Sarah Thomas - New Swim Record of Eighty-two Miles on Lake Powell
In early October 2016, Spokesmodel Carrie McCoy and I traveled to Page, Arizona. From there, we embarked on a four-day, three-night houseboat excursion on Lake Powell. Although Antelope Marina is in Arizona, the upper reaches of the lake are in Utah. When congress created what would become the Western States, no one thought to use watercourses as more natural boundaries. Hence, we now have the “Four Corner” states.
Our first day on the water consisted of navigating our seventy-foot houseboat “up lake” (or up river, as it had once been). Trailing behind us on a line was a twenty-six foot powerboat. After traveling almost twenty-five miles upstream, we beached the large craft. With the churning motors keeping us against the shore, we set out lines, and anchored into the sandy beach. Then we relaxed and enjoyed nightfall aboard our luxury houseboat.
The next morning, we boarded our powerboat and proceeded upstream to explore Lake Powell and its side canyons. Our initial destination was Rainbow Bridge National Monument, which is one of the “Seven Wonders of the Natural World”. The stone arch of Rainbow Bridge itself is enough to strike wonder into the heart of any sighted visitor.
Even with a 250-hp. Evinrude outboard motor to propel us across the water, time and wave action made the trip seem interminable. As we sped along the middle reaches of the lake, it was a harsh ride. While navigating the red and green channel markers, we spotted a small houseboat with flags and banners flying in the wind. As we approached, we saw two small boats and a kayak circling around something in the water.
As we sped past, our hull pushed a bow wave toward the flotilla. Looking over, I spotted someone within that circle of boats, swimming downstream. I was too dumbfounded to take a picture, so there is no evidence of that sighting. After spending a couple of hours at Rainbow Bridge, we returned to our houseboat, perhaps twenty miles downstream. As we progressed, we came upon the same flotilla of boats and again could see someone in the water, swimming downstream.
Before a filet mignon barbeque dinner on our houseboat, the three of the couples who were aboard with us enjoyed our top-deck spa. Then, we repaired to our four separate cabins for a restful night floating on the lake water.
The next day, we again took our powerboat upriver to see Reflection Canyon and Cathedral Canyon, which are two of the most scenic side canyons in the vicinity. As we blasted up river in our powerboat, we came across the little flotilla of boats we had seen the previous day. Nothing had changed except their location. With a swimmer still in the water, the whole group was now farther downstream. During our return to the houseboat on that second day, we again (you guessed it) overtook and passed the flotilla of small boats and its encircled swimmer.
Upon return to our floating condominium, we enjoyed a third evening of festivities, including Carrie and me having the top deck spa to ourselves. Despite a wind change, we again had a restful night aboard. After a hearty brunch on our final morning, we shoved off and piloted the big houseboat down river and back toward Antelope Marina.
As we entered the final few miles of our journey, we came across a group of small boats. Although the houseboat had departed, there were still several small boats surrounding a swimmer or two in the water. Although there was now a second swimmer pacing the first, I recognized the same black swimsuit we had seen for the past several days. At that moment, I realized what was happening. Someone was swimming the length of Lake Powell, without a stop.
From where I stood on the upper deck, I shot one still photo and twenty-six seconds of video. After three days of disbelief, those two shots were all the documentation that I acquired of an epic swim. As it turned out, we had witnessed Sarah Thomas breaking the world record for an unassisted marathon swim. Later, national news reported that Sarah had swum eighty-two miles in fifty-six hours… without stopping or getting out of the water.
As spectators, we watch Olympic swimmers compete in contests up to 1500 meters. To put Sarah Thomas’s accomplishment into perspective, her eighty-two mile swim equals 131,966 meters, or eighty-eight times the length of the longest Olympic swim race. During her quest, Sarah Tomas survived on twice-hourly liquid carbohydrate drinks. For almost two and one half days, Sarah swam, never touching a boat, a rope or a human hand. Congratulations to Sarah Thomas for accomplishing her amazing “new energy” swim.
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.
Coal-Fired Power Intensifies a Heat-Island Over Four Corners
Navajo Generating Station (NGS) -
In August 2015, I ate lunch at the Wahweap Overlook to Lake Powell. One year prior, I had visited the same place and eaten lunch while looking out over Lake Powell. This time, I was amazed to see that the Lake level was slightly higher than the previous year. Then I remembered the southwestern monsoon of May 2015. Throughout that month, unusually strong thunderstorms made their way north from the Gulf of California and into the Four Corners region. Even in these drought-stricken times, intense storms appear to turn back the clock on scarcity, quenching both land and lake.
