Tag Archives: Glen Canyon Dam

Sketching Out the Ending

We live in interesting times─ lucky you and lucky me─ whoopie. I keep scratching my head and am left wondering how gripping a less action-packed present might be. In the next few days data will get crunched and we’ll know if December 2021 was or was not the hottest of all Decembers on record. That should generate a collective disengaged yawn from the overworked and underpaid. Thwaites’s glacier is the cheery doomsday topic in a recent Rolling Stone article, and this Antarctic calamity is preternaturally destined to be a conversational gamechanger in the months ahead.

June 2021 just west of Las Vegas

Forecasters told us that Bidens victory would lead to a collapse in viewership on cable news outlets. To the surprise of exactly zero still clean and sober people, it turns out that casting out a mendacious psychotic con man from the Oval Office would be followed with a fall off in viewers exhausted from worrying about the immediate collapse of civilization. Viewership decline seems almost humane, the circumstances the nation is confronting happens to be a nasty bit of duplicitous populism. I decorate my language with terms like treason, tyrant and Nazi─ I salt and pepper my speech like I was working at a mistletoe testing facility inside a wax lips factory. When you get to live in interesting times you will find as I have that they come with sloppy wet kisses.

Journalism and capitalism make for an unhealthy pairing of mistaken bedfellows. There was a time where a contented citizen meandered the pages of a local newspaper perusing the want-ads trying to find a steal on a used car with a radio that still works─ those were the days─ In this era we click on items on our computer screen and read from the Guardian, Atlantic Monthly, or Buzzfeed. Far off scribes treat us to a veritable tsunami of seditious Republican sycophants all gushing with envy over Viktor Orbán’s iron fist rule of Hungary.

Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, I hike each day trying to release as many endorphins as my body can produce to quell my anxious mind. All that up energy is used to fend off all this Debbie-downer news we are surrounded by. Recent survey has found that 4 in 10 Americans live in a county that has been hit by some kind of extreme climate event. I don’t know what those other 6 Americans are doing but it appears near as sure a bet as a sure bet can be that their long put off extreme weather event experience is just ahead. Life is nothing but tornadoes, hurricanes, floods and wildfire  While we’re here be sure you refresh those batteries in your portable radio.

Swimming Pools are Nice

No wonder everyone has tuned out the news and instead has gone hog wild for water skiing and topless dance watching. If you look around, you’ll find this concept that’s been tattooed into our citizens consciousness, it is the concept of American Exceptionalism. It was the year 1963 when western state water managers feeling so exceptional that they began filling Lake Powell─ at the time they were warned it would be one of the most environmentally destructive events ever to befall the American West─ those sounding the alarm have turned out to be more than just a little lucky in their prediction, they are absolutely right. As horrific an act as building this dam was, literally drowning the wilderness from the Colorado River, the very next year in 1964 by some form of legislative miracle the Civil Rights Act was passed, then one year later in 1965 Congress dragged kicking and screaming passed legislation guaranteeing all citizens the right to vote. Furthermore, Congress agreed that the citizens votes would count, and that─ we the people─ would conduct free and fair elections. I promise you the spirit of Jefferson Davis would take great exception to America’s exceptionalism. America isn’t even half century out from having passed the Voting Rights Act. It was only two years later that Democrats would lose the southern vote for generations. Can you imagine─ a whole House and Senate, a fungible majority of vote coddlers that back in the 1960’s had the unmitigated gall to fortify self-governance laws. They must have been high on something.

No sooner had Lake Powell been filled than this gargantuan mistake began going dry, today it is barely one-quarter full, it’s been drying up over the last 22 years─ tragic doesn’t begin to capture the destruction this dam has caused.

This whopper of a reservoir was never a good idea, this boondoggle was just the next western water mirage to seize the minds of the dam building obsessed engineers working for the Bureau of Reclamation. Talk about the dunderheaded faux pas─ what I call the decision of no return.

Some water goes, never enough goes west

Because it is slightly hotter and slightly drier─ climate change effects─ there is less water coming down the Colorado River to fill Lake Powell and what water does arrive, well too much ends up being evaporated off the lake’s surface before the water can be used for its intended purpose. We lose 386,000-acre feet of water per year off Lake Powell, Lake Mead is estimated to give back 600,000. Turns out the two reservoirs are a water resource managers worse nightmare.

Arizona’s Water Bank Authority─ nothing but the nicest people have been assigned this grim duty─ knowing all there is to know about evapotranspiration─ because that’s what our states water boards are trained by banishment to do─ this elite brigade of experts, this gang of water tortured souls are trying their damnedest to pump as much water into underground aquifers as water allocators will allow. If you can get water stored underground, it will eliminate losses from evaporation. This of course runs smack into the face of farmers and ranchers pumping every drop of water out of the ground as quick as their unmetered pumps will allow. If you want to point to a teachable moment this is where paradox and absurdity meet at the gates to what is left to the Garden of Eden.

