Resilience in the deserts of Utah

Millions of years are unfolding as we travel through the geologic strata of Southern Utah in July 2015. Uplift and erosion has exposed layers of red sandstone, shale, white sandstone and granite for all to be amazed by. Bones of dinosaurs and untold thousands of other extinct species peek out of these strata waiting to be discovered.

Humans have only impacted this landscape for a few thousand years.  Agriculture enabled the ancient peoples known as Anasazi to create towns and even build huge cities in the cliffs.  Yet they disappeared, abandoning their homes and villages.around 1300.  In the 1800s, Mormons settled with more modern tools and created green and verdant oases throughout the region.Anasazi_Ruins_Mesa_Verde_National_Park_Colorado_03

We’ve come here because the Resilience Project of Meadowcreek was asked to present our latest research results to a gathering of University agriculture specialists in Durango, Colorado on July 8.  The presentation was well-received by attendees from 13 Western States, Samoa and Guam.  One participant said, “You have the makings for twelve Ph.D. dissertations there.”

The landscapes we’ve seen since that talk show we have even more than that to learn about resilience.  The Anasazi had a society which sustained itself in a very dry climate for hundreds of years.  During that time they not only established agricultural systems which enabled their numbers to expand, but perfected building techniques which enabled them to create amazing cliff dwellings throughout the region.  We saw one of the largest, the Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde on the first day after the conference.  We learned that the society abruptly disappeared from this region, never to return.  Why is a mystery to this day, we were told by the rangers guiding us through the ruins.  Our studies of resilience make the Anasazi less a mystery.

Contemplating the ruins of this lost civilization reminds us of ruins of other lost civilizations around the world.  If you have never explored how many civilizations have destroyed themselves by destroying the very ecosystem which supports them, you should start with the short pamphlet by W. C. Lowdermilk.  He showed how hundreds of civilizations have followed this path.  They cut down trees and didn’t replant.  They overgrazed pasture land and exposed soils to erosion.  They tilled the land and let wind and rain carry the soil away.  They were powerful societies but they weren’t resilient.  They didn’t last.  All because they didn’t respect the natural processes which enabled them to become so powerful.  They focused so much on sustaining production for their growing populations that they forgot to attend to the resilience which underlies sustainability.

As we are exploring the Anasazi ruins throughout the region, we begin to notice something peculiar.  Every so often, we are driving through mile after mile of dry and parched desert until we finally top a ridge and see a green and prosperous valley.  This happens time and again and we always find that it was Mormon settlers who established these verdant outposts.  In the lands abandoned by Anasazi 500 years earlier, the Mormons have learned how to conserve the limited rainfall of the region and use it carefully to create agricultural systems which are so astounding as to be unbelievable. Next to their fertile, prolific plots with deep soils covered with lush growth, are desert landscapes where a few scrubby, thorny plants try to survive in rocky, sandy soil.

We look at all the check dams established by the Anasazi and know they also knew how to capture and conserve water and use it to create a highly productive agricultural system. In many ways, the landscape must have looked much like it does today.  Productive green patches carefully tended in the desert.  Will the Mormon farmers fare better than the Anasazi?

This area is the Colorado River watershed.  All the valleys here channel water into the Colorado River.  Before the Mormons arrived in the 1800s, the Colorado River flowed into  the Pacific Ocean between Baja California and Sonora.

However, the farmers making the desert green in Utah and other users withdraw so much water from the watershed that the Colorado River has not consistently reached the sea since the 1960s.

Utah farmers seem to have created a productive, sustainable system.  Yet they have contributed to the destruction of a vibrant ecosystem where the mouth of the Colorado used to be. Is this a resilient system?  That’s what we’re here to explore.  We’ve seen such destruction in many other parts of the world, most spectacularly in the virtual obliteration of a sea larger than any of our American Great Lakes, the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. To produce cotton the rivers feeding the Aral Sea were depleted just as the Colorado River has been dried up.

Are the green oases in Utah as destructive as the cotton fields of Asia?  What a place to explore resilience is this part of Utah!