Chapter #157: Save Ken's Lake, Moab, Utah 2010 - December 20, 2010

Dry area behind the dam at Ken's Lake, Spanish Valley, Moab, Utah - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com) 

Help Save Ken's Lake

Moab, Utah 

After writing about Spanish Valley water issues during 2009, I realized that I had never seen Ken’s Lake up close. On a clear afternoon in October 2010, I set out to remedy that situation. Heading south from Moab on Spanish Valley Drive (The Old Spanish Trail), I turned left on San Juan County Road 175 (better known as Ken’s Lake Road). Soon, I could see the inside of the dam to my left, but could see no water impounded behind it.
Watch the Video - Ken's Lake, Moab, Utah
After arriving at the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) parking lot on the south side of the lake, I finally spied Ken’s Lake itself. In the distance, and well below the level of a weed-choked gravel beach, I saw a large puddle, down near the base of the earthen dam. Although I had read about overuse of the Ken’s Lake Reservoir, I did not expect to see such a sorry sight. Other than as a curiosity, there was little to attract visitors or campers to Ken’s Lake that fall.
Who allowed Ken’s Lake to almost disappear and why? To answer that question one must look at two seminal issues that continue to shape politics on the Colorado Plateau – “water rights” and “grazing rights”. Although these are complex issues with no easy solutions, suffice to say that “entitlement thinking” on both issues has led to a long-term degradation of the environment in Southeastern Utah. With appropriate will, the greater community could reverse some of the damage done. In order to do so, all concerned must join to reevaluate and redistribute “water rights” and “grazing rights” under terms that our now drier environment can sustain.
Ken's Lake running dry in October 2010, Moab, Utah - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com) 
Moab historian Faun McConkie Tanner exemplified the traditional view of cattle grazing in the area, both then and now. In her 1976 work, “The Far Country, - A Regional History of Moab and La Sal, Utah” she wrote, “The grazing of cattle and sheep has been a principal industry since the settlement of the region. Supervised and limited grazing under Forest Service regulation protects the plant growth and in some measure saves soil erosion caused by overgrazing.” Almost forty years later, her rosy picture of what is now a deeply degraded environment prevails.
In his 1994, “Coyote’s History of Moab”, Jose’ Knighton states that, “Corporate cattle operations abandoned Moab (in 1896) because the land could no longer support their huge herds. Hit-and-run exploitation of resources would eventually become an established pattern of abuse for Moab. But a century ago, decades of overgrazing took their toll. Flash floods roared down Mill Creek and Pack Creek, silting up dams, carving deep gullies and destroying homesteads.”
In 1981, after tireless promotion by Kenneth McDougald and others in Moab, engineers first filled Ken’s Lake with water diverted from Upper Mill Creek. From its inception, water use at Ken’s Lake reflected Faun McConkie’s old Moab, not the more environmentally aware approach of Jose’ Knighton. In my research, I could find no references to which agency decided who would receive shares of Ken’s Lake water. Today, however the Grand Water and Sewer Service Agency (GWSSA) delivers the vast majority of Ken’s Lake water to alfalfa farmers in the southern Spanish Valley.
Here we can see the grand circle that started with Moab’s cattle raising origins. Since the 1880s, the biodiversity and availability of natural forage in the area have steadily declined. One hundred and forty years after cattle first roamed the Moab Valley; current residents live in a significantly degraded environment. Making an emphatic point, McConkie Tanner states that, "All of those interviewed stated that sagebrush grew tall enough for a man on horseback to ride hidden through brush, and that grass grew to a horse's belly in Moab, but at La Sal this was almost reversed." No such microenvironment exists today in Grand or San Juan Counties, as every inch of usable land had at least once seen cattle hooves breaking through the crust of ancient soils.
Inflow waterfall above Ken's Lake, Moab, Utah - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com) 
Some would say that Moab exists in a desert, which has always been a desert and those who wish it to be otherwise should forget about it. Rather than a desert, early accounts tell us that the Spanish Valley resembled a Garden of Eden. I, for one believe that it can be so once again, but only if a portion of the available water supply goes toward reestablishment of native plants and natural habitats in what post cattle-boom settlers called Poverty Flat.
The source for all Spanish Valley aquifers, reservoirs such as Ken’s Lake and streams is the Sierra La Sal, southeast of Moab. Over the years, cattle and sheep ranching in Southern Utah and Northern Arizona have denuded much of the land. Now, each spring, dust storms arise on the Navajo Reservation, north of Kayenta, Arizona. Prevailing winds carry the dust north, through Bluff, Blanding and Monticello, Utah. As the storms intensify, their vortices vacuum the land of soil. As the storms lift into the cool air surrounding the La Sal Range, they dump their blanket of soil in muddy rainstorms reminiscent of biblical disasters.
