Las Posas Road, Camarillo, CA - An Ongoing Rail Crossing Deathtrap
On February 23, 2015, a Metrolink passenger train struck a Ford F-450 work truck and trailer at the intersection of Fifth St. and Rice Ave. near Oxnard, California. Scores of passengers were injured and one week later, Senior Engineer Glenn Steele succumbed to his injuries. Dismayed by the number of recent rail collisions at that site, I researched and wrote about that grade crossing and its many safety deficiencies. Later, I created a website that featured both problems and solutions for that troubled location at www.5thandrice.com.
U.S. Representative Julia Brownley (D-Agoura Hills) has taken a special interest in the 5th & Rice Grade crossing. Recently, through her staff, she contacted Mr. Marc Gerstel, a person injured in the February 2015 collision. Brownley’s office told Gerstel that the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) would soon visit the site and conduct a safety evaluation at the Fifth and Rice grade crossing. If so, that would be the first substantive action taken by any public agency or corporation involved with the operation and safety of that deadly grade crossing.
The Fifth and Rice grade crossing in Oxnard is both the busiest and the most hazardous commercial rail crossing in Ventura County. In the past decade, it has produced more rail related deaths and injuries than any other crossing in the county. Even so, two grade crossings in nearby Camarillo now vie for the title of “deadliest rail crossing in Ventura County”.
At 5:50 AM on August 24, 2012, between Pleasant Valley Road and Las Posas Road, a Metrolink passenger train bound for Los Angeles struck a semi-truck and trailer that had slowed to make a turn into a nearby farm field. In that collision, both the truck driver and his passenger sustained non-fatal injuries.
On December 30, 2013 at 10:49 AM, as an Amtrak train was passing by, a car entered the grade crossing at Fifth Street and Las Posas Road. The resulting collision sent the car into the side of a railroad service truck, which was standing nearby. The driver of the first vehicle died at the scene and the railroad service worker received injuries resulting from the accident.
On January 24, 2014 at 10:30 AM, crews responded to a train collision at Fifth Street and Las Posas Road in Camarillo. At that grade crossing, a seventy-seven year old woman drove her minivan into the side of a passing Amtrak train. The driver, identified as Misty Jill Wood succumbed to her injuries at the scene. A Union Pacific Railroad worker in a nearby truck received moderate injuries. There were no injuries among the passengers on the northbound Amtrak Pacific Surfliner train.
On the evening of March 1, 2015, less than two weeks after the Oxnard Metrolink collision, a passenger vehicle stopped on the tracks at Fifth Street and Pleasant Valley Road in Camarillo. Moments after the two occupants of the passenger car exited the vehicle; an Amtrak passenger train heading for Los Angeles struck and sent the mangled vehicle into a nearby ditch. No injuries resulted from the collision.
At 8:25 AM on April 23, 2015, less than two months after the Oxnard Metrolink collision, a Union Pacific freight train collided with a white Ford Explorer at the intersection of Fifth Street and Las Posas Road in Camarillo. Driver Timothy Newhouse, a fifty-seven year old man from Rialto, California drove through the crossing gate arm and into the side of the freight train. According to officers called to the scene, the vehicle rolled three or four times before coming to a rest in a nearby ditch. The driver succumbed to his injuries at the scene. There were no other injuries.
At 2:05 PM on September 21, 2015, a pedestrian stepped on to the tracks near Fifth Street and Pleasant Valley Road in Camarillo. Moments later, a moving Amtrak train struck and killed that pedestrian. The incident appeared to be a suicide, but detectives responded to investigate. There was little else reported about that deadly incident.
At 10:30 AM on November 21, 2015, the latest in a string of deadly train collisions occurred at the Fifth Street and Las Posas Road grade crossing in Camarillo. According to the California Highway Patrol, at the time of the collision, the crossing gate arm was down and the safety lights were flashing. For unknown reasons, Mr. Brian Kuczynski, twenty-three, of Camarillo drove his car through the crossing gate and into the side of a moving Amtrak train. After Kuczynski's car hit the crossing arm and moving train, it travelled 171 feet and into a nearby ditch. Flown by helicopter to Los Robles Hospital & Medical Center in Thousand Oaks with major injuries Kuczynski later died. There were no other injuries.
