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Chapter #382: The Four Corners Region - Part 4 - August 16, 2021


Glen Canyon Dam nears completion in the early 1960s - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)

The Historical Saga of Glen Canyon Dam and Wahweap Bay

Any visit to Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell is a memorable event. The surreal nature of a giant concrete plug embedded in soft Arizona sandstone, while holding back the second largest reservoir in America is a site to behold. Visitors can walk across the bridge that spans the 800-foot chasm just downstream of the dam. As large trucks rumble across the bridge at well over the twenty-five mile per hour speed limit, the whole structure resonates at a low pitch. Many of the smaller vehicles flagrantly violate the speed limit. There are no automated “Slow Down” signs and little actual enforcement of the speed limit.

On a recent visit, I trained my camera lens between the chain links that make up the safety fencing along the bridge. Looking down at the dam, which registers 710-foot tall, I noticed a strange anomaly. Where the canyon wall abuts the lower-right portion of the dam, steel rods and plates had been installed to keep the sandstone from crumbling. To make the scene even more startling, water had seeped from behind the dam and along a horizontal seam. Seepage and emergency repairs are evident at the base of Glen Canyon Dam - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)The result was a large, horizontal mosey patch leading downstream from the dam itself. Apparently, the dam was weeping around its eastern edge, and engineers had installed protective bolts and plates. Their intent was to keep the lower canyon wall from crumbling away and exposing more of the concrete dam.

If you have ever observed a concrete patch on an asphalt road or an asphalt patch on a concrete road, you know that the hard concrete and the softer asphalt to not make for a happy marriage. Concrete and asphalt expand and contract deferentially under pressure, heat or moisture. The result is that sooner or later the two will separate and create a greater problem than before the patch was made. Likewise, the 4,901,000 cubic yards of ever-hardening concrete within Glen Canyon Dam are embedded in the soft and porous sandstone of Glen Canyon itself.

When water levels are high, Lake Powell is a serene, blue water paradise for visitors - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)When fully stressed by an overfilled condition in 1983, Lake Powell contained over 27-million acre-feet of water. To avoid spilling water over the front of the dam and possibly losing it all together, water managers were forced to run both spillway tunnels at their designed maximum of 208,000 cubic feet per second. Anonymous sources later revealed that as the extended water release activity continued, the entire dam resonated and thrummed. Since parts of the twin spillway tunnels were bored through sandstone, huge chunks of that natural formation broke loose and swept out into the Colorado River.

How much lasting damage was done during the 1983 water release event will never be known. Large public agencies like the United States Bureau of Reclamation (USBR), which runs Glen Canyon Dam, have a habit of hiding as much controversial information as they can. What they cannot hide is the Glen Canyon Dam, as seen from Lake Powell in the summer of 1965 - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)thermal stress on the dam. In January the average high temperature at nearby Page, Arizona is 44F degrees. In July, the average high temperature is 97F degrees, or 57F degrees higher.

Daily temperature cycles should also be considered. Each day throughout the year, the high and low air temperatures vary by up to 24F degrees. Although the concrete in the dam does not thermally cycle as dramatically, the face of the dam is shaped like a parabola thus concentrating the sun on its southeastern exposure. With cold water behind the dam and hot sun shining on the front of it, how does the dam dissipate that energy into the sedimentary rock in which it stands? Maybe that differential stress is why the unmentioned grout, steel bolts and plates have been installed in the sandstone canyon wall along the
Roadway of the Glen Canyon Dam Bridge, looking to the east - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)lower right face of the dam.

After traveling over the Glen Canyon Dam Bridge, I proceeded west on Highway 89 to the Wahweap Overlook turnoff. The directional signage from Highway 89 West is minimal, so the obscure turnoff is easy to miss. The paved road up the hill to the overlook is adequate, but the unpaved parking area at the top has no traffic markings or designated parking spots. Since the inception of the dam, the Wahweap Overlook has defined how an “overlooked” overlook might look. Given the popularity of the site and its status as a senior citizen, authorities should have paved the parking area and installed a restroom facility sixty years ago. Perhaps it is a moot point, since the drying of Lake Powell could soon leave Wahweap Overlook as just another dry knoll in the Arizona desert.

The view downstream from the Glen Canyon Dam Bridge - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)In May 2021, from Wahweap Overlook I could still see Wahweap Marina on the near shore of Wahweap Bay. In the middle distance lay Castle Rock, which looks as much like a castle as any other “Castle Rock” in the Western U.S. Farther north and east stands the eroded volcanic shape of Navajo Mountain (elevation 10,387’). With some effort and a short hike down the hill, I could look downstream and see the top portion of Glen Canyon Dam. Ironically, the water level was about the same as I remembered it from my first visit to Lake Powell in 1965. Keep in mind that Lake Powell was then still receiving its initial fill of once abundant Colorado River water.

