Just off Interstate 17, south of Sedona, there’s a good place to visit whenever we get a bit too full of ourselves.
Montezuma Castle never had anything to do with Montezuma, and it’s not a castle.
It’s an ancient cliff dwelling, remarkable in its own right for its architecture and sturdy construction, but useful beyond that for deeper meditations.
Work on the place began about 800 or 900 years ago, and it may have been occupied for centuries. Then, at some point and for reasons unknown, the people who lived there went away. Perhaps the name we moderns have given them explains why.
The name by which we call them is Sinagua, which is Spanish for "without water."
Whether it was drought or something else that prompted their vanishing, we may never know. But the home they left behind testifies that much of what to us seems permanent and immutable is, instead, fragile and transient.
That brings us to a story that came out late last week but didn’t get much play in Valley media. Research published in the journal Science suggests the American West may be only at the starting point of an epic drought.
In the short time we’ve been keeping records here, the nine-year dry spell on the Salt River watershed, which feeds much of the East Valley, is already becoming the "drought of record." And although the drought in the larger Colorado River watershed is now only five years long, it has sucked more than half the water out of the giant reservoirs we call Lake Mead and Lake Powell.
Relief may not be in sight.
Edward R. Cook of Columbia University was the lead author of the Science article, which presents evidence that in past times of global warming, the West endured "megadroughts" that lasted two or three decades at a time.
"The current drought does not stand out as an extreme event because it has not yet lasted nearly as long," Cook wrote. In a follow-up interview, he told the Los Angeles Times, "I think the impact of the current drought indicates how vulnerable a good part of the West can be. Tack on another five years and I think the scenario is grim."
Of course, no one is saying another five years, or longer, of dry Western weather is certain. In fact, the government’s winter forecast, out just last week, suggests much of Arizona will get more rain than normal the next few months.
But most of the West won’t, and we are inextricably part of that larger picture.
The Salt River Project and other Arizona water managers over the past century have done a terrific job of ensuring our supply in a hostile and uncertain environment. They’ve done such a good job that few of us would eagerly accept mandatory conservation now, while things still seem relatively good.
But wouldn’t wise leaders at least be steeling us for the possibility?