The infamous Fifth Street and Rice Avenue grade crossing in Oxnard still holds the record in Ventura County. In that regard, it is the worst of the worst throughout the Oxnard Plain. Still, in little more than the past three years, seven train collisions at either Pleasant Valley Road or Las Posas Road grade crossings resulted in five deaths and four injuries. If this pace continues, we can expect an average of two additional fatalities at the Las Posas and Pleasant Valley rail crossings each year.
Assuming that only the pedestrian fatality at Pleasant Valley Road was a suicide, why have so many motorists collided with moving trains at those two crossings? It is easy enough to pass off these collisions to inattentive or distracted drivers. With mobile telephones, voice activated apps, GPS navigation systems and sound-deadening insulation in our vehicles; it is easy to become self-absorbed and inattentive to unexpected safety threats. When driving across the Oxnard Plain, verdant strawberry and vegetable fields, light traffic and hazy morning sunshine can lull a motorist into a false sense of security.
The Federal Railroad Administration (FAR) sets the minimum standards for railroad grade crossings. The minimum requirements include a “crossbuck”, which is a large “X” shaped sign that reads “Railroad – Crossing”, at least two flashing red lights adjacent to the crossbuck and appropriate painted safety lines in the roadway. This configuration applies to both directions of travel. At the Fifth and Rice crossing, there is an additional red warning signal. It resides on a horizontal strut that extends from the crossbuck mast over one lane of southbound Rice Ave. traffic. Additionally, automatic gates descend to block the roadway whenever a train approaches. As such, all three of the grade crossings in question meet only the 1986 minimum federal standards for “active traffic control devices” at multi-lane grade crossings.
Although revised in 2007, the bulk of the Federal Highway Administration’s “Railroad-Highway Grade Crossing Handbook” derives from the 1986 version of that document. In essence, “active traffic control devices” have changed little in the past thirty years. In the 1986 update, the Federal Highway Administration responded to rapid urbanization and concomitant increases in both vehicular and train traffic across the country. Until that time, passive warning systems were the norm.
Beginning with the 1986 standards, there was an attempt to update warning light systems beyond the legacy systems still utilized in many rural and urban locations. Looking back at the history of warning lights, the first active warning system consisted of a railroad worker swinging a red lantern back and forth to warn motorists of an approaching train. Later railroad safety engineers introduced the “wig wag”, which featured a pendulum arm that contained a red warning light. As a train approached, the lighted wig wag signal swung back and forth. In doing so, the wig wag mimicked a railroad worker's lantern swinging at arm's length.
Watch as old Southern Pacific Locomotive No. 3100
departs the station at Orange Empire Railroad Museum.
The major improvement in 1986 was to require two red warning lights that flashed in sequence. The timing of the flashes mimicked both a wig wag and the railroad lantern of old. Despite the advent of light emitting diodes (LEDs), most flashing light signals still utilize low wattage bulbs, varying from 16 to 36 watts. Even with reflectors behind the low wattage bulbs, a light within the dark red glass of the “roundel” can be difficult to see during daylight hours. Over eight percent of men experience color blindness in the red spectrum. That means that almost one man in twelve might see a flashing signal light, but not detect it as a red warning light.
The automated safety gates found at “active traffic control grade crossings” create another area of concern. Designed to activate not more than three seconds after the safety warning lights begin to flash, the motorized gates take time to arrive at their “down position”. So long as the gates are down prior to the arrival of a moving train, they meet legal requirements. Regardless of a gate length of up to thirty-eight feet, only three red lights are required to meet federal standards. The red light at the tip of the gate arm burns steadily, while the other two flash alternately.
If we were to recreate a mid-morning scene of a typical Las Posas Road train collision, here is what the errant driver might see. Approaching the tracks from the north, the morning sun would be coming in the driver’s side window, possibly dazzling his or her eyes. As the train approaches at full speed, it might appear as a dot on the horizon or not be visible at all. Whether distracted, speeding or fully attentive, the driver may or may not see the two low-wattage red warning lights flashing in their roundels. Likewise, the driver may not see the slender gate arm descend from vertical to its horizontal (closed) position. By the time the driver notices the flashing lights, the safety gate and the train, it may too late to avoid a catastrophic collision.