During my visit, a throng of French-speaking tourists viewed the ethereal sight of so much water in a sandstone desert. None of them seemed to notice the three tall concrete stacks standing in the distance, on the far side of the lake. Although dwarfed by the landscape, each of the three flue gas stacks stands 775 feet tall. At that height, they are among the tallest structures in Arizona. The stacks and the coal-fired power plant that they service comprise the Navajo Generating Station (NGS).
Prior to the installation of new burners in 2009, NGS was the largest emitter of nitrogen oxide in the country. As a greenhouse gas, nitrogen oxide is 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. In 2011, NGS emitted 71,000 tons of sulphur dioxide, 14,000 tons of nitrogen oxide and 586 pounds of mercury into the air above Lake Powell and Page, Arizona. As such, NGS remains one of the largest heat and pollution sources in the Four Corners region.
Heat Island Effect -
If you have visited Phoenix, Arizona in the summer, you will be familiar with the term, “heat island”. During the day, pavement and buildings absorb heat from the sun. At night, the convective qualities of dry desert air are insufficient to dissipate the heat of the day. As a result, nighttime often feel as hot as daytime. Only the slow change of seasons brings relief to residents and visitors alike.
Near Lake Powell, the coal fired NGS plays a significant role as a heat generator. Fuel consumed in 2011 provided 170,529,313 Million Btu of heat input. As coal burns in the enormous furnaces at NGS, all of that heat is either absorbed at ground level or sent up the flue gas stacks and into the environment. There, the heated flue gases, still laden with sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, fly ash and heavy metals such as mercury meet the giant methane bubble already in place over the Four Corners region. Picture a gaseous blob of airborne chemicals propelled into the high atmosphere. Effluent from the giant flue stacks of NGS and other coal-fired power plants in the region often punch through the atmospheric inversion layer. Once this heated stream of gas disperses, it creates a persistent regional haze over much of the Southwest.
What are the final consequences of having a highly volatile chemical heat island hovering over the Four Corners region? First, the heat island deflects rainfall away from the area, further exacerbating (perhaps creating) the persistent regional drought. With their rise on a cloud of methane, these greenhouse gases head directly toward the stratosphere, and beyond. Perhaps we need a new “Blue Marble” photo from space, showing the degradation of our atmosphere over the past fifty years.
Four Corners Regional Drought -
For geodetic proof of the Four Corners regional drought, look no further than Google Maps. Most people are familiar with zooming in on a Google map, thus increasing the resolution of small objects. While zooming in on the Wahweap Overlook, I discovered that the midlevel map of the area was a USGS Landsat Map of undetermined age. By zooming in one additional level, I discovered a Google Data map of more current vintage. Click on the thumbnail image of Lake Powell on this page to see a top and bottom comparisons of the two maps.
In the 2015 Google Data map, significant portions of the former lake are now dry land. If not for a new channel cut across it, the former Antelope Island would require the more apt name of “Antelope Peninsula”. Also in the 2015 view, new shoals are visible in each of the first four primary basins, hinting that more dry land will surface in the future. At the upper end of the lake, sediment clogs the river, exacerbating evaporation and producing what scientists call methane volcanoes in the mud.
This is Part 2 of a three-part article. To return to Part 1, please click HERE. To read Part 3, please click HERE.
After skirting the Matheson Wetlands along one bank and the Moab Pile on the other, the Colorado River descends through the Portal and on to a place called Potash, Utah. To make potash sound more interesting, the owners of the Cane Creek Potash Plant named themselves "Intrepid" Potash-Moab, LLC. Using dubious and undocumented Colorado River water rights, Intrepid Potash-Moab infuses millions of gallons of river water annually into the Cane Creek Anticline.
After injection, the anticline collapses ever so slightly. This subsidence burps out untold acre-feet of a brine solution, which is rich in potash salts. After drying and processing, Intrepid-Moab ships the resulting product out via rail and interstate highway. Later, agents and retailers resell the packaged product to farmers and home gardeners. The success of the corporate farming, as we know it today depends on finished potash and other synthetic fertilizers for its success.
