Chapter #384: The Colorado River's Demise - 2023 - September 10, 2022

A view of Wahweap Marina, Lake Powell, Arizona in May 2014 - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)

The Impending Demise of the Colorado River

As most people in the Western United States know, we are experiencing an extended drought. The aridness in the West has resulted in a severely diminished flow of water along the Colorado River. In fact, the river no longer discharges into the Sea of Cortez in Mexico. From that now dormant coastal estuary, most wildlife disappeared long ago. In 2022, with the advent of a limited pilot-program, a tiny amount of Colorado River water will flow again to the sea.

That is a hopeful sign during an otherwise bleak hydrological environment in the West. Ironically, humankind’s misplaced desire to control that once mighty river could result in a destructive wave traveling from Glen Canyon Dam all the way to the Sea of Cortez. Stay with me to the end of this article to learn how such an apocalyptic fate for the iconic river is possible.

As with this home in Boulder City, Nevada, an emerald green lawn anywhere in the Colorado River Basin is the sure sign of an entitled scofflaw - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)Why is the Colorado River failing? Historical and updated river-flow data allows us to predict its demise. There is no longer an “if.” Now it is all about “when.” As less rain falls and the snowpack diminishes in the Upper Colorado River Basin, another phenomenon takes hold. For some it consists of blind ignorance. For many, it is the irrational human need to utilize and be wasteful of water. Either scenario raises demand for water, as if it emanates from an unlimited source.

One tankless water heater manufacturer promotes “endless hot water, which is now available” with their system. A nearby neighbor in Southern California defies current “one-day-each-week” outdoor watering limits. He runs his lawn sprinklers daily, often before sunrise to avoid detection, then follows up by hand-watering his entire front yard. Each day, almost ten gallons of potable water flows down the gutter past our house. Our front lawn is dead. His lawn is lush, green, and currently going to seed. In Southern California and now throughout the Southwest, a green lawn is the sure sign of a scofflaw. The attitude of many people throughout the Southwest, is one of entitlement. For them, cheating on their water budget or ignoring their legal limits is a way of life.

Wahweap Marina in April 2022 was at its lowest elevation since the initial filling of Lake Powell in the 1960s - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)In the Upper Colorado River Basin, the drought now brings Lake Powell to its lowest elevation since initial filling in the 1960s. How low is it? In April 2022, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR), which operates the major dams throughout the Colorado River system made a surprise announcement. From Flaming Gorge Reservoir, Wyoming’s largest, they released 500,000-acre-feet of water. From there, the water flowed down the Green River, and then into the Colorado River. The plan was to replenish and stabilize the water level in Lake Powell.

The USBR has touted this plan as a prudent way to keep power flowing from the hydroelectric turbines at Glen Canyon Dam, at least through 2023. Ironically, the original public proposal for the Glen Canyon Dam, promoted it as a “flood control dam,” not as a lynchpin in the electrical grid. Because the reservoir was beautiful and grand when at least half full, Lake Powell also became an indispensable recreational resource. Few people realized that the reservoir rested on soft and porous sandstone. In addition to relentless evaporation, the reservoir “banks” about fifteen percent of its water volume each year.

Prior to its decommissioning in 2019, the Navajo Generating Station at Page, Arizona was the single largest water user from Lake Powell - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)For almost fifty years, the coal-fired Navajo Generating Station (NGS) operated near the Glen Canyon Dam in Page, Arizona. Utilizing coal mined at Black Mesa, Arizona, its furnaces polluted the air, and its pumps withdrew vast quantities of water from Lake Powell. While wasting over ten percent of its power conveying its own cooling water and coal supply, NGS also broke records for sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide pollution. Although there was onsite wastewater recycling, losses due to both steam turbine generation and cooling tower evaporation made the NGS the largest single user of water in the Upper Colorado River Basin.

The main purpose of the NGS was to annually pump 50,000 acre-feet of “excess” Colorado River water over four mountain ranges to both Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona. Along the way, Arizona diverted vast amounts of water into shallow desert aquifers near the Palo Verde Nuclear Power Plant. The idea was to later mine that water from the desert and supply it to Phoenix. Currently, a large aqueduct is under construction there. Since the scheme has no precedent, no one knows if or for how long this desert water mining will work.