Much has changed since enactment of the 1986 grade crossing standards. Our driving experience now includes cup holders, mobile telephones, integrated information and entertainment systems, and texting while driving. The result is a quantum leap in potential distractions available to drivers today. The attitude of many who comment on relevant websites is “drivers beware”. If you drive into the side of a moving train, it is probably your fault, they write. Your own death or dismemberment, they say, proves their point. In reality, the FRA minimum standard developed for grade crossings in 1986 are often insufficient to warn motorists of impending collisions with moving trains.
With five of the recent train collisions at Las Posas Road and Fifth Street happening between 8:30 AM and 2:30 PM, further assessment of both natural light and traffic control signal lighting is in order. With Fifth Street creating a buffer for northbound vehicular traffic, almost all of the Las Posas Road train collisions involve southbound vehicular traffic. From morning until midafternoon, the sun may interfere with the driver’s ability to see the obsolete warning signals and other faded safety markings at Las Posas Rd., Pleasant Valley Rd. and Rice Ave. grade crossings.
Perhaps the pending CPUC investigation of the Rice Avenue grade crossing will give impetus Sealed Corridor traffic safety features at the three most deadly railroad grade crossings in Ventura County. In the interest of safety for all who travel the Oxnard Plain in motor vehicles and passenger trains, I hope so.
Secret Autonomous Railroad Pilot Car Testing? Code Name: "Google Pop Car"
For more than two decades, automobile manufacturers have offered radar systems that activate when a driver shifts the transmission into reverse gear. More recently, backup cameras made the leap from large recreational vehicles to many standard sized automobiles. Although an audible beep from a radar sensor is more effective at getting a driver’s attention, federal law now mandates that by 2018, all light vehicles sold in the U.S. shall include a backup camera.
Recently, automobile manufacturers have developed and deployed “adaptive cruise control”, which will slow a vehicle if it approaches too quickly upon another vehicle. If you purchase a new vehicle today, you can add various crash prevention systems, including “lane departure control”, “collision avoidance braking”, “blind spot warnings”, "adaptive headlights" and more. If you add up all of these features and options, you are well on your way to owning a “self-driving car”, as Google likes to call their autonomous driving vehicle (AV).
Until the 1980s, cup holders were relatively unknown in American cars. Until then, few people ate, drank or made telephone calls while driving. With the advent of “cellular radio”, the “car phone” became popular. With the fast food revolution, so too came cup holders, in-vehicle dining and a host of other distractions. Cordless electric shavers brought personal grooming to the average commuter. Lighted makeup mirrors tempted other commuters to touch up their makeup while driving. When heavy traffic slowed vehicles to a crawl, it became common for drivers to read a book or newspaper during their commute.
By the early 2000s, drivers had even more distractions to deal with. With the release of the first Apple iPhone in 2007, smart phones became ubiquitous, if not at all smart. They offered such features as GPS route guidance and text messaging, along with mobile telephone connectivity. Since then, automotive manufacturers raced to integrate evermore communications and entertainment functions into their vehicles. For instance, many new passenger vehicles offer both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay as options. With the deployment of all these integrated applications, drivers today have more opportunities for inattentive driving than ever before.
Still, it is important to separate the beneficial features in current automobiles from the frivolous, foolish and purely distracting. To me, crash prevention systems are all for the better. Even so, I do not wish to cede control of my vehicle to a self-driving, autonomous computer system. I have driven automobiles for over fifty years. Call me old fashioned, but I plan to drive and control of my own vehicles until I can no longer qualify for a driver’s license.
According to the L.A. Times, Google, Tesla, Toyota and the other corporations have spent billions of dollars developing their own autonomous vehicles. What these companies forgot to do is to ask if we, the driving public want such a vehicle. My guess is that most drivers would prefer to control their own vehicle, rather than sitting passively while their Google Pop Car drives them to work or play. If most of us do not want Google’s self-driving car, toward what useful purpose could the company turn that investment?
To answer that question, Google need look no farther than three miles from their Googleplex headquarters in Mountain View, California. There, adjacent to the Central Expressway is the Mountain View Station, which serves both Caltrain and Amtrak passenger trains. Developed mainly as a freight railroad in the 1880s, the current passenger rail line stretches from Gilroy to its northern terminus in San Francisco. With the ongoing technology boom in the Bay Area, Caltrain operates ninety-two weekday trains along those tracks.