Even with its steadily shrinking size, Wahweap Bay still looks grand, giving Lake Powell a spacious, breathtaking feel. Most visitors do not realize that prior to the construction of the dam, the flow of the Colorado River never touched the majestic and sacred Navajo Mountain overlooks much of Lake Powell - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)what we now call Wahweap Bay. The main canyon, known as Glen Canyon, meanders northeast from the dam in a rocky trench. The containment created by that sheer cliff does not broaden out again for many miles. From the Wahweap Overlook, I could see neither Glen Canyon or the Castle Rock Cut, which once was Lake Powell’s much shorter version of the Suez Canal. As such, it was a manmade cut in the sandstone, which allowed boats to pass from Wahweap Bay upstream to Warm Creek Bay. Transiting that trench by boat bypassed a stretch of Glen Canyon, shortening the distance from Wahweap to the upper reaches of Lake Powell by twelve miles, or over one hour of travel time.

Part of Wahweap Bay, as seen from Wahweap Overlook in 2015 - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)First cut into the sandstone in the 1970s, and with its bottom deepened to 3,600’ elevation in 2014, the Castle Rock Cut served boaters for decades. As of 2021, Google Maps still shows the cut as if it is operational. I suppose the map keepers at Google Maps are either too lazy to show current reality or perhaps they believe that the lake will refill itself and reactivate the cut for boat travel. An environmental assessment in 2008 had optimistically stated that the cut could be deepened to 3,580’ elevation. On July 23, 2021, the reservoir’s level fell to 3,555’ elevation, or twenty-five vertical feet below the final proposed depth of the Castle Rock Cut. In other words, the Castle Rock Cut now stands high and dry.

The iconic scene of Charlton Heston finding a destroyed Statue of Liberty in the 1968 original Planet of the Apes movie was filmed on the beach at Paradise A model of the Sandcrawler, from the Star Wars series of movies - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)Cove, California. However, the opening scene, which depicts his prior crash landing in a spacecraft was filmed at Lake Powell. With such Science fiction credibility already established at Lake Powell, I suggest that the “Sandcrawler”, a fictional transport vehicle in the Star Wars universe that is found on the desert planet Tatooine be redeployed to the Castle Rock Cut. There it could be utilized as a houseboat transporter. It could scoop up a boat from Wahweap Bay, and then use its many treads to crawl the Castle Rock Cut to Warm Creek Bay. There, it could disgorge the houseboat and its happy passengers, all in a matter of minutes.

Sitting on blocks in 2014, most similar houseboats can no longer launch into Lake Powell - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)Back in the reality of the twenty-first century, the Castle Rock Cut joined the Bullfrog Main Launch Ramp, Antelope Point Public Launch Ramp, Hite Launch Ramp and Stateline Launch Ramp on the list of closed Lake Powell boating facilities. As of this writing, the main launch ramp at Wahweap Marina had an expected closure date of mid-August 2021. Recently, the National Park Service (NPS) began preparing a smaller, “Auxiliary Ramp” not used since the 1960s. It will be able to launch or retrieve only two boats at a time. The NPS was also preparing the Stateline Auxiliary Launch Ramp for limited use later this year. Neither auxiliary ramp will accommodate houseboats over thirty-six feet in length.

Dust spontaneously lifts into the air near Lake Powell, Arizona - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillios.com)Thinking back to the original Planet of the Apes movie, I imagined an event thousands of years from now. An errant spaceship, piloted by a descendant of Elon Musk might aim his disabled spacecraft for the dead pool of Lake Powell. Assuming a successful water landing, the survivors might hike out in the direction of what once was Wahweap Bay. There, Elon the 125th and his crew might come across the huge concrete ramp at Wahweap. With Lake Powell no longer reaching Wahweap Bay, the long concrete ramp at the former Wahweap Marina would be as mysterious as the Pyramids at Giza. The survivors might ask, “What type of spacecraft could have launched from this dry and desolate ramp?”

Throughout my own lifetime, the Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell have represented subterfuge, boom and bust. As I reflected on that, I knew it was time to go. Fifty-six years after my first visit to Wahweap in 1965, I wondered if this would be my last. Having photographically documented the Wahweap
In 2021, a stretch of Wahweap Bay Bay, showing how far the water has sunk from the same scene above in 2015 - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)Overlook view for the past fifteen years, I snapped a few more pictures and then departed. What my photos revealed was the continued desiccation of Lake Powell. In the past six years alone, a large section of Wahweap Bay had gone dry.

Finished in the early 1960s, Wahweap’s concrete launch ramp extended farther and deeper into the lake than any other launch ramp. At the time no one imagined that the surface of Lake Powell would ever fall below the end of the concrete ramp. As I drove away, the question in my mind was, “Once it is reduced to a shadow of its former glory, will Wahweap Marina ever again thrive as a pleasure boating facility?” I have my doubts.