As seen from Wahweap Overlook, the Navajo Generating station sucked, pumped and boiled off more water from Lake Powell than any other single user - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)Despite the excessive air, water and ground pollution associated with the NGS, for decades it was like the monster that would not die. Not until the vast over development of natural gas resources in the Four Corners Region did the NGS's economic costs outweigh its job-related or power production benefits. In 2019, twenty years into a regional drought of millennial proportions, the NGS finally shutdown. If we are looking for a culprit in the current desiccated condition of Lake Powell, the NGS would be a prime target for investigation. In fact, the same flawed arguments that allowed the construction of Glen Canyon Dam go hand in hand with the commissioning of the NGS in the mid-1970s.

In 2022, all of us who now rely on the Colorado River have both an environmental and an economic bill to pay. How long can we collectively afford to subsidize lush green golf courses in Page, Arizona, alfalfa fields in the Imperial County, California, cotton growing in Pima County, Arizona, or my neighbor’s green lawn? More importantly, do humans have the capacity to create and implement a plan that will save the Colorado River system? Taking shorter
Although it is no longer the case, in 2006 Lake Powell was clearly visible from the edge of Wahweap Overlook - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)showers, eliminating public fountains and decorative turf will not be enough to turn that tide.

What we need now is a clear-eyed look at the entire Colorado Riverway, from the high mountains to the low desert and everywhere in between. Affected states still adhere to the outdated Colorado River Compact of 1922. A century ago, all the states touching the Colorado River watershed agreed to over allocate its resources for generations to come. Politics played its role, with water rights assigned according to historical usage and population density. As a result, the compact granted the irrigation district in Imperial County, California (population 180,000), the largest single claim on Colorado River water. Why? Because long before huge dams and hydroelectric power allowed for the long-distance pumping of river water, inventive farmers directly tapped the river. In fact, a Colorado River dike which broke early in the 20th century resulted in the forming of the Salton Sea. Near Blythe, California resourceful farming families have succeeded in transforming the desert into cropland.

In February 2017, Lake Mead was already showing great signs of stress, as displayed by its low water level - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)The Colorado River Compact expires in 2026. Often acrimonious discussions regarding its replacement are already underway. The participants include the Upper Basin (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming), the Lower Basin (Arizona, California, and Nevada), Mexico and several tribal nations. According to a 2019 federal Drought Contingency Plan (DCP), as Lake Mead falls below 1,045’ elevation, the USBR must now declare a “Stage 2b Water Shortage Emergency”. On August 8, 2022, the reservoir stood at 1,229’ elevation, only four feet above a DCP Stage 3 declaration.

As a temporary measure, Congress recently approved $4 billion for emergency drought mitigation within the Colorado River Basin. Much of that money will go to pay Indian tribes and alfalfa growers in the Imperial Valley not to plant crops. The various USBR shortage decrees have flown by so quickly, it is hard for even the experts to keep track of water allocations. As of August 16, 2022, a Department of Interior declaration cut 2023 water allocations to Arizona by 21%, with smaller cuts to Nevada and Mexico. Senior water rights in California Hoover Dam, as pictured here in 2016 will soon be in danger of producing no electricity or even passing water through the dam to locations downstream - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)assured that there would be no cuts to its water deliveries in 2023.

In a surprise move, the Department of the Interior also allowed the acrimonious and unfruitful negotiations among the signatories to the “Law of the River” to proceed. It is an election year, and no one wanted to restrict anyone’s water rights further than already agreed upon. While Nero fiddled, Rome burned. While recalcitrant negotiators wrangle over cutting the allocations of others, but increasing their own, the Colorado River is not participating in the discussions.

In 2022, as Lake Powell approaches Minimum Power Pool and then Dead Pool, its viability as a power station, flood control device and a recreational site will all come together in a multi-pronged disaster for the entire Colorado River System - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)Protracted negotiations or litigation will extend any true solution until it is too late to save hydroelectric production at both Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams. Achieving the “dead pool” elevation of 3,370’ at Lake Powell and 895’ at Lake Mead, when water can no longer pass through either dam, becomes more likely over time. Prior to dead pool, there will be too little water in the reservoirs to send down the penstocks and spin the electrical turbines. The USBR interim plan to “balance the two pools” will delay the inevitable, but not change the outcome.

In 2022 and 2023, a physical danger lurks in the “minimum power pool,” coming soon to Lake Powell. With typical 20th century hubris, the designers of Glen Canyon Dam did not anticipate a future time when its hydroelectric plant would go offline. As of September 6, 2022, Lake Powell was at an elevation of
Once it reaches Minimum Power Pool, giant, unlined sandstone tunnels, known as the Outlet Works may become the only way to release water from Lake Powell - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)3,523’, or almost seventy-eight feet lower than two years prior. The lake’s elevation rests just thirty-three feet above minimum power pool. At minimum power pool, there will not be sufficient "head" for gravity to send water down the penstocks and spin the turbines.

