Chapter #337: Untested Brakes on Metrolink Train Sets - October 1, 2015

Six-axle Burlington Northern Santa Fe Freight locomotive similar to the forty recently leased to Metrolink - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

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.

Metrolink's Hyundai Rotem Cab Car No. 645, which was involved in the February 2015 Oxnard collision is tarped and hidden on an SCRRA spur in Moorpark, California - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)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.”

Metrolink Locomotive No. 870, an EMD F59PH was the pusher locomotive that derailed during the February 2015 Metrolink collision in Oxnard, California - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)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 a Metrolink Hyundai-Rotem cab car, the coach's wheels double as the rotors in a caliper braking system - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)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.

Two separate photographic reconstructions show the mismatch of the Hyundai-Rotem cab car with the obsolete Bombardier bi-level coach to which it was coupled during the February 2015 Metrolink Oxnard collision - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)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.

Obsolete Bombardier bi-level coach No. 206 popped both its couplings and careened off the tracks during the February 2015 Metrolink Oxnard collision - Click for larger image (htttp://jamesmcgillis.com)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.

A diminutive anti-derailment plow (similar to this one) on Metrolink Hyundai-Rotem cab car No. 645 may have contributed to the derailment of Metrolink Train No.102 in the February 2015 Oxnard Metrolink collision - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgilis.com)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.

Using the "dreadnought" theory, Metrolink will include a 420,000 "Heavy Iron" freight locomotive in each of its future train sets - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)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.

Shrouded in mystery, this Hyundai-Rotem "Guardian" coach was derailed and toppled in the February 2015 Metrolink Oxnard collision - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)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.

Although derailed in the February 2015 Metrolink Oxnard collision, Hyundai-Rotem "Guardian" coach No. 263 remained upright - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)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.

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By James McGillis at 05:56 PM | Metrolink | Comments (0) | Link

Chapter #336: 2015 - Time to Phase Out Lake Powell - September 13, 2015

Cold, sterile water emanating from Lake Powell and Glen Canyon Dam supports green fronded algae and not much more  - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

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 -

During his expedition of 1869, John Wesley Powell and his crew traveled the length of the Grand Canyon, taking scientific measurements as they progressed - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)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 By the early 1960s, the building of the Glen Canyon Dam along the Colorado River in Arizona was a 24-hour per day operation - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)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.

In this 1965 photo, as in 2015, Lake Powell was at approximately one half capacity - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)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.

This late 1960's photo of Lake Mead shows no sign of the the "bathtub ring" of exposed minerals that we see there today - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)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.

This diagram of various water intakes at Glen Canyon Dam, also depicts the "dead pool", from which no further water can exit the dam - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)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

Since 2006, when this picture was taken, the water level of Lake Powell has continued to recede - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)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, This Bureau of Reclamation promotional piece from the mid-1960s shows the proposed Colorado River dams at both Marble Canyon and Bridge Canyon - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)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 In this view of the front of Glen Canyon Dam, a patch of green in the lower-right indicates that seepage has worked around the dam and is exiting the canyon walls through a horizontal fissure or fault in the soft sandstone - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)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.

In the lower basin of Lake Powell, various benches that indicate previous high-water marks are clearly visible far above the current shoreline - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)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 This 2014 view of Lake Powell from Wahweap Overlook shows the dry land of Antelope Island, where only two decades ago, water covered that whole area - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)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 During a 1965 visit to Lake Powell, the author encountered the crystal clear air of the desert, unlike the current coal-fired haze that shrouds much of the Four Corners region - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)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 As viewed from Wahweap Overlook, Glen Canyon Dam appears to hold back earth, not water, as one day it may - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)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.

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By James McGillis at 12:01 AM | Colorado River | Comments (0) | Link

Chapter #335: Navajo Power Plant Heat Island Effect - September 10, 2015

At 775 feet tall, the flue gas stacks at Navajo Generating Plant near Page, Arizona push coal-fired effluent into the upper atmosphere, exacerbating the heat-island over the Four Corners Region - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

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.

From Wahweap Overlook, the Navajo Generating Station and its 775 foot tall flue stacks seem to fade into the hazy background - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)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 -

This 2006 photo of the Grand Canyon shows persistent haze caused by coal-fired power plants in the Four Corners region - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)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 This 2001 photo shows Lake Powell filled almost to capacity - Click for view of same scene in 2014 (http://jamesmcgillis.com)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 -

This undated Landsat image shows Lake Powell nearly at full capacity - Click for comparative images from 2000 and 2015 - (http://jamesmcgillis.com)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.

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By James McGillis at 11:02 PM | Colorado River | Comments (0) | Link

Chapter #334: Of Mudflats and Methane Volcanoes - September 9, 2015

The Colorado River passes by Moab, with the Moab Pile on the left and the Matheson Wetlands on the Right - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

A Once-Great River Rises on the Colorado Plateau

The Upper Colorado River Basin -

By the time the Colorado River passes Moab, Utah, it already carries a heavy load of minerals, trash and sewage. By mid-summer, water levels drop, exposing driftwood, sewage and trash along the shore. Only the next spring flood will loosen these stinking mixtures of organic material and plastic from the shoreline. In 2014, when I saw methane bubbles rising from one such stinking mass, it opened my eyes wide to the damage already done to this once great river.

A Place Called Potash, Utah -

Potash Brine runs freely, destroying hundreds of acres at the Intrepid-Moab Potash Cane Creek Plant - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)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.

Aerial view of the Intrepid-Moab Postash Cane Creek Plant shows a swath of environmental destruction caused by cascading potash brine - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)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. Confluence of the Colorado (left) and Green Rivers (right), south of Moab, Utah - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)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.

In this aerial view of the upper reaches of Lake Powell, receding water exposes mudflats where once was lake water - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)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 -

Hiding their activities in shame, this highway sign for Peabody Western Coal Company at Black Mesa disappeared several years ago - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)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 -

In this 1965 picture taken by the author, Rainbow Bridge became a short day hike after the flooding of Glen Canyon, thus creating Lake Powell - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)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
This 1965 photo, by the author, shows Lake Powell at half-full, with Glen Canyon Dam in the background - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)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.

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By James McGillis at 02:56 PM | Colorado River | Comments (0) | Link

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