This concludes Part Four of a Five-Part Article. To read Part Five, click HERE. To return to Part One, click HERE.

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By James McGillis at 04:29 PM | Colorado River | Comments (0) | Link


Chapter #381: The Four Corners Region - Part 3 - August 3, 2021


In August 2015, The Wahweap Marina in Lake Powell was riding high in its bay - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)

Saving The Colorado River - Are We Doing Too Little, Too Late?

On Monday, May 24, 2021, I departed Monument Valley for Kanab, Utah, via Page, Arizona. The weather was clear, with only a light breeze. Page, Arizona owes its current existence to the nearby Glen Canyon Dam and its reservoir, inaptly named “Lake Powell”. Loved by power boaters but decried by environmentalists since its completion in the mid-1960s, both the dam and the “lake” are anachronistic constructs of 20th century groupthink. To justify its initial construction, dam advocates and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) had touted the proposed dam as a flood control mechanism.

Later, those running the dam’s As water levels continued to fall, by May 2021, Wahweap Marina stretched from bank to bank across its bay - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)electrical generators switched to promoting its ability to produce electricity from a supposedly renewable resource. Current lake levels would suggest otherwise. By 2023, the hydro-power intake structures will stand above the projected lake level. In other words, the dam will likely create no hydro-power at all.

As of 2021, drought and structural overdrawing of Colorado River water supplies have made a mockery of the Glen Canyon Dam and its rapidly shrinking reservoir. The Upper Colorado River Basin is in such extreme drought that the prospects of a catastrophic flood are near zero. As for the power boaters, most of their launch ramps now look like ski jumps, with a long drop-offs to the rocks below. The lake itself is so much smaller, snags, unseen sandbars and lack of beaches for camping make the boating experience more hazardous each year. Shorelines of quicksand and Looking as if they stepped out of an earlier century, two your girls run and play at Wahweap Overlook at Lake Powell, Arizona. Missing from the mesa in the background is the recently dismantled Navajo Generating Station - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)gravel bars not seen in over fifty years will consume the unwary. Lake Powell is fast approaching its all-time low water mark and is unlikely to rebound in the next decade or two.

In November 2019, the Navajo Generating Station (NGS) near Page, Arizona ceased operations. If anyone thought that Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell were cynical constructs of 20th century infrastructure, they should study the development and ultimate demise of the coal fired NGS. Owned by the Salt River Project, the largest public utility in the State of Arizona, the main purpose of NGS was to create electricity to pump Colorado River water over five mountain ranges to Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona.

The abandoned coal silos at Shonto, Arizona once stoked the Navajo Generating Station in Page, Arizona - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)To power the three huge furnaces at NGS, miners extracted and shipped coal from the Black Mesa Complex, near Kayenta, Arizona. Black Mesa lies above what used to be the largest aquifer in the Navajo Nation. Contemporaneous with the NGS, unscrupulous power brokers had tapped that aquifer to send a slurry of coal to a now defunct power plant at Laughlin, Nevada. Peabody Coal and its successor corporations operated the Black Mesa Mine on contract to the Navajo Nation. In exchange for some transitory jobs and revenue, the Navajo received a strip-mined mesa and the despoilment of their precious water resources. As a concession to the Navajo, the mine offered free coal for home heating each year. Since many Navajo households have no electricity, the foul and deadly coal was their only heat source during the winter. To add insult to injury, the Navajo had to line up with their personal pickup trucks and trailers to cart off the "free coal".

The old aquifer at Cow Springs, Arizona is now dry, which was a consequence of strip mining at nearby Black Mesa, Arizona - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)Although the mine and the NGS did provide some jobs for Navajo tribal members, the true legacy of the NGS was polluted groundwater and air throughout the Four Corners Region. For over forty years, visitors to the nearby Grand Canyon often looked down on a smokey pit, not the natural wonder they came to see. At one time, the NGS was the largest producer of airborne nitrogen oxide in the United States. Only far cheaper electricity provided by natural gas and renewable sources doomed the NGS.

When Arizona won a larger share of Colorado River water in federal lawsuits during the 1960s, the largest user of water in Southern Arizona was agriculture. Pima cotton got its name from Pima County, where Tucson now boasts a population of over one million residents. In the days when cotton was king, Phoenix, Arizona had a population of under 600,000. Today, Greater The now defunct Navajo Generating Station at Page, Arizona was once the largest single nitrogen oxide emitter in the continental U.S. - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)Phoenix has a population of 4.485 million. As agriculture subsided, the vast and thirsty megalopolis of Phoenix/Tucson grew in its place.