Today, millions of people work and commute back and forth along the San Francisco Peninsula. Some travel on or parallel to the rail lines, while others cross one of the forty grade-level crossings along that rail line. Since 2005, there have been one hundred fifteen Caltrain-related fatalities registered on that busy rail line. Although a few were accidents, the majority of fatalities were determined to be suicides.
According to the San Francisco Examiner, between August and October 2015, there were eight vehicle collisions with trains, four of which were in Burlingame and three of which were at the same intersection. “Running ninety-two trains per day on a corridor with more than forty roadway crossings presents a unique set of challenges,” Caltrain executive director Jim Hartnett said in a statement. “Those challenges have become more difficult with increased traffic congestion and more drivers, cyclists and pedestrians crossing our tracks on a daily basis.”
In addition to vehicle collisions, many of the fatalities occurred when pedestrians walked into the path of an approaching train. Were these pedestrians “texting while walking”, distracted by their smart phones or did they die in preplanned encounters with diesel locomotives? Although that is unclear, many victims appear to hide and then jump on to the tracks when it is too late to avoid a collision. If architects and planners had the luxury of creating a sealed right of way, like the BART system built in the 1970s, they would do it. With more than one hundred years of history, there is no way to seal off the peninsular rail corridor from either vehicle or pedestrian traffic.
Each time a Caltrain passenger train collides with a motorist or pedestrian, the entire commuter system on the San Francisco Peninsula is negatively affected. Meanwhile, the autonomous vehicle group at Google has an opportunity to help save lives, speed commuter rail service and increase revenue in the process. To do this Google should adapt their various autonomous vehicle sensors to a railroad “pilot car”. If Google starts now, it could quickly develop and deploy what I call the “Google Pop Car” on the Caltrain route. Here is how it would work.
The Google Pop Car would be a lightweight, electrically driven autonomous rail car. It would have sensors and cameras capable of spotting both vehicles and pedestrians on or near the railroad tracks. As a “pilot car”, it would lead the way for each Caltrain passenger train, staying far enough ahead to be the eyes and ears for its following train. In an emergency, the Google Pop Car could remotely activate the Positive Train Control (PTC) system, thus halting the train prior to a collision.
As the Google Pop Car approaches a dangerous grade crossing or detects an errant pedestrian, it could activate its safety lights and train horn. If a Google Pop Car warns a distracted pedestrian or potential suicide victim, they might have time to reconsider their actions. Additionally, the Google Pop Car could stream both video and still pictures to the cab of the following locomotive. Utilizing face recognition software, police agencies could later identify potential perpetrators or simple risk-takers, thus allowing intervention or apprehension.
In my scenario, the Google Pop Car would race ahead to the next grade crossing. Upon approach, it would activate its rotating lights and sound its horn. Once the Google Pop Car had secures the crossing, it could depart, always staying ahead of its assigned passenger train. With proper coordination, the passenger train could maintain a steady speed, while ensuring the safety of both pedestrians and vehicular traffic. In the unlikely event of a collision, a lightweight Google Pop Car, with crash absorbing bumpers would cause minimal damage or destruction.
After thorough testing of the Google Pop Car on the Caltrain line, other rail passenger agencies could adopt the technology. Had Google Pop Car technology been available to Metrolink in Southern California it could have saved many lives. Metrolink experienced eleven fatalities in its 2005 Glendale collision, twenty-five fatalities in its 2008 Chatsworth collision and the death of Senior Engineer Glenn Steele in its February 2015 Oxnard collision.
In the Oxnard collision, the “pilot”, a plow-like anti-derailment blade detached from the Metrolink Hyundai Rotem Cab Car. In September 2015, after realizing that its cab cars were unsafe, the Metrolink board met in a closed (possibly illegal) session to discuss its limited options. Almost immediately, Metrolink announced a decision to lease forty “heavy iron” Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) freight locomotives. Rather than exploring new safety technologies such as the Google Pop Car, Metrolink will rely on outmoded, conventional thinking. In coming months, inefficient, high-pollution BNSF freight locomotives will head-up all Metrolink passenger trains. In an “overkill” scenario designed to eradicate errant pedestrians and vehicles, Metrolink will rely on the tonnage of BNSF locomotives.
