projects to trade.

Many of these dam projects, because of the massive surfaces of the reservoirs, wasted through evaporation the water they were supposed to conserve.

“Excessive reservoir storage increases consumptive losses in the form of evaporation and seepage,” author John Weisheit wrote. “Over-developing the watershed with numerous diversions and reservoirs also decreases the quality of the water by loading the river water with salt and heavy metals.”

We hear about the evaporation that results from lawn-watering, but not the evaporation that results from huge storage reservoirs built to keep a failing program alive. In 1962, the Interior Department analyzed and approved four huge water projects—Glen Canyon, Flaming Gorge, Curecanti and Navajo—by intentionally excluding from its calculations the terrific wastage of water in evaporation from the surface of their reservoirs.

To keep getting more welfare for their constituents, the successors of the lawmakers who denied that the West was arid asked for the sympathy of their colleagues—on the grounds that the Western farmers were developing land that was arid.


Former U.S. commissioner of reclamation Dan Beard/2015: “I mean it costs us $100 to deliver an acre foot of water, and we charge the farmers $2.”

In 1977, President Jimmy Carter tried to get the program under control by cutting off money for 19 water projects. Congress erupted in an uproar, with Carter’s fellow Democrats leading the charge, though Republicans were still heard from. Enough Democrats stood by Carter to make a veto fight of it—and then Carter caved in.

However weak his leadership was, it was Carter who was on the side of history. Once he pulled the curtain back, dam-building never had its same sacrosanct standing again, and the environmental movement’s growing influence, together with wildly rising construction costs, eventually put an end to the era of dam building. There would still be occasional dams built, but the frenzied annual monsoon of water projects that Congress once disgorged was facing a sharp decline—and some already existing dams would start coming down.

But the anti-scientific techniques that have kept water wastage in the West alive for more than a century have now been turned to use in promoting the continuing deterioration of climate.

A 2013 study from University of Nevada, Reno hydrologist Thomas Myers, published in the Journal of the American Water Resources Association indicates that just one artificial federal lake loses up to 380,000 acre-feet of water each year.

Its name? Lake Powell.

This piece was originally published in the Reno News & Review.

Published in Features

Aspen trees are the rock stars of the tree world. They have a bold fashion sense, gilding the mountains in gold each fall. And they engage in risky behavior: In the competitive world of plant biology, their strategy is to grow fast and die young. Juniper trees, which grow slowly, invest much of their carbon in building strong vascular tissue; aspen trees instead put carbon toward growing tall quickly.

Yet the two trees adopt the same strategy when drought hits: Unlike pines, they leave their stomata open. Those tiny pores on their leaves allow the trees to take up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and photosynthesize. But the atmosphere demands water in return, which escapes through the tree's stomata. During drought, the process creates extra tension in the plant's tissue, since the trees have less water to give, and the parched atmosphere is especially thirsty.

This is when the juniper's investments in building tough tissue pays off: The tubes that transport water through the tree can withstand an increase in tension. The Aspen tree, on the other hand, becomes vulnerable. Their tubes are more likely to collapse, which can eventually lead to the tree's death.

A few years ago, Bill Anderegg, a forest who is now an assistant professor at the University of Utah, figured out that this was what was killing aspen trees in his native Colorado. (Around 2004, aspen trees throughout the Rocky Mountains began mysteriously dying in droves, a phenomenon that was dubbed "sudden aspen decline.") But he noticed something else curious about their pattern of death: There seemed to be a lag between the drought and its consequences. Tree growth would slow for a few years, but they often wouldn't start to die until three to eight years after the drought.

"There was an interesting paradox of trees being stressed and dying from drought in completely wet soils," Anderegg says. "Which prompted me to ask the question: How widespread are these legacy effects?"

It turned out they were quite widespread, according to the results of a study Anderegg recently authored in the journal Science. Using data from a global tree ring archive, Anderegg measured tree growth following severe drought at 1,338 sites, primarily in the Northern Hemisphere and outside the tropics. Growth is a good proxy for forest health, Anderegg explains, and it's also the primary way trees store carbon. That's important, because globally, forests take up about a quarter of anthropogenic carbon emissions. Their continued ability to sequester carbon at that level is critical to blunting the most severe effects of climate change.

With a few exceptions, tree growth slowed for two to four years after severe drought, with the most enduring effects appearing in arid environments—another indication of the troubles Southwestern forests are likely to face as the climate warms.

"It does seem like species that took more risks during drought seemed to recover more slowly," he says, like aspen, which don't close their stomata and conserve water. "Which does indicate that there's some role of this damage to their hydraulic systems that could slow their growth in subsequent years."

Scientific models of the global carbon cycle—which are important for projecting climate change—don't account for this slow-down in growth. "The models assume there is no lag, so as soon as climate is better, so is growth," says Nate McDowell, who researches the physiology of tree death at Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico. That means that models may overestimate the ability of ecosystems to store carbon—and underestimate the severity of future climate change.

If droughts do become more frequent and severe, Anderegg says, as climate models predict, "this suggests that more forests are going to spend more and more of their time recovering, and become less good at taking up carbon." Anderegg estimates that in Southwestern forests, the lag could amount to a 3 percent reduction in their carbon storage over a century. That may not sound like much, but when it comes to squirreling away the emissions we stubbornly keep spewing, we need all the help we can get.

Plus, the meaningfulness of such numbers is a matter of scale, notes Adrian Das, a forest ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in the Southern Sierra Nevada. While we don't know what the precise effect of that reduced carbon storage might be, locally or globally, "these changes can translate into really large absolute numbers," he says. "Three percent is not very much if it’s five trees. It means something different if it’s thousands of trees."

Cally Carswell is a contributing editor to High Country News, where this story originally appeared.

Published in Environment