Water in a Dry World

From the desert to the forest and back again: a lifetime learning that the Southwest will always be a landscape with much to offer but little to spare.

Craig Axford

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Millcreek, Grand County, Utah prior to the flood of August 2022. See video below. Photo by author.

I have lived most of my life in a desert, though civilization invested a great deal of effort and money in keeping this fact from me. It was not until I moved to Moab, Utah after spending the better part of twelve years on Vancouver Island that I began to genuinely appreciate how much water shapes the land and the destinies of the people living on it.

Before moving to Canada, I lived beside 80% of Utah’s population within the urbanized strip known as the Wasatch Front. This approximately 120 mile stretch of sprawl extends from Ogden in the north to Provo in the south. Salt Lake City rests halfway between these two points.

Utah’s major cities and their suburbs are spread beneath the rim of the Great Basin along the western face of the Wasatch Mountains. Before humanity began diverting most of the water to serve its own needs and climate change began taking its toll on the snowpack, the streams and rivers that flow into the basin from the nearby summits and canyons between them sustained the now dying Great Salt Lake.

I spent my childhood from about the age of seven on in Provo’s foothills. The mountains were just minutes away on foot. Though Douglas fir and aspen did not grow naturally within the basin, they were visible on the north facing slopes of the mountains overhead. Taken together with the lush green lawns and abundant Norwegian maples planted throughout the neighborhood, it didn’t really occur to me growing up that I was living in a desert. The real desert was always the barren sage colored landscape beyond the waters of Utah lake on the other side of the valley.

Utah lake is the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River, covering 150 square miles. Its waters empty into the Great Salt Lake to the north via the Jordan River. And there it evaporates, leaving behind only salt and heavy metals.

The Great Salt Lake’s high salt content means freezing is never an option. A “dead sea”, which in the logic of industry and development has, at least until recently, been synonymous with uselessness. Among…

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Craig Axford

M.A. in Environment and Management and undergraduate degrees in Anthropology & Environmental Studies. Living in Moab, Utah. A generalist, not a specialist.