Essentially all of the technology to produce, test and implement an autonomous railroad pilot car exists today. What is lacking in urban passenger rail systems such as Caltrain and Metrolink is a willingness to embrace the new technologies available for collision avoidance. Moribund and ossified thinking by politically controlled passenger rail agencies guarantees that California will continue to lead the nation in deadly rail collisions along its passenger rail corridors.
Metrolink Plans For Live Brake-Tests of BNSF "Heavy Iron" Train-Sets on Commuter Tracks
On September 26, 2015, Southern California regional rail passenger carrier Metrolink announced a decision to lease forty Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) freight locomotives. As the plan goes into effect, current high-pollution diesel locomotives will continue to provide head-end power for all outbound Metrolink trains. On return trips, BNSF freight locomotive will provide the head-end power. In either direction, one locomotive will provide traction and the other will be deadweight. The cost to lease and outfit the BNSF locomotives with positive train control (PTC) safety systems will exceed $19 million.
Collision vulnerability of pusher trains, with a cab car up front is widely known. During a February 2015 Metrolink collision in Oxnard, California, a Hyundai-Rotem cab car experienced a catastrophic failure of its anti-derailment “plow”. The loss of the plow beneath the cab car may have caused its derailment, along with the remaining coaches and the Metrolink pusher locomotive #870.
Recently, a source close to the Metrolink investigation told me, “I believe that the NTSB informed the railroad about the plow failure. It is amazing that they are replacing the Rotem cab cars with (BNSF) engines, using an ‘emergency provision’ related to safety.” Another trusted source told me, “The BNSF freight units are about 50% heavier and have six axles to bear that weight. However, in spite of their horsepower, they have poor acceleration and limited top speed. The resulting longer trains will also complicate the operation at storage tracks, some of which will not be able to accommodate an extra vehicle. If instituted, I predict a major service meltdown.”
Diesel locomotives utilize two separate braking systems. With dynamic breaking engaged, the diesel engine slows to an idle, while the electric motor becomes an electrical generator. The generator provides resistance to the drive train, thus slowing the train’s wheels. All of this takes time. On a freight locomotive, the pneumatic system provides faster or emergency braking. It uses pressurized air to actuate cylinders and rods, which impinge upon “brake blocks”. The brake blocks, which are analogous to automotive break shoes, apply friction directly to the train’s steel wheels.
It is common knowledge that Metrolink has ceased scheduled maintenance on its decades-old locomotives. If a locomotive fails, they attempt to fix it. Otherwise, Metrolink keeps running each locomotive until the next failure. This raises obvious questions about reliability and safety. It also begs the question; does Metrolink still conduct scheduled or preventative maintenance on its locomotive braking systems? A simple audit of its maintenance contractor, Bombardier Transit Corporation, would show whether they provide periodic maintenance on Metrolink locomotive brake systems.
In the newer, Hyundai-Rotem cab cars and coaches, disk brake technology now prevails. Under Rotem’s high-tech scheme, the cab car’s wheels support outboard disks, or rotors as part of the pneumatic braking system. Typically, disk brakes act more efficiently than “brake shoes” to slow a moving vehicle. This technology, which is new to Metrolink, comes at a price. That price is what we call “the learning curve”.
At its home location in South Korea, Hyundai-Rotem reportedly paid a $6.3 million settlement last year over brake defects and mechanical malfunctions. Rather than field testing its various consists of coaches, cab cars and locomotives, Metrolink assumed that all of its braking systems would be compatible. Through ignorance or indifference, Metrolink failed to perform live braking trials for their typical, odd assortment of coaches.
Still unknown is how a mixture of old and new braking systems affected the derailment of all five cars during the 2015 Oxnard collision. New technology braking systems installed on the three Rotem coaches may have overwhelmed the braking capacity of the single, obsolete Bombardier bi-level coach.
Even after the cab car and other coaches had derailed, a poorly maintained Metrolink locomotive kept pushing from the rear. Photographic evidence suggests that slow braking at the pusher-end popped the rigid Bombardier coach loose from both of its couplings. Once the Bombardier coach derailed, it traveled farther off course than even the doomed Hyundai-Rotem cab car. Other than the death of Metrolink Senior Engineer Glenn Steele, the most serious injuries occurred within the obsolete Bombardier bi-level coach.
