New RMPBS Documentary Explores Fate of Ancient Puebloans, Mesa Verde

Mesa Verde cliff dwellings. Drought may have been one reason the ancient civilization was abandoned.

Mesa Verde cliff dwellings. Drought may have been one reason the ancient civilization was abandoned.

Historians and archaeologists hypothesize that devastating drought in what is now Southwest Colorado may have contributed to the end of the Ancient Puebloan civilization at Mesa Verde and Crow Canyon.

After settling in the cliff walls for more than 700 years, they suddenly abandoned their dwellings, leaving behind a variety of archelogical treasures. A new documentary, Living West: Water, explores the enduring question of why they relinquished their intricate and highly-evolved communities. The premiere was Oct. 30 on Colorado Experience on Rocky Mountain PBS.


Certainly, drought is cyclical in the American Southwest, the nation’s hottest and driest region. With ever larger cities and climate warming, many scientists believe that the stress on water supplies will become even more prevalent. The most recent National Climate Assessment made just such a point.

That forecast  was underscored recently when the federal Bureau of Reclamation announced that Denver Water will join with Central Arizona Project, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and Southern Nevada Water Authority and Reclamation to put forward some $11 million to fund new water conservation proposals along the Colorado River basin.

Ongoing drought has squeezed the Colorado since 2000, shrinking water levels in major reservoirs. In July, Lake Mead near Las Vegas dipped to the lowest level since iconic Hoover Dam began filling in the 1930s.

As of Oct. 22, Mead’s surface elevation was at 1,082 feet, seven feet above the 1,075 feet benchmark at which the U.S. secretary of interior could declare a shortage on the river. Mead has dropped more than 125 feet since 2000, when it was 91 percent full at 1,210 feet.

Annual flows on the Colorado that averaged 15 million acre-feet during the years prior to 2000 averaged about 12 million between 2000 and 2010, a decline of 20 percent, analyses have shown.

The conservation initiatives are being first requested from the lower basin states of Arizona, Nevada and California. All water conserved under this program will stay in the river system, according to the bureau, helping to boost the declining reservoir levels and protecting the health of the entire river system.

In the Southwest, drought is one point at which history and the present intersect.

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