Mount Whitney is Now Eleven Feet Higher; Mammoth Mountain is Ever-Drier
In 1959, I first visited Mammoth Mountain, California and the Sierra Nevada, the range within which that mountain resides. On the way north from Los Angeles, we could see Mount Whitney, which at 14,494 feet in elevation was the highest peak in the continental U.S. In summer 2012, when I made my most recent visit to Mammoth Lakes, Mount Whitney had grown to 15,505 feet in elevation. Was the Sierra Nevada changing that rapidly?
The answer to that question is, “Yes” and “No”. If Mount Whitney gained more than a fraction of an inch in those fifty-three years, I would be surprised. What changed is scientists' ability to estimate the true shape of the oblate spheroid we call Earth. With ever more accurate satellite data, they can now accurately peg Mt. Whitney within a worldwide elevation database. Geologically, little has changed in the Sierra Nevada during those five decades.
During that same time, what has changed in the Sierra Nevada and throughout much of the Western U.S. is the weather. The two words that come quickly to mind are, “warmer” and “drier”. Add to those adjectives, the term, “less predictable”. Winter storms can still hit with what feels like vengeance. Without notice, in November 2011 an unprecedented windstorm toppled expanses of forest without notice. Although a typical night-skier at Mammoth Mountain may feel the security of the nearby lodge, a hiker on the Mount Whitney Trail that same night might face death from exposure.
In the 1960’s, snow at Mammoth Mountain seemed as reliable as clockwork. Snowstorms started in October or November, followed by an inevitable succession of winter storms. By Easter time each year, it could be sunny and warm on the slopes or cold and snowy. “Sierra cement”, as we called the spring snow, could fall one day after sunshine. In those days, snowmaking equipment did not exist in the Central Sierra Nevada. Most years, there was good skiing until Memorial Day. Even into the late 1980's, the mountain often remained open for skiing through the Fourth of July weekend.
Gradually, yet inexorably, the weather patterns changed. In the late 1970’s, all of California experienced an extreme drought. First, the Golden State turned brown and then the skies turned black with smoke from ever-larger wildfires. An entire generation of toddlers learned not to flush the toilet unless necessary. Restaurants stopped serving water, unless requested. Auto repair facilities stopped offering complimentary car washes. California reservoirs were at an all-time low. Then, after several years of drought, heavy snow returned to the Sierra Nevada. Almost immediately, water usage climbed back to pre-drought levels.
“El Niño”, and his sister, “La Niña” were to blame for California’s erratic weather, or so we were told. When the fisheries off the coast of Peru experienced higher December ocean temperatures, California would soon feel the effects of drought. “El Niño”, in this case, referenced the supposed December birthday of the “Christ Child”. Although there is no record of Jesus having a sister, if cold ocean temperatures arrived near Peru, “La Niña” heralded cold, wet winters in the mountains of California.
In the early 1980’s, the media began mentioning the “Greenhouse Effect” and later, “Global Warming”. “El Niño” events connected weather systems in both the Southern and Northern Hemispheres, it seemed. Yet the transport or communications mechanisms between Peru and California were puzzling. The milder term, “Climate Change” had not yet gained politically correct usage. As scientists documented the interrelationship of global weather and ocean temperatures, two camps developed.
The first camp was the “Believers”. “If scientists tell us it is true, it must be true”, the Believers said. The second camp was the “Deniers”. “If scientists tell us it is true, there must be a vast conspiracy, so believe none of what they say”. Over time, a third camp arose, which I call “Rationalists”. This group says, "Over time, if I see it with my own eyes and feel it with my own body; I can determine what is true and what is not".
In the 1960’s, the snow on Minaret Road was so deep, that rotary snowplows created a two-lane canyon leading to the ski area. In the 2010’s, the snowplows still make their circuits, but snow walls twenty feet high do not occur. In recent years, the snowstorms have arrived later in the fall and ended earlier in the spring. Overall, the ambient temperature is higher and the air is drier.
In 2012, I asked Plush Kokopelli to spend the snow season at Mammoth Lakes and to report what he found. Although the first storms arrived late, during January and February 2013 more snow fell. Plush Kokopelli reported the possibility of a good snow year in the Sierra Nevada. Then, in March, things warmed up and it felt like spring in Mammoth Lakes. By late April, after a few brief storms, the snow season appeared to end.