Metrolink’s recent decision to lease forty, six-axle BNSF diesel freight locomotives was hasty. If the newly devised train sets cannot operate better than the mixed-consist trains currently in operation, both passengers and motorists may be at additional risk. Riding on four axles, current Metrolink diesel locomotives weigh 280,000 lb. At over 420,000 lb., the BNSF freight engines are fifty percent heavier. A current five-car Metrolink train weighs approximately 460,000 lb. By adding a freight locomotive at one end, the BNSF train set will weigh 880,000 lb., an increase of ninety-one percent.
In contrast to the diminutive anti-derailment plow on the Hyundai-Rotem cab cars, the BNSF freight locomotives should be able to clear almost any vehicle or debris from the tracks. However, the addition of such “heavy iron” on each Metrolink train raises questions about fuel consumption, environmental pollution, braking systems and overall reliability.
Fuel Consumption – A twelve-cylinder, turbocharged two-stroke diesel engine powers each Metrolink EMD F59PH locomotive. None of those locomotives is younger than twenty years. By current standards, they are “gas hogs”, inefficiently providing traction to the drive wheels. To get the idea, picture a 1990 Mercedes 190D diesel automobile spewing nitrogen oxide and particulates into the air as you drive behind it.
By effectively “dragging” one locomotive or the other at all times, the deadweight of the nonfunctional locomotive will drastically increase Metrolink fuel consumption. In the past, some railroads have solved lightweight cab car derailments with old-fashioned innovation. They have replaced cab cars with stripped-down locomotives. With their diesel engines and traction motors removed, these so-called “coffin cars” provide sufficient weight upfront to preclude most derailments. Admittedly any "coffin cars" utilized on Metrolink tracks would require addition of Positive Train Control (PTC) safety systems. Still, that could cost a lot less than the recently approved $19 million BNSF lease.
Environmental Pollution – A decade after the newest Metrolink F59PH locomotives came into service, the U.S. EPA’s 2005 Tier 2 locomotive emissions standards took effect. Given their age and power plants, all Metrolink locomotives qualify as pre Tier 2. That designation makes them among the worst polluters currently active on any U.S. passenger railroad.
With the recent deception perpetrated by World Wide Volkswagen Group, the public is now aware that nitrogen oxide is a greenhouse gas (GHG) 300-times more detrimental than carbon dioxide itself. In this case, even a single Tier 0-1 diesel locomotive pollutes the air at a greater rate than hundreds, if not thousands of errant Volkswagen diesel engines.
Braking Power – Mixed-consist train sets require testing to determine how they will perform under emergency braking procedures. Using readily available metering and measurement devices, Metrolink should test each consist of coaches and locomotives. During a full speed test, the locomotive engineer would initiate emergency braking. Although this would not simulate a collision, it would “stress test” both old and the new braking and coupling systems in a live environment. Until it provides results of live emergency brake testing, Metrolink’s mismatched train sets may continue to endanger both passengers and the public.
Reliability – Over the years, the uptime of Metrolink locomotives has deteriorated. As of 2013, thirty of Metrolink's fifty-two locomotives were due for complete overhaul. By 2015, not one of those obsolete locomotives had received more than a "Band-Aid" overhaul. Instead, as it awaits their replacement with new Tier 4 locomotives, Metrolink is running its current fleet of locomotives until failure.
The agency’s lack of scheduled maintenance reminds me of oil exploration on the North Slope of Alaska. There, when an oilfield declines, the operator discontinues periodic maintenance well before final closure. In such cynical, “work until failure” schemes, oil companies curtail periodic maintenance in order to save money. In such cases, reliability and safety take a backseat to corporate profits.
Whether in Alaska oilfields or on Southern California rails, the end of periodic maintenance and overhaul signals a decline in both reliability and safety. With an oil field, the company can wait for repairs, clean up any spilled oil and then resume pumping. With Metrolink, the consequences of its current “work until failure” plan include fewer riders, less revenue and potential catastrophic failure of the Metrolink system.
It Is Time To Decommission Lake Powell and Glen Canyon Dam
The Lower Colorado River Basin -
The Lower Colorado River Basin begins at the cold, sterile outfall of Glen Canyon Dam. From that point on, the river again receives sediment from various streams and seasonal watercourses. Tributaries such as the Little Colorado River and Kanab Creek join the river, but provide only a fraction of the sediment that enters Lake Powell. Lake Powell loses as much as 5.6% of its volume annually to a combination of evaporation and seepage into its sandstone basin. As a result, the toxic load of chemicals, fertilizer and heavy metals from upstream is concentrated in the Lower Colorado River. Recently, the U.S. Geological Survey identified raised levels of both selenium and mercury in the Grand Canyon watershed.
