Chapter #385: Snow in Death Valley National Park - November 9, 2023

The road to Wildrose, also known as Emigrant Pass was the original highway to Death Valley from the west - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)

Experience a Blizzard In Death Valley National Park 2023

In California, the Winter of 2023 produced record rain and snowfall, especially in the Central and Southern Sierra Nevada. As that moisture traveled east, even the Panamint Range, in Death Valley National Park received record snowfall. As spring approached, the sky-rivers kept flowing, sometimes warm and sometimes cold.

On February 28, I watched a snowflake or two fall outside my window in Panamint Springs. Toward sundown, the clouds descended to a low level, obscuring any remaining sunlight. That eerie and early darkness kept me inside all night. What will tomorrow bring?

On March 1, 2023 snowclouds hung low over the Panamint Valley, Death Valley National Park - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)In the morning, the distance-obscuring clouds hung low on the Panamint Range. Around noon, the clouds had lifted enough for me to strike out in search of that elusive cell phone signal. As I descended into Panamint Valley, I encountered a shallow lake, with Highway 190 running like a dry ribbon down the middle of it. Rising through a long series of switchbacks on the far slopes, I could see snow clouds ahead.

Soon, sloppy wet snow obscured my windshield. The normal flow of traffic to and from Death Valley kept the snow from accumulating on the roadway. As I ascended Towne Pass, the snow fields to either side grew thicker, and the temperature dropped. Over the top and slightly downhill on the Death Valley side, I came upon the venerable old stone Emigrant Junction Station. Built in the 1920’s, just beyond the junction of Emigrant Pass and the newer Towne Pass, it has stood the test of time. Abandoned now and silhouetted by snowy peaks behind, the haunting building added to a forlorn tableau.

The old Entrance Station to Death Valley is located at the intersection of Emigrant Pass and Towne Pass, west of the valley itself - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)Almost adjacent to the building was the Junction of Highway 190 and the old Emigrant Pass. There, an open gate beckoned me to take the old road to Wildrose and Skidoo. Both places were old mines, which had played out well before the National Park era. I had driven Emigrant Pass once before, in late spring. At that time, I had traveled up the canyon from the Panamint Valley. On this day, I faced a treacherous and snowy road first created using mule teams in the 1920’s. As snow fell all around, I felt a sense of mystery and drama. Without fanfare, I slushed past the open gate.

After seeing only one SUV, traveling in the opposite direction, I realized that I might be alone for the rest of this journey. Was I foolhardy, foolish, or just allowing my sense of adventure to lead me on? Whatever the reason, or lack thereof, I was on my way to Wildrose and beyond. As I progressed, snow
covered more of the road and plastered itself on my windshield.

A snowstorm in the Panamint Range had completely covered the road to Wildrose, Death Valley National Park - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)Undeterred, I soldiered on. Why turn back when you can still proceed forward, I thought. Being a child of the 1960’s, I had brought a four-CD pack, which included Moody Blues entire songbook. Their upbeat songs, like “Sitting at the Wheel” were a perfect accompaniment to my snow blown trip into the snowy unknown. A series of crowning curves on an old mountain road lay ahead of me. Although I had four-wheel drive, I began to think that the tread on my rear tires might be too thin to clear the snow from the grooves.




Experience a Blizzard in Death Valley National Park

Half way down the Road to Wildrose, the trees lay heavy with wet snow - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)As I traveled deeper into the wilderness, I remembered that I did not bring any survival food or shelter greater than a light jacket and a space blanket. Inexplicably, I had left my Zoleo satellite text communicator back in camp. Now I put my faith in driving twenty miles in a blizzard. If I could get over the endless ridge-top curves, I knew that the highway would drop into the warmer canyons, below the snowline. What I did not fully anticipate or appreciate was both the beauty and the stress of making that perilous journey.

Without further drama, I will report that I did make it through a harrowing and sobering experience. Despite a fallen tree, which almost blocked the entire roadway, I was able to skirt that problem, and descend below the snow line for the remainder of my trip. Looking back from the alluvial fan of Wildrose Canyon, I could see the storm still clinging to the slopes of the Panamint Range. To my relief, the safety of the Trona Road lay only a mile or two farther down that gravel road.

As the snowstorm lifted from the Panamint Valley, Death Valley National Park, the Phoenix Bird took flight over the Panamint Range - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)Looking back, would I take that drive again? Well, how many people do you know that almost got snowed-in on March 1 in Death Valley National Park? Of course, I would do it again. Next time I will bring more emergency supplies, better tires and my Zoleo communicator, just in case I get stuck.