In late April, the U.S. Forest Service plowed the road around Lake Mary. Although the road remained closed to vehicular traffic, Plush Kokopelli took a hike around the lake. On that hike, he observed the ice begin to recede from shore. Upon returning the next day, all of the ice had melted, leaving open water where an ice field had so recently resided. California Department of Water Resources reports told us that as of May 2, 2013, the Central Sierra Nevada snowpack, including Mammoth Mountain, stood at twenty-three percent of “normal”.
It may not be rational to send Plush Kokopelli to report on the weather from Mammoth Mountain, but for me, “seeing is believing”. The snow season appears to be over and a hot, dry summer in the Sierra Nevada awaits. Still, as of this writing, no one in California is mentioning the word, “drought”.
at 05:00 PM |
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Desolation Canyon - Wilderness Study Area or Hollywood Back Lot?
According to a recent Deseret News article, “Moab, Utah's scenic and diverse landscapes are an alluring backdrop for movie makers, and now the science- and thrills-based ‘MythBusters’ has picked the Desolation Canyon area to film an upcoming episode. Officials with the popular show are keeping mum about the ‘myth’ to be busted or proven — the trick is to tantalize the viewers — but a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) document details two curious components: duct tape and bubble wrap”.
The article goes on to say that the upcoming episode will, “showcase the rugged terrain of the Desolation Canyon Wilderness Study Area and feature rollicking romps along the Colorado and Green Rivers”. According to the Moab BLM Office, filming will take place in eight locations over ten days. “Strict time limits are set on film or movie permits in wilderness study areas to limit impacts (italics mine) to the environment”, a spokesperson said. With a purview 1.8 million acres, could the Moab BLM Office not suggest a less fragile and easily disturbed environment for filming? With over one hundred commercial film permits issued by Moab BLM each year, how many authorize shooting within “wilderness study areas”? Why allow anything but legitimate scientific or culturally significant filming in such a near-pristine environment?
The Deseret News article went on to say, “Review of the permits is a necessary function of the BLM's public land management responsibilities, ensuring that recipients comply with the appropriate safeguards to minimize (italics mine) disruption of the environment”. The permit for MythBusters signed April 12, 2013 and issued the following week, encompasses activities that "would otherwise already be allowed in a wilderness study area, such as hiking or climbing". In the BLM statement, there is no mention of vehicular support, power requirements or sanitary facilities.
To me, “limiting impacts” and “minimizing disruption” at the Desolation Canyon Wilderness Study Area is not enough. In support of ersatz science and commercial profit, BLM should allow no additional impacts or disruption of the wilderness study area. Wilderness stays wild only if protected from overuse by humans and their machines.
If I understand the concept, a professional production team will film actors as they recreate an experiment for which they already know the results. To spice it up, they will add some “personal danger” component. By “saving the day” with their duct tape and bubble wrap the Discovery Channel will appear to justify filming in a wilderness study area. If my thesis is close to the truth, the Moab BLM should require additional environmental safeguards for commercial shooting within any of its wilderness study areas.
Those safeguards should include aerial video footage focusing on the shooting locations, both before and after commercial activities. After completion of filming, BLM should compare the “before and after” footage, as provided by the permit holder. If there is any substantial impact or disruption of the environment, the production company should pay for remediation, replanting or loss of riparian habitat.
While filming the dramatic conclusion to the 1991 film, Thelma & Louise, director Ridley Scott leased a fleet of eleven Grand County, Utah and other official police vehicles. Up on the Shafer Trail, Scott ordered the “lawmen” to chase Thelma & Louise to the edge of a previously untrammeled mesa. During multiple “takes”, all eleven vehicles chased the actors or their stand-ins toward their eventual demise over the edge of the Colorado River Gorge.
Although Thelma & Louise is one of my all-time favorite movies, I was sad to see that the a total of twelve vehicles and their forty-eight wheels cut deep grooves into the soft, cryptobiotic soil atop the mesa. When viewed today, either in person or via Google maps, the mesa is a denude landscape, cut by arroyos and multiple social roads. Although Thelma & Louise Mesa is an environmental wreck, no one seems to notice or care.