A little-known fact about the NGS was its thirst. During its 45-years of operation, it was the single largest consumer of water from Lake Powell. It also used over ten percent of its electrical power generation to transport coal via rail and to pump its cooling water from Lake Powell. Looking back, the NGS stole water from the Navajos and wasted that precious water to power itself and its electric trains. To complete the circle of complicity, Arizona built its current wealth on the false premise of abundant water, pumped from an unsustainable water supply. Like a science fiction monster, the NGS laid waste to water and land while using profligate amounts of energy to power itself. For 45-years, the NGS wasted water, power and environmental resources, all in the name of “progress”.

By 2021 and prior to the major delivery cutbacks to come, Arizona had banked about two years of water supply in shallow desert aquifers. Most of it is near The Navajo Generating Station on a cool day in October 2015, with all three furnaces emitting toxic gases and all six cooling towers wasting untold amounts of Colorado River water - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station, west of Phoenix. With the water table so close to the surface, water samples there can register over 80-f degrees. To stave off potential water shortages, construction crews are installing pumps and delivery systems from those aquifers to north Phoenix. For as long as that water bank lasts, Phoenix can continue to pretend that it has an adequate supply of water. When it becomes obvious that supplies will tighten, expect land values in more recent suburbs, like Anthem Arizona to experience a major slump in housing prices. Water may soon become too expensive or scarce to supply all who want it.

When the reservoir downstream from Lake Powell, which is Lake Meade reaches its official drought emergency level in August 2021, Arizona and Nevada will take the deepest cuts in future water deliveries. With unending
A parched view of the Navajo Generating Station in August 2018, with all three furnaces still spewing pollution into the Four Corners Region - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)drought and decreased flows in both the Upper Colorado Basin (Lake Powell) and the Lower Colorado River Basin (Lake Mead), there is no guarantee of sufficient water in either or both basins to supply basic water needs to the 40 million people in the Southwest who depend on it. Although Arizona and Nevada will take the biggest initial cut in water deliveries, the entire region is likely to experience extreme shortages in the next decade.

The history of water politics in the West is one of over optimism and faulty projections. Instead of inaction and dithering as the West dries up and blows away, both the federal government and the states that make up the Colorado River Compact should take bold action.
Each year, Lake Powell losses up to fifteen percent of its volume to evaporation and percolation into its sandstone basin. The ongoing dismantling of the Navajo Generating Station in May 2021 - Click for larger image (htts://jamesmcgillis.com)The USBR should immediately decommission Lake Powell. They should then conduct a controlled release of water from Lake Powell into the Colorado River. When that still substantial volume of water reaches Lake Mead, it will then occupy a smaller geographical “footprint”. Unlike the substantial percolation at Lake Powell, Lake Mead’s granite lined basin will retain much more of its received water.

How would these bold moves affect the Colorado River and its water consumers? First, Page Arizona would decline in population, back to near its size before construction of the Glen Canyon Dam. Power boaters would have to travel to a more viable Lake Mead, farther downstream. As Lake Powell recedes, river runners could once again conduct rafting tours of the actual Glen Canyon. For the first time in over fifty years, hardy tourists could visit the most spectacular ecosystem ever destroyed by a desert reservoir. In time, Glen Canyon would recover, and the “Eden of the Rolling through Kanab, Utah, a scrapper hauls away remnants of the Navajo Generating Station - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)Desert” could well become a greater draw than the transitory “lake”. With luck and realistic planning, Phoenix, Las Vegas and even Los Angeles could survive, albeit on a much tighter water budget.

On the bright side, Page Arizona could become both a rafting and a mining center, quarrying desert sandstone for use in xeriscape throughout California, Arizona and Nevada. Personally, I would be happy to repopulate my Southern California front yard with succulents and cacti, interspersed among expanses of “Navajo Sandstone”. As I write this in August 2021, my plan sounds harsh. In 2022 and beyond, it may sound like “too little and too late”.


This concludes Part Three of a Five-Part Article. To read Part Four, click HERE. To return to Part One, click HERE

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By James McGillis at 01:47 PM | Colorado River | Comments (1) | Link


Chapter #350: Sarah Thomas - World Record Swim - December 1, 2016


Long-distance swimmer Sarah Thomas prepares to enter the water for her 56-mile unassisted swim of Lake Powell in October 2016 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

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.
Watch Sarah Thomas Swim the Length of Lake Powell 2016

We depart from Antelope Marina, Lake Powell, Arizona on our 70-ft. luxury houseboat - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)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.

With this 26-ft. outboard, we explored the side canyons of Lake Powell - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)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.

Rainbow Bridge National Monument, Utah, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)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.

For Sarah Thomas, the perils of swimming Lake Powell from end-to-end included high-speed excursion boats pushing a bow wave that could drown an otter - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)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 Nearing the end of her 56-mile unassisted swim in Lake Powell, new world record holding long-distance swimmer, Sarah Thomas strokes gracefully toward her destination - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)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.
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By James McGillis at 10:36 PM | Colorado River | 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 (https://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 (https://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.

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

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