Thinking back now, I am amazed that a secondary road, which no agency might plow until at least the next day, remained wide open to the public. It was my choice to go into harm’s way, but luck was with me, at least in spirit. That entire day, I did not find that elusive cell phone signal. With one driving decision piled upon another, I had made my way into harm’s way and back again to civilization.

As I headed back to camp, I caught sight of the elusive Phoenix Bird flying low over the Panamint Range, toward Death Valley.

Email James McGillis
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By James McGillis at 04:34 PM | Mojave Desert | Link

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.

Email James McGillis
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By James McGillis at 04:07 PM | Colorado River | Link

Chapter #383: The Four Corners Region - Part 5 - August 30, 2021

Some California wildfire smoke obscures the background in this October 2020 image of Kanab, Utah - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)

From a Flat Tire in Kanab to The Stratosphere in Las Vegas

After an uneventful trip from Page, Arizona to Kanab, Utah, I set up camp at the venerable Kanab RV Corral. By booking early, I was able to enjoy the bucolic charm of old Kanab. Since I first stayed at the RV Corral in 2006, tourist facilities in the City of Kanab have expanded exponentially. New hotels and RV Parks seem to sprout up every year. Even so, the population of Kanab now stands at only 4,636.

To the east of the city, the Grand Plateau RV Resort features eighty RV spaces and fifteen cabins. Nearby, Red Canyon Cabins features approximately fifty-five individual cabins, which wrap around the Kanab Quality Inn. Upon my arrival at the Kanab RV Corral, I learned that there was not a single unreserved RV
Once a private residence, the iconic Parry Lodge in Kanab, Utah shows the town as it once was - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)space in Kanab that night. Not ironically, the Kanab Creek aquifer draws on the same watershed that feed the Colorado River and Lake Mead downstream. As the eastern gateway to Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park, Kanab now appears dominated by developers and hoteliers. Each new facility uses untold amounts of water.

While in Kanab, I visited the historic Parry Lodge, first built as a private home in 1892. In 1930, the Parry brothers, converted the large property into a Hollywood movie support destination, complete with motel and luxury hotel accommodations. In 2021, with decreased revenue and an increased cost of operation, the property closed during the depths of the health crisis. As of August 2021, the historic lodge is again open for business.

Western actor Joel McCrea is on of many who shot movies in Kanab, Utah and stayed at the historic Parry Lodge - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)Although tourists could not enter during my visit, I could peer down the driveway and see “Randolph Scott’s Room”, which was the first door along an otherwise deserted driveway. John Wayne’s room was farther down the driveway. Out front, there were memorial plaques honoring various Western movie heroes of the 20th century, including Ronald Reagan and Joel McCrea. On August 14, 2003, the complex became a listing on the National Register of Historic Places. While I was strolling the grounds, a woman told me about a nearby historical movie site.

Intrigued, I drove up along Kanab Creek to the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. Remembering it as a small outpost of animal care in 2006, I was amazed to see a huge ranch and campus designed to care for everything from horses to raptors. Since I did not have a tour reservation, I stuck to the dirt road and went up canyon. Near the upper reaches of the facility, I discovered an One lucky rescue horse occupies the historic barn and movie set at the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)historical red barn. Other than a new roof, the barn looked just as it did for over a century. During that time, the wooden structure had served as both a horse barn and a Hollywood Western movie location. From the woman in town, I had learned that none other than the late, great George “Gabby” Hayes had filmed there.

On the morning of May 26, I prepared for the 207-mile trip from Kanab to Las Vegas, Nevada. While checking my RV tires, I realized that my left-rear tire was woefully low on pressure. Although I could not see it then, a steel screw had punctured the tread. After a failed attempt to pump up the tire, I decided to roll my rig slowly to the Ramsay Towing & Service Center, just up the highway. There, the nice woman behind the counter said it would be a minimum two hour wait for service. I decided to roll slowly down the back streets of Kanab to the nearby Best Tire and Wheel The picturesque RV space where I discovered a flat tire before departure from Kanab, Utah - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)Shop. There, a tired voice from the back of the shop told me that he had appointments stacked up and more customers expected soon. He suggested that I try Hatch Automotive, just across the highway.

At the rustic Hatch Automotive garage, an older gentleman (Dr. Livingston, I presume) stood inside, wearing a sparkling clean set of clothes. As I waited for him to finish a conversation, I noticed a tire-busting machine in the corner of the garage. It looked like it had last seen service twenty years prior. When the gentleman turned to me, he almost chuckled at my request for assistance. He pointed to the depths of the garage and said that a young man who was up to his elbows in grease was the only person who did any work around there. It was then that I realized that Hatch Automotive was probably a hobby for that retired gentleman. “I guess I’ll just fix it myself”, I said. “That would be a good idea”, the gentleman replied.