At this time, I do not accuse the BLM or MythBusters of anything untoward. Still, the public has a right to know how our most fragile public lands are used. As such, it would behoove the producers to rent a helicopter and document their activities for all to see. If they would devote more time to environmental preservation and less time to their “duct tape and bubble wrap” drama, I might tune in and watch their story on TV.
Since BLM issued the MythBusters film permit in mid-April, all of this may be a moot. If production schedules are tight, the entire process may already be over. If there was no aerial-video oversight of this project, perhaps BLM can add it to their requirements list. Then, next time they issue a permit for commercial filming in a wilderness study area, the public will be able to observe the outcome. Until then, whatever happens in Desolation Canyon stays in Desolation Canyon.
at 06:06 PM |
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Does the Passport Potash, Inc. Holbrook Basin Project Hold Water?
In 2009, I first visited the Cane Creek Facility, operated by Intrepid Potash – Moab, LLC. The main features of the “facility” include a hydraulic (in-situ) mining operation, large settling ponds, plus a processing building and a loading facility for the finished product. While driving along the public road known as the Shafer Trail, I observed the almost total destruction of the natural environment within the confines of the facility. Contemporary large-scale farming requires potash as a fertilizer. Still, I wondered, when is the environmental cost too high for any particular mine to be developed?
In 2010, environmentalist Kathy Hemenway contacted me regarding my research into potash production near Moab. A consortium of mining companies, she told me, was preparing to mine potash from beneath the Holbrook Basin, near her home in Snowflake, Arizona. Over the next three years, Passport Potash, Inc. became the lead company in the effort to mine potash salts in the Holbrook Basin. After making agreements with various ranchers, other mining interests and the Hopi Tribe, Passport Potash commissioned the German consulting company ERCOSPLAN to create a Preliminary Economic Assessment, or “PEA”. In March 2013, Passport Potash, Inc. published the ERCOSPLAN PEA on their website.
During 2011, I had researched and written a series of four articles on the Holbrook Basin and the Little Colorado River Basin within which it resides. With overstressed aquifers and a drying environment, the introduction of a Moab-style, in-situ (solution) mine in the Holbrook Basin would reflect an obvious overuse of a diminishing resource. Initially, when I read the 2013 Passport Potash PEA, I was buoyed by the consultants’ recommendation that Passport Potash conduct conventional, “room and pillar” mining at Holbrook.
When I looked deeper into the report, I discovered potential problems with the Passport Potash conventional mining plan. As they say, “the devil is in the details”. The devil, in this case, is the potential overuse of surface water and groundwater in the Holbrook Basin. Although Passport would build conventional shafts and galleries for their mining operations, large amounts of water would be necessary for ore processing and other uses adjacent to the mine. While much of the Passport Potash PEA looked feasible to me, the lack of a comprehensive hydro-ecological survey raised an immediate red flag.
In Moab, Intrepid Potash needs only to drop a siphon into the adjacent Colorado River to suck up the incredible amounts of water required to flush potash salts from deep underground. To my knowledge, there is no public disclosure of the amounts of water required for the “Big Flush” at Moab. With relatively high purity of desired potash compounds, Intrepid Potash uses sunlight to dry their produced brine. After minimal processing, Intrepid Potash is able to ship its final product by rail or truck.
In the Holbrook Basin, however, there is a “high amount of Carnallite (approx. 8%) and the relatively high amount of insoluble material (nearly 5%) in the mineralized material”. Further, the consultants say, “the reliable processing route to obtain a MOP product (commercial potash) will be a variation of the hot leaching/crystallization route”. Since hot leaching is a water and steam-intensive process, “the total water demand for processing, including process water and make-up water for cooling cycles, is approximately 550 m³/h”. That translates to 145,295 gallons or 2.24 acre-feet per hour.
Put into context, one acre-foot of water will sustain a single U.S. suburban household, or up to four “water wise” households for one year. With a full running time of 6600 hours per year, and water usage of 2.24 acre-feet per hour, the annual water usage at the Holbrook Basin Project would be 15,840 acre-feet. In context, that amount of water could support between 15,000 and 60,000 households. Flagstaff, which is the largest city in Northern Arizona, has a population of just over 65,000. With a population of about 5,000, Holbrook is the largest city in the Holbrook Basin. When operational, the Holbrook Basin Project would dwarf the water usage of Holbrook and approach the water needs of Flagstaff. Instantly, the Holbrook Basin Project would become the largest single water user in all of Northern Arizona.