Unless weather patterns and water usage change drastically, that critical level will come sometime in 2023. Below minimum power pool, the reservoir will still have millions of acre-feet of sequestered water. What it will lack is a safe method of releasing any of that water through the dam. To fully grasp this eventuality, picture the Grand Canyon becoming a permanent dry wash. Still, a potentially unsafe method of water release from Glen Canyon Dam does exist. It involves what are known as “diversion tunnels” or the “outlet works.”

During the early stages of construction, both the Coffer Dam and the Outlet Works are clearly visible in this photo from around 1960 - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)To facilitate construction of the dam in the 1950s, engineers first bored two enormous tunnels through the canyon walls. They then constructed a coffer dam, which temporarily diverted river water through the new diversion tunnels. The resulting outlet works could divert and convey even a large spring flood safely downstream. Luckily, no major floods occurred until after the 1964 commissioning of Glen Canyon Dam. Upon completion, crews dismantled the coffer dam, and closed the enormous gates at the head of the diversion tunnels.

All went well until the spring of 1983. In anticipation of summer electrical generation needs, the USBR kept Lake Powell at an elevated level. As spring wore on, there were huge snowstorms in the Upper Basin watershed, followed by rainstorms and rapid snow melt. Quickly, water in Lake Powell reached the top of the dam. Only hastily constructed plywood and lumber bulwarks atop the dam kept it from a disastrous overtopping. Unable to divert sufficient water through the hydroelectric plant, the operators “opened the floodgates,” better known as the outlet works.

Seen here in Spring 1983 with all electrical turbines operating and both Outlet Works discharging farther downstream, Lake Powell was in danger of over-topping - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)For weeks, enormous outflows subjected the unlined sandstone tunnels to unanticipated stress. As a result, the outflow ejected huge chunks of raw sandstone downstream of the dam. Contemporary reports by persons not authorized to speak publicly told of the dam humming or thrumming, as if in major distress. Soon thereafter, the water level of Lake Powell dropped far enough to allow closure of the outlet works and resumption of water release solely through the hydroelectric station. Chastened, the dam’s operators never again let the lake rise even close to capacity prior to the end of spring runoff. Ironically, this conservative approach to reservoir management meant that Lake Powell would never again approach “full pool.”

The 2022 emergency release of water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir has bought the USBR one more year before the prospect of a minimum power pool at Lake Powell. In their version of Two Card Monte, dam operators are accepting 500,000 acre-feet of water from Flaming Gorge and reducing deliveries downstream to Lake Mead by a similar amount. As Oz famously said If the Outlet Works at Glen Canyon Dam were to fail, the entire contents of Lake Powell could be transported through the Grand Canyon and into Lake Mead - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)in the Wizard of Oz, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” Likewise, should we pay no attention to the huge amount of water retained in Lake Powell?

If you were to write a disaster movie script, you would include a scene in which veteran Glen Canyon Dam workers face the prospect of reopening the compromised outlet works. In releasing any remaining water from Lake Powell to Lake Mead, they fear the cracking and ultimate destruction of Glen Canyon Dam. In the next scene, they would open the creaking gates of the outlet works. For a time, everything would work correctly. Then, they would hear a low harmonic sound emanating from the dam. Soon, the humming would become a roar. Too late to save themselves, the workers would run for the exits, only to have the dam disintegrate around them.

If the Glen Canyon Dam Outlet Works were to fail, a tsunami of previously unseen proportions could enter Lake Mead and imperil Hoover Dam - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)The result would be the immediate draining of the second largest reservoir in America. Almost immediately, the biggest flood on the Colorado River since the creation of the Grand Canyon would ensue. At Lake Mead, downstream, the wave would surge to a height greater than any tsunami in history. As the surge created by the wave would impinge on Hoover Dam, that too would disintegrate. Farther downstream, the remaining dams would fall one after another. Within hours, the once sequestered contents of the Colorado River would rush into the Sea of Cortez, creating a saltwater tsunami.

Such a catastrophe cannot happen, you say. In 1983, the dam almost failed. There is nothing to say that our next attempt to save the Colorado River will not result in its untimely demise. Thousands of years hence, descendants of survivors in the Southwest might tell tales of a Great Flood, from which their ancestors survived. Other than not including an ark full of animals, that story has a familiar ring.

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By James McGillis at 04:07 PM | Colorado River | Comments (0) | Link

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 (0) | Link

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

Long-distance swimmer Sarah Thomas prepares to enter the water for her 82-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 82-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

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