With the front axle of my RV rolled up on wooden blocks, I was ready to dismount the rear flat tire - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)From there, I slowly rolled my rig to a wide street behind the nearby La Quinta Inn. I remember what a mobile tire-buster once told me near the Arizona border. "You can do it yourself. Just roll one axle up high enough that the second axle lifts its tire off the ground. Then it is as easy as changing a tire on your car". Utilizing various pieces of lumber that I normally use to level my rig, I managed to pull forward on to my makeshift wooden ramp. With the rear axle suspended in the air, I used my trusty lug wrench to remove the offending wheel. Way back in Needles, on the first day of my trip, I had checked my spare tire for proper inflation. Confident that it could do the job, I rolled my spare tire and rearward and then mounted it on the rear axle. Within twenty minutes, I finished by using my trusty torque wrench to cinch down the lug nuts to a proper level. After rolling off my makeshift lumberyard, I was ready to roll. Soon, the stress of looking for nonexistent tire-service in Kanab disappeared. Happy to be moving again, I looked at my watch. My entire tire escapade in Kanab had taken just over one hour. It felt like instant manifestation all over again.

With help from my lug wrench, I was able to put the spare tire on my RV in Kanab, Utah - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)Across the U.S. there is a shortage of labor, especially in the smaller towns. For the available wages, young people do not want to bust tires or learn automotive repair. If he was paid a fair wage, the 1980's Chevy Dinosaur that the young mechanic was digging into at Hatch Automotive would not be worth the time it took to repair. With a college or a trade school degree, a young person could escape the grease and grime associated with being an underpaid mechanic in Kanab, Utah. A young auto mechanic would be better off taking an unpaid apprenticeship at a Tesla Service Center. At least there is a future in working on electric vehicles. With over 570,000 RVs sold in the past year, there are now tens of thousands more travelers on the road. The lesson I learned on this trip was to depend on myself for minor repairs. If you need a flat tire fixed in Kanab, be prepared to wait most of a day for service. If you need after-hours roadside RV service near Aztec, New Mexico, be prepared for a $500 service call, plus time and one half for any actual repairs. With that, the price to change and fix a flat tire on the road could easily approach $1,000. My new motto is, “Be Prepared. Have a spare.”

At the Las Vegas RV Resort in late May 2021, I found intense heat and inadequate air conditioning in my coach - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)From the snow of Southwestern Colorado to the heat of Las Vegas, my arrival in Nevada was a shock. My fifth wheel has a single air conditioning unit aboard. Until arriving in Las Vegas in late May 2021, I never imagined that I might need a second A/C unit. After a relatively cool first night, I spoke with my neighbor at the Las Vegas RV Resort. He was a specialist in industrial plumbing design and installation. He and his wife had recently arrived in Las Vegas from his Florida home. His main task in Las Vegas was to design and oversee the installation of industrial piping at the former Molycorp Mine (Now called the Mountain Pass Mine), south of Primm, Nevada. Mountain Pass Mine is not an historical mine tucked into a romantic mountain pass. It is a strip mine, pure and simple.

Las Vegas - The land of ultimate excess, as exemplified by the Stratosphere tower near Downtown - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)When he arrived in Las Vegas, my RV neighbor found inadequate Wi-Fi and scorching desert heat. With plans to spend fourteen months in Las Vegas, he needed quick relief. By the time I departed, two days later, he had shade cloth installed on all his exterior windows and a microwave Wi-Fi disk installed atop his access ladder. With high-speed internet, he could view and revise the water, chemical and steam pipes required to restart one of the few rare-earth mineral mines in the United States. Although the Department of Defense had partnered with the mine’s new owners in 2019, decades of neglect and intermittent closures at the mine had left its infrastructure inoperable. Apparently, it was in worse shape than any highway I had recently driven in the Four Corners Region. In essence, the entire mineral processing system at the mine would require a redesign and replacement.

When I asked how long that would take, he sighed and said, “They think the mine can be operational in twelve to fourteen months”. After a long pause, he said, “I’m not sure I can get enough skilled pipe-fitters to complete that task in the 120-degree heat of the Mojave Desert”. The former owner of the Mountain Pass Mine was Molycorp, which went bankrupt in 2014. The mine had suffered the same fate as many “green energy” technologies, such as solar panels and Like so many follies in the Nevada desert, the Las Vegas Monorail stands defunct and useless near the Strip - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)lithium-ion batteries. For decades, China had undercut U.S. domestic prices and, in this case, had driven the only major rare-earth minerals mine in America out of business.