According to the PEA, “A regional aquifer is located within the Coconino Sandstone and locally within the uppermost Supai Formation, which is called the C-aquifer. Furthermore, the Moenkopi and Chinle Formations might (italics mine) contain undefined/unreported aquifers. South of the Project Area, there are extensive areas of sinkholes reaching the land surface, which suggests major salt dissolution that likely contributes to the salinity of the water in the Coconino Sandstone (COX, 1965, /6/)”. The above statement ignores the fact that new sinkholes have developed in the area within the past twenty years. Earth scientists know that as the local water table subsides, sinkholes are often the result.
“The Little Colorado (River), a permanent stream (italics mine), and the Puerco River, an intermittent stream, run through the area (COX, 1965,/6/). These streams merge about three miles east of Holbrook and tend to generally produce fresh water, which is reported to be brackish to saline in the surrounding areas”. The only hydrological study cited in the PEA dates to 1965. Perhaps the Little Colorado was a “permanent stream” in the 1960’s, but it is far from that today. In the current century, that river runs hard and fast for only a brief time each spring. At that time, snowmelt from the Mogollon Plateau runs off toward the Colorado River. Summer thunderstorms may produce brief river flow, as well. Otherwise, most of the flow cited in the PEA is running beneath the surface, if at all.
“The availability of water has been investigated in a preliminary hydrogeological study (MONTGOMERY & ASSOCIATES, 2013, /27/), but further in-depth studies are required. According to the MONTGOMERY & ASSOCIATES study, the required amount of water could be supplied (italics mine) by the Coconino Sandstone aquifer”. The cited study, by MONTGOMERY & ASSOCIATES is not currently available on the internet, so its conclusions are speculative, at best. Without drilling, logging and publication of numerous test-well flow-rates, Passport Potash, Inc. should not base their development decisions on such speculative information.
“Water demand will be met by wells drilled in the vicinity of the preliminary plant site. A pipeline system will be installed to pump the water to the plant site, where it will be stored in several large water storage tanks for use in processing, general usage in the mine, fire suppression and potable water supply”. With a planned twenty-six year production cycle at the Holbrook Basin Project, we may now extrapolate how much “mystery water” the Coconino Sandstone aquifer must contain in order to provide an adequate supply for the life of the project. My quick calculations indicate that during its lifetime, the Holbrook Basin Project would require water resources equal to almost twice the carrying capacity of Bartlett Lake, near Phoenix, Arizona. Bartlett Lake is twelve miles long, with a surface area of over two thousand acres and an average depth of one hundred feet. Until I see a professional hydrological study of the Coconino Sandstone aquifer, I would not trust mere reference to an unpublished study commissioned by Passport Potash, Inc.
“A sewer system will be constructed on-site to treat the waste-water from the sanitary facilities at the plant. Afterwards, it will be used as process water”. Before it becomes a saturated brine solution, the processing facility would reuse and recycle water several times during various phases of mineral production. Although this recycling effort is admirable, “about 15.4 MTPA (millions of tons per annum) of wet solids and 997,000 m³ (808 acre-feet) of brine per year remain as processing residues, which have to be disposed of”.
The PEA states, “The disposal brine remaining from the production process can be disposed of by deep well injection”. To me, that is a glib statement. Over the life of the project, injecting over 21,000 acre-feet of saturated brine into deep wells could result in unintended consequences. To see what might happen, look no further than the States of Arkansas, Oklahoma and Kansas, where deep rock fracturing (fracking) and process water disposal in deep wells may have caused earthquakes of unprecedented size and scale. The only way to study deep well injection at a particular site is to do it. Could large-scale process-brine injection compromise the rock barrier that separates the injection sites from the Coconino Sandstone aquifer above?
Production Waste Disposal – “The processing of the potential potash ore described in Section 16.2 produces about 400 million metric tons of wet solid tailings and about 25 million m³ MgCl2-rich waste brine over the whole project lifetime. The tailings will be stockpiled on the surface and will remain after the mining operation. Potential emissions from the tailings pile are either salty water (brine), which will be collected and handled like the waste brine, or dust transported by wind”.