Intrepid-Moab uses solar power to dry its potash brine in shallow, lined ponds. These ponds cover many colorful acres of bench land overlooking the Colorado River. From the Potash Road, four-wheelers access the Shafer Trail by traversing through the Cane Creek Plant. If terrestrial scenes of chemical degradation and poor stewardship of the land are not enough for you, I suggest an air tour of the area. On a Redtail Aviation flight out of Moab’s Canyonlands Field several years ago, our pilot banked the plane sufficiently for me to capture some revealing photos of the Cane Creek Plant.
Gushing from injection well sites that are high up on the bench land, the upwelling brine cascades unchecked until it reaches the settling ponds below. Any miscalculation of volume could result in overflow of the settling ponds. From the air, you can see a white crust that has dried upon the walls of small canyons leading down to the Colorado River. This tells me that Intrepid Potash-Moab has experienced both overflow and leakage at the settling ponds. Dwarfing any inputs upstream in Utah and Colorado, Intrepid Potash-Moab could be the largest contributor of organic solids anywhere in the Upper Colorado River Basin. After potash spills into the river, it goes back into solution, adding to the salinity of the water and turning the river into an organic time bomb.
Mudflats and Methane Volcanoes -
After its confluence with the Green River, the first full stop for the Colorado River is at the upper reaches of Lake Powell in Southeastern Utah. Soon after the lake reached its full potential size in the early 1980s, its water level began to fluctuate and then decline. During the past fourteen years of persistent drought, Lake Powell lost nearly half of its peak volume. Today, optimists might say that Lake Powell is “half full”. Almost unanimously, climate scientists agree that the reservoir is “half empty” and will continue to decline.
With many miles of former lakebed exposed to sunlight at the upper end of Lake Powell, the environment on those mudflats has deteriorated significantly. As water laden with heavy metals and organic material arrives at the upper end of the lake, it mixes with silt and sand. The result is a phenomenon known as methane volcanoes. Methane gas can be a byproduct of flatulence in cattle, coal mining or the baking of organic mud. Most people are familiar with carbon dioxide as our most ubiquitous “greenhouse gas”. Fewer people might know that methane is fifteen times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide puts the effervescent fizz in our soft drinks. Methane smells bad, is flammable and if contained, may explode.
The Navajo Reservation is Coal Country -
First, the stinking, organic mudflats at the upper end of Lake Powell create and release untold amounts of methane gas. Usually, warm air and light gases like methane rise from the surface and dissipate in the upper atmosphere. Often methane from Lake Powell remains in the lower atmosphere, trapped near the ground by an atmospheric inversion layer. If an atmospheric inversion is present, warm air aloft traps hot and volatile gasses below, thus creating a bubble of noxious air at or near ground level.
Not ironically, a huge methane gas bubble now floats above the Four Corners region. Is this unprecedented bubble of volatile gas the result of Navajo Nation coal mining, cattle flatulence or the stinking mudflats and methane volcanoes at the upper reaches of Lake Powell? Personally, I am betting on a combination of coal mining and fertilized mudflats. Thank you for your fertile potash input, Intrepid Potash-Moab, LLC.
Glen Canyon Damned -
After flowing over and sifting through the mudflats, the Colorado River enters many miles of forced confinement between sandstone canyon walls. There it drops its remaining sediment to the bottom of what once was a desert garden of legendary beauty. Known as Glen Canyon, living humans who saw it in its untrammeled glory are now few and elderly. Only through old black and white photographs and essays by such writers as John Wesley Powell and Edward Abbey do we know about a place once visited only by dory boat or river raft.
Once the water in Lake Powell reaches the penstocks and electrical turbines at Glen Canyon Dam, it is cold, dark and nearly devoid of oxygen. The portion of lake water that rests below the deepest intake on the dam, we call the “dead pool”. The lake water in the dead pool is as near to dead as fresh water can be. Once released downstream, dam water is clear, cold and capable of supporting no life higher than green fronded algae. Such algae grow wherever the water flow is slow enough to support life. If Colorado means, “colored red” or “Red River”, immediately below Glen Canyon Dam, that name does not apply. Running clear, cold and fringed with green algae, its name should revert to “Green River”.
This is Part 1 of a three-part article. To read Part 2, please click HERE.