In 2019, the U.S. Department of Defense awoke from its slumber and agreed to partially fund the reopening of the Mountain Pass Mine. As we know, if China were to curtail the supply of rare-earth minerals to the U.S., the emerging electrical vehicle (EV) industry would fail almost immediately. The Mountain Pass Mine is located just across the Nevada border, in San Bernardino County, California. As such, every part of the refurbishment project will be subject to review by California state agencies. When he had retrofitted paper mills throughout the Southern U.S., my neighbor told me, the state of jurisdiction would issue one permit for an entire project. California, he said, requires a separate permit for each aspect of design and construction. With California environmental rules and bureaucracy in mind, the reopening of the Mountain Pass Mine in late 2022 sounded like a “pipe dream” to me.

The Little White Chapel in Las Vegas still advertises that both Joan Collins and Michael Jordan were once married there - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)On my layover day in Las Vegas, the air temperature rose to about 105-degrees. On the asphalt pads of the RV Park, the temperature was ten or fifteen degrees higher. The intense heat and my under-powered air conditioner reminded me about a story from Yuma, Arizona. For decades, Yuma was renowned as the hottest city in America. Tired of constantly being the butt of “hot city” jokes, Yuma relocated its official weather station to the center of a well-watered citrus orchard. Almost instantly, Phoenix, Arizona became the hottest city in America, with 169 days each year at 90F degrees or more. As the Colorado River wanes to a trickle, there will be insufficient imported water for cotton farming and cattle ranching in Southern Arizona. Soon after that, we can expect outlawing of the outdoor water-mister systems that make dining or relaxing outdoors in Phoenix possible.

The Ivanpah Solar Power Facility has no no energy storage capability - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)On Friday May 28, I bid my Las Vegas RV Resort neighbor adieu and drove the final 305-miles home to Simi Valley, California. While in Las Vegas, I had spent under $20 to get my Kanab flat tire repaired and ready for redeployment. As luck would have it, my final dash through the Mojave Desert was uneventful. The following week, I visited Simi RV. The parts specialist there had a Dometic refrigerator thermo fuse replacement kit hanging on the rack. The RV refrigerator failure at the beginning of my trip had been an inconvenience, but not a full-scale disaster. Looking back, I had spent $24 for three temporary foam coolers, $30 for two Igloo permanent coolers and $15 for ice, just to keep my food from rotting. Then I spent $168 for the unneeded printed circuit board (PCB), $34 to exchange the PCB for a proper spare. I paid another $212 for a technician in Aztec, New Mexico to fully diagnose the thermo fuse issue. Adding $65 for my new thermo fuse replacement kit brought the grand total for RV refrigerator repairs to over $550.

A mock-up of my RV refrigerator wind deflector on our RV - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)While purchasing my new thermo fuse replacement kit, I told the owner of Simi RV about my refrigerator issue. He said that other owners of some Cougar and Montana model RVs had experienced similar thermo fuse failures. With a lot of research and testing, he had determined that wind created a low-pressure area along the side of the RV. Wind entering the upper vent was making the propane flame burn too hot, thus burning out the thermo fuse. The remedy was to put an aluminum wing or baffle at the leading edge of the refrigerator vent. That would deflect the passing air around the refrigerator unit and keep the flame operating at the proper temperature.

Since my RV is beyond its warranty period, he could fix the problem, but Simi RV had almost a three month wait for service. Instead, we agreed that I would complete my own repair. He gave me an unfinished, bent piece of aluminum, Final installation of my RV refrigerator wind deflector - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)which I customized to my satisfaction, including a black paint job. I installed long screws, which passed through my new creation and into the structure of the upper RV vent. Soon, I shall take another RV trip, which will include a live test of my new baffle.

On the bright side, for $550 I got my RV refrigerator working. For that amount, I also now have the equivalent of an associate degree in RV refrigerator repair. Since I was able to avoid scuttling my annual, two-week visit to the Four Corners Region, I believe it was all well worth the price. After a subsequent RV trip to Morro Bay, California, I am happy to report that my refrigeration issue appears to be solved.

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

Email James McGillis
Email James McGillis

By James McGillis at 03:39 PM | Travel | 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.

Email James McGillis
Email James McGillis

By James McGillis at 04:29 PM | Colorado River | Link

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