“Furthermore, a 1.5 m high dyke should surround the tailings pond and will collect water run-off. The collected water will be pumped into the brine ponds and disposed by deep well injection”. In the summer months, the regional Monsoon can bring heavy downpours to the Holbrook Basin. If a major thunderstorm were to unload its water supply directly on the Holbrook Basin Project, would a five-foot tall berm of earth be sufficient to contain the mountainous, salt-saturated tailings pile? If such a disaster were to occur, the resulting flood of brine could enter the Little Colorado River and from there, flow unimpeded toward the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon.
“In total, about 400 million metric tons of wet solid tailings will accumulate during the operation. The wet salt from the plant has to be stockpiled permanently on the surface. Taking into consideration a height of 40 m and a material density of 1.7 t/m³, an area of about 6 km² is necessary to handle the solid disposal from the process”. Converted to U.S. standards, 6 km² is equal to 3.7 square miles of unprotected tailings, standing over one hundred thirty feet high.
Although the PEA passes off “dust transported by wind” in a single sentence, wind borne dust is already a major modifier of weather and stream flow throughout the Colorado Plateau. In recent years, spring dust storms have drastically altered the environment in the Colorado Rocky Mountains and other high altitude snow banks throughout the region. As wind borne dust lands on the snow pack, it changes the albedo (light reflectance) of the snow, darkening it and causing early snow melt. Rather than allowing slow release of melt water into the environment, rapid melting of dirty snow creates floods along both the Little Colorado River and throughout the Upper Colorado River Basin.
The Holbrook Basin Project, Phase 1 – “Studies to confirm and verify the assumptions made for the PEA. These studies include detailed hydrogeological investigations to determine the quantity and quality of groundwater available for the project. An initial water study indicates the general suitability of the Coconino Sandstone aquifer as a water source, but no specific investigations have been conducted. Recommendations: Detailed hydrogeological investigations to determine the quantity and quality of groundwater available for the project”.
If the legacy of the Holbrook Basin Project shall be a dried-up or brine-compromised Coconino Sandstone aquifer and a mountainous pile of salt tailings blowing in the wind, Passport Potash, Inc. should abandon the project now. Before the company moves forward with the project, it should publicly address the following issues:
• Are there sufficient water reserves available to support both the mining operation and the Holbrook Basin at large?
• What are the potential environmental effects of injecting brine into deep wells, beneath the Coconino Sandstone aquifer?
• Will the company provide adequate protective covering and drainage for the tailings pile, both during and after the project life-cycle?
Until these basic questions are answered, I remain unconvinced that the ERCOSPLAN/Passport Potash, Inc. Preliminary Economic Assessment (PEA) holds any more water than does the Little Colorado River during its dry season.
at 03:14 PM |
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A Visit to Seven Mile Canyon, Moab, Utah with Author Craig Childs in October 2008
Recently, I received a message from Dr. Terry Swanson regarding Seven Mile Canyon near Moab, Utah. In part, it said, “Hello: I was trying to find info on the “Snake in the Mouth Pictograph” and came across your blog regarding Seven Mile Canyon and your trip there with Craig Childs.
I am a retired Boeing engineer and spend a few days each year in the Moab area and even more time in the San Rafael Swell, Cedar Mesa areas. I have been to more than 400 rock art sites, belong to the Utah Rock Art Research Association (URARA) (meeting in Moab, October 2013) and the Arizona Archaeological Society, so I respect sites and never touch anything.
Reading your description and seeing you were on the North side of Highway 313 in one of your photos I looked around Google Earth and thought the location might be as depicted on the enclosed image. Best Regards! Dr. Terry Swanson
It has been over four years since I last visited Seven Mile Canyon. I did make one attempted to visit there in April 2012, but the access points had changed and barriers prevented easy access. That day, I had insufficient time to park and hike Seven Mile Canyon on my own. With the new questions raised here by Terry Swanson, I hope to visit Seven Mile Canyon again in 2013.