Grand Canyon Country -
After the Civil War, officer and veteran John Wesley Powell explored the length of the Grand Canyon. Attempts to protect the Grand Canyon began early in the twentieth century. In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt first declared a game preserve there and in 1908, he used the Antiquities Act of 1906 to create Grand Canyon National Monument. In 1919, three years after the creation of the National Park Service, congress created Grand Canyon National Park. In 1975, the former Marble Canyon National Monument, which followed the Colorado River northeast from the Grand Canyon to Lee's Ferry, became part of Grand Canyon National Park. In 1956, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) began building of Glen Canyon Dam. Until that time, “more dams in more places” on the Colorado River was the rallying cry of federal land managers.
In the early 1960s, the USBR touted plans for Marble Dam in Marble Canyon, downstream from the Glen Canyon Dam and Bridge Canyon Dam downstream from the Grand Canyon itself. Slowly, the populace and land managers alike realized that the Colorado River could not support so many storage facilities along its watercourse. Even with optimistic flow projections, the collection of proposed dams would never be full, let alone half-full. After the victorious building Glen Canyon Dam, promoters of federal dam projects along the Colorado River had to look elsewhere for places to build their socialist make-work projects.
The original rationale for building Glen Canyon Dam was to help regulate periodic flooding within the Lower Colorado River Basin. In that regard, Glen Canyon Dam became a classic case of “overkill”. Not only did the dam regulate water flow in an unnatural manner, it also sterilized whatever remaining water flowed through both Marble and Grand Canyons. There were no spring floods to rearrange and propel various sediments downstream. Without periodic recharging of sediments, beaches and shoals disappeared from the watercourse. Without new sediments to impede flow, the river scoured away the remaining sediments, including rocks and boulders of immense size. In the end, it was as if a slow motion flood had taken the life out of the river.
Only dissolved solids, such as salts and heavy metals could make it through the sieve that is the mudflats of upper Lake Powell. In recent years, regulatory authorities at Glen Canyon Dam have allowed several simulated floods to recharge the beaches and hollows necessary for a more diverse ecosystem in Marble and Grand Canyons. Even so, most of the sediments required to sustain life downstream remain trapped in the methane volcano-fields at the upper reaches of Lake Powell. If one were to plan today for the least healthy Lower Colorado River possible, Glen Canyon Dam would be an essential aspect of that plan.
Lake Mead -
Currently, Lake Mead covers approximately 247 square miles, while Lake Powell covers a slightly larger 254 square miles. At Hoover Dam, the surrounding geology includes “K-T Volcanics”, which are mostly "Cretaceous and Tertiary andesitic and basaltic flows". In other words, both Hoover Dam and Lake Mead rest on old, hard rock. Glen Canyon Dam resides in and Lake Powell rest upon younger, softer and more permeable sandstone. Once water reaches Lake Mead, a bit less than one percent of it evaporates annually.
Comparing Lake Powell and Lake Mead.
The generally accepted figure for annual evaporation at Lake Powell is about three percent. Because of its porous, sandstone shell, Lake Powell loses an additional 2.6% of inflow to seepage. The dry sandstone under and around Lake Powell is like an insatiable sponge, constantly drawing water away from the reservoir. If we compare the .09% evaporation loss and negligible seepage at Lake Mead to the 5.6% total evaporation and seepage at Lake Powell, we find that Lake Mead is 6.2 times more efficient at preventing environmental loss of volume. In the old days, one might call that a differential calculus or maybe even a quantum leap.
If the main goal is to preserve and conserve water in both the Upper and Lower Colorado Basins, Lake Mead is the best place to do that. If Lake Mead were at full capacity, it would grow from the present surface area of 247 square miles to a total of 255 square miles, or a positive change of 3.2%. In both lakes, evaporation is largely dependent on surface area and insolation. By reducing Lake Powell to “dead pool” size and increasing Lake Mead to near full capacity, water losses due to both evaporation and seepage along the Colorado River would decrease dramatically.