In the spring of 2009, one such storm hit both the La Sal Range and Moab. Starting as a dust storm more powerful than any current resident of Moab could recall, the accompanying deluge of muddy rain painted every car in Moab with the red and brown colors of desert soil. After the storm, the remaining snowpack in the high country glowed pink in the afternoon light. With the pink snow having a higher albedo, solar energy rapidly melted what remained. This gave Ken’s Lake only a quick shot of water, which was not enough to satisfy the demand for irrigation water. During the resultant draining of the lake, recreational and environmental interests received no consideration at all.
High peaks of Sierra La Sal, as seen from Ken's Lake, Moab, Utah - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com) 
Many streams in the La Sal Range converge at Upper Mill Creek, from which a 650-foot unlined tunnel diverts part of the natural flow to Ken’s Lake. In decades past, the inflow to the lake came gradually and continued throughout the spring and into the summer. In recent years, Ken’s Lake receives one rapid shot of water during spring snowmelt, and then must rely on rainfall for replenishment throughout the summer and fall. With a combination of decreased snowpack, rapid snowmelt and over-subscription of water rights, Ken’s Lake becomes another symbol of the degraded environment around Moab.
Officially, the Utah Department of Environmental Quality/Division of Water Quality has washed its hands of the environmental issues at Ken’s Lake. Their written statement is, “Temperature impairment is a result of natural causes. The energy input is a direct result of heating by the sun”. To anyone who visits Ken’s Lake in the fall or winter, it is obvious that a lack of stored water causes wild swings in lake water temperatures. Neglect, abuse and overuse of grazing lands and water sources upstream and upwind of Ken’s Lake have creating a mud puddle in the fall and a frozen ice sheet in the winter.
Poverty Flat is the old name for the dry area area at the southern end of Spanish Valley, Utah - Click for larger image - (https://jamesmcgillis.com) 
When first built, authorities assumed that Ken’s Lake would be a warm water fishery. In the days before agricultural interests routinely drained the lake dry each summer, a diverse cold-water fishery established itself there. While casting a blind eye toward the end of cold-water fisheries in the area, the Utah Division of Water Quality plans to designate the lake as a warm water fishery. To the state, it to be a question of, “Warm water, cold water; who cares?” Ironically, the minuscule size of the lake during fall and winter allows it to freeze solid. As the BLM puts on its blinders and looks the other way, some local residents use the frozen pond for ice-skating. How even the most callous bureaucrats could designate an oft frozen pond as a warm-water fishery defies my imagination.
The number of cattle in the Ken’s lake watershed and nearby dry areas such as Behind the Rocks is lower today than it was in the 1890s and perhaps even lower than in the 1990s. Still, damage done over more than a century of abuse will not repair itself while the trampling and overgrazing continue. Only by fencing off the most sensitive and degraded areas from all grazing will the land regenerate itself. On demonstration plots, volunteers could replant native species of ground cover. With permission from those who “own” shares, maybe a squirt or two of Ken’s Lake water would facilitate re-vegetation at those sites.
Ken's Lake (lower foreground) and the Spanish Valley, Utah - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com) 
It is time for independent-minded farmers in the Spanish Valley to forgo a small portion of their Ken's Lake water allotments. Do farmers need up to six cuttings of alfalfa in a single season, or could they get by with three or four? In the summer, a trip south on Spanish Valley Drive is like an obstacle course. Each day, profligately wasted water showers vehicles at several places along the road. If you need a quick car wash, it only takes a few minutes for complete inundation. One needs to look no farther than the permanent water stains on the roadway to see who is at fault. In a better world, farmers would relinquish a small portion of their sacrosanct entitlements in favor of the greater good. If so, Ken’s Lake might live up to Ken McDougald’s vision of an agricultural reservoir that also provides year-round recreational opportunities to residents and visitors alike.
In their state of denial, the BLM, the state of Utah and the GWSSA cannot see or admit that Ken’s Lake is a serial disaster, which might fit easily into the plot of the movie, Groundhog Day. Only when ranchers, farmers and government officials admit that the environment can no longer sustain a mid-twentieth century approach to water and grazing entitlements, will there be change.
I see a day in the not too distant future when all the stakeholders in this environmental, economic and political conundrum will rise to the occasion. When they do, they shall discover a process whereby we can save Ken’s Lake from its current state of repetitive annual destruction.

Article updated 08/23/18
Comment from a friend: You are so right! One item not mentioned (DOG POLLUTION). No one picks up after their dog. THANKS - Scott Taylor

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By James McGillis at 03:34 PM | Environment | Link

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