To answer Terry’s questions about our 2008 Seven Mile Canyon hike, I searched Google Maps for the Utah Highway 313 turnout where we had parked that day. I located it about two miles southeast of the U.S. Highway 191 junction, heading toward Canyonlands and Dead Horse Point.
Prior to 2008, I knew of Utah Highway 313, but not about Seven-Mile Canyon. Not knowing where our driver was heading that morning, I was surprised when he stopped the van at a stub road on the east side of Highway 313. At that point, we were not more than twelve miles from Downtown Moab.
Where we stopped, there were no signs or other markings. In order to find the place again, I photographed the Canyonlands Field Institute Van and our leader Craig Childs, with distinctive natural features in the background. If you search "Craig Childs" on Google, my close-up photo of Craig from that spot appears on the first row of the images results.
That day, we visited two major sets of petroglyphs. The first set was just across the highway, in a small, boulder-strewn canyon. Around the lower edge of the canyon wall, we saw many casual markings on the rocks. It looked like ancient graffiti in a picnic area. Near the end of that brief sojourn, I hiked up on the rock pile and took a photograph looking down on our whole group.
After crossing back over the highway, we followed a path through some tall, reedy plants. Growing as they did on the outside bend of the arroyo, even in October there was sufficient water beneath to leave mud on our boots. It was a tangled mess, with only a limited passageway back and forth between canyon and road.
Later, much to our surprise, a couple of sales reps, out for a joyride in a Chevy drove past us in the arroyo. Somehow, they had driven through the wet and reedy area, not caring about the finish on their company SUV. From there, the two men drove up the sandy wash that comprises much of Seven Mile Canyon. As I learned in 2012, vehicular access from Highway 313 to Seven Mile Canyon is now blocked.
On one side of the watercourse, we found a wooden-rail fence that resembled a long hitching rail for horses. With the lonely fence standing at the base of a small escarpment, its original purpose was no longer obvious to me. In this ancient place, the rail fence became a mysterious, yet recent archeological feature.
In October 2008, the area appeared wracked by drought. We found no flowing or standing water at all. The only surface moisture was in the muddy area at our entrance to the canyon. In the upper reaches of the arroyo, only thorns and tumbleweeds grew. Around the area, large cottonwood trees had died, while others looked stressed, dying-back almost before our eyes. Although the drought around Moab continued since 2008, that one section of cottonwood trees and brush has thrived. The 2012 Google Earth photo of that place shows thick brush and mature trees.
That cottonwood stand is the place where upstream thunderstorms go to die. When flash-floods in the stream-bed are large enough to bring water to the thicket, much of it is absorbed in the alluvium. If you zoom-out on Google Maps, our hiking spot is the largest green space for miles around.
In ancient days that was true, as well. Prior to the Great Disappearance, we know from tree-ring data that the Colorado Plateau enjoyed a wetter environment. Over millennia, this one patch of greenery could have housed and fed people from many cultures. A mix of ancient and newer styles of rock art in Seven Mile Canyon bears out this thesis.
Upstream from the green space, a small side canyon juts away from the arroyo. Next, we visited that dry grotto. In the rainy season, or during a thunderstorm, water pours over the edge of the mesa above, creating a Garden of Eden in the protected alcove below. When we were there, the pool at the bottom was dry and only one stressed out plant of any size was alive in the immediate area. Imagine that space in ancient times. Was it a bathing spot for early residents and visitors? With the profusion of the ancient rock art on the walls of the grotto, I could see that it was once a well-populated place.
That day, we spent our time looking, listening and writing, all in the lower reaches of Seven Mile Canyon. At one point, Craig Childs asked us take off our shoes and walk barefoot in the bottom of the sandy wash. “Just feel the Earth beneath your feet”, he said. My field notes from that day read as follows. “As I walk up canyon, I feel hard sand beneath my bare feet. Rather than enjoying my journey, I think about my destination. Will I know it when I find it, or should I just walk on? Now I look up from my writing place and realize that it is here, in this canyon, among these shimmering cottonwood trees that I do belong”.
Soon it will be time for me to look again upon Seven Mile Canyon. I plan to do so in May 2013. If you go, be prepared to spend three or four hours in the canyon. Even if you hike no farther up canyon than we did in 2008, your encounter with the Spirit of the Ancients will be well worth the effort.
at 06:20 PM |
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