The Navajo Nation -
As a political and cultural entity, the Navajo Nation has had a long and difficult relationship with coal. To this day, many Navajo homes burn coal for both cooking and heat. At Black Mesa, near Kayenta, Arizona, large-scale mining destroyed the underlying aquifer and left a moonscape of physical destruction on the surface. In recent decades, aging coal-fired facilities such as the Four Corners Generating Plant, west of Farmington, New Mexico and Navajo Generating Station (NGS), near Page, Arizona came under increased scrutiny. As a result, the Navajo Nation doubled down on coal by completing various ownership and responsibility agreements designed to keep the coal fires burning.
Ignoring the health and welfare consequences of an old energy, coal economy, the Navajo Nation sought to justify its new status as a gross polluter of the environment. To do this, they invoked the sanctity and necessity of jobs in the mining, transportation and production of coal-fired energy. In sad consanguinity with Navajo/corporate mining deals of the past, the Navajo Nation has accepted ill health and decreased life expectancy for its people. In exchange for a minimal number of old energy jobs, the Navajo Nation continues to degraded the environment of All that Is.
The Correct Course of Action -
There are advocates for keeping Lake Powell half-full and Lake Mead half-full. In their justifications, they point to Lake Powell tourism, payment of long-term indebtedness, loss of power production and water delivery to Page Arizona and NGS as primary reasons for maintaining the status quo. They pass off the higher seepage and evaporation rates at Lake Powell by saying, “Water evaporates – get over it”.
Scientific studies of evaporation and other storage losses are now under peer review. Preliminary findings indicate that emptying Lake Powell to dead pool size and transferring its contents downstream to Lake Mead could save up to one million acre-feet of water annually. To put that into perspective, the City of Los Angeles consumes about one million acre-feet of water annually. That amounts to almost one fourth of California's annual allotment of Colorado River water.
Lake Powell has become a beautiful anachronism in the desert. It is an oasis built over a sinkhole, and has failed as an efficient water storage scenario. On the strength of water conservation alone, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation should decommission Lake Powell. For a transitional period, both NGS and the City of Page, Arizona could continue to draw water as Lake Powell reduces toward dead pool size. Over time, Page would likely shrink economically nearer to what it was before exuberant boosters and developers began publicizing luxury houseboats and “lake view estates”. Once again, river runners and rafters will develop new businesses based in Page.
Once we scientifically determine that the Navajo Generating Station is a climate change engine, responsible parties will find alternative, more progressive energy sources for air-conditioning or to pump water around the West. New energy technologies will arise to pump Colorado River water over several mountain ranges during its trip to to Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona. If Arizona residents and politicians reject new technologies and logical courses of action, they will be the first and hardest hit of all Colorado River stakeholders. In 2015, only an exceptional monsoon season allowed Arizona relief from mandatory reductions in water withdrawals from the Colorado River .
If the people of Arizona support the recombination of two dying reservoirs into a single healthy one, they may avoid future mandatory cutbacks and major scale water rationing. By installing solar and wind power near the pumps along the Central Arizona Project, Arizona could reduce or eliminate its reliance on NGS and dirty coal. Phasing out NGS over a period of ten years should allow sufficient time for installation of new and renewable energy sources for vital water pumping functions. Federal incentives and business development investment in Navajoland should offset any jobs now held by Black Mesa black-lung miners and the stokers of the coal fires at NGS.
Some people say that human activities have no net effect on our world, our environment or our prospects for a sustainable future. Others believe that human activities, especially the burning of fossil fuels are the root cause of Climate Change, Global Warming and the looming Sixth Extinction. If that Sixth Extinction comes to pass, will we be mere observers or its final living participants? Sixty-five million years hence, some intelligent species may come to Earth and study the last remaining fossils of humankind. After visiting the petrified mudflats that once were the upper reaches of Lake Powell, imagine the scientific conclusions of those future visitors; “They could have saved themselves, but did not care enough about Nature to do so”.
The Benefits of Correct Action -
I almost forgot to mention, if we decommission Glen Canyon Dam, the real and original Glen Canyon of the Colorado would reappear. If so, we can all watch as Mother Nature repairs that Eden in the Desert to its previous glory. If still living, both John Wesley Powell and Edward Abbey would approve.
This is Part 3 of a three-part article. To begin at Part 1, please click HERE. To return to Part 2, please click HERE.