Lake Powell just 27% full

There are plenty of good ideas, and every reason to have hope, but we’ve also got one of the most convoluted water rights systems in the world. Byzantine doesn’t do this tangled mess justice. What appears to be afoot is that everyone and everything is going back to court. You have never seen a worried look like those on the faces of the water managers from our seven western states. The Colorado River Compact of 1922 – The bedrock of the “Law of the River”, this disputatious Compact was negotiated a century ago by the seven Colorado River Basin states─ by 2025 so will begin the Great Disentanglement. You do not need to guess what will happen, we can know the scale of the situation by looking at snow and rainfall totals.

Water rights will have to be reassigned, those losing access to water will sue, those gaining access to water will complain, stakeholders in the water grabbing racket seldom to never get enough to make enough to feel like they’ve got enough. This will be one of the most litigious events of this new century, and as new century’s go a good many have strong feelings about this newfangled mark on time. A lot of folk’ want a do-over, but you know as time goes, all those ticking seconds flow in one direction─ present moment to uncertain next fateful moment. A great unraveling of agricultural interests will be delayed as long as is judicially feasible, residential water users will stave off the worst of the cuts, lawyers will get wealthy, and many expert state water resource managers will likely suffer from heart problems and seek the sanctuary of early retirement so they might spend more time with their families─ this is perhaps the last handful of people they still know that does not hate their water reneging guts.

Starter home, bring your own water

Reallocating water from the Colorado River has to happen, picking new winners and losers is unavoidable, I’d recommend we laser paint the intake tubes that power the electric turbines on Glen Canyon Dam send a couple of guided missiles into these choke points and put this mother of all water blunders out of its misery. (Plot point to story/screenplay I’m writing) Turns out when you run the numbers the dam isn’t doing a damn thing.

The FBI back in 2002 said environmental activists represented “the most dangerous domestic terrorist threat to the country.” Eco-activism in the best sense describes a cohort of likeminded souls trying to come up with fixes to the problems mankind is having with the natural world. Some folk’ trying to defend their turf even if they are guilty of squandering our natural resources like to paint eco-activists as hairbrained and a danger, they’ll call them radical environmental activists, and if and when they get out of line these do-gooder’s will become destructive. These imagined maniacs earned top billing on the FBI’s wanted posters, by the time the Glen Canyon dam at Lake Powell had been filled water resource managers had successfully painted opponents to the dam as radical environmental terrorists.

Glen Canyon Dam already 90*F at 8AM

What we can know now that we pretended not to know then was that the dam at Lake Powell is a mistake, that there is every reason to believe this dam needs to be removed, that it should never have been built and taking it down will not be anything but the right thing to do. Look people we tried it and it didn’t work. Let’s put things back the way they were before we got here and started messing with this primordial forces of nature. We’re going to have to learn how to get along with this world or this hotter and drier world is going to get along without us.

Come on now, it’s going to be fun─

Glen Canyon Dam Meets Strangelove

Not so ancient foot

In New Mexico ancient human footprints have been discovered at White Sands National Park. Scientists have identified adolescent sized prints to 23,000 years before present. Our first people moved along the coastline netting fish for food while drifting south by sea craft. Insight into this migration is likely rendered impenetrable by the expanding ice sheet of 26,000 years ago that scrubbed away evidence of our first ancestors’ migration patterns.

Second route of the ancients was taken by traveling inland. Prior to the last glacial maximum, I’m speculating here, was likely about 30,000 years before present. This was a warmer and wetter American West. Massive lakes some hundreds of miles in length in Nevada, Utah and New Mexico created habitat for safe travel along the shore in floating vessels while hunting and gathering.

The Winnemucca Rock Art near Nevada’s Pyramid Lake dates back to 14,800 years before present. This is the earliest example of human created artistic behavior in North America. Much further north and dating back 23,000 years before present in the Yukon’s Bluefish Caves there is evidence of the first people having settled in this region of North America.

Mexico’s Chiquihuite Cave hints at human activity dating back 30,000 years before present.

Riparian of Arizona Santa Cruz River

Sixty miles southeast of Albuquerque there is dry lake bed and then further south is White Sands National Park. We haven’t any evidence of whether these first people arrived from the north or the south. What we do know is that it was warmer and wetter that the lakes were a source of fresh water and food. The Pueblo People are the descendants of these first immigrants.

Most intriguing is that these first people may have arrived, but it would be tens of thousands of years before they transitioned from hunter-gatherer’s and built permanent settlements.

Early man began to experiment with cultivating plants, corn or maize is the most well-known crop, but there was also potato, squash, beans, and sunflower.

Diné Homeland

The people named the Anasazi suddenly vanished from this region about 800 years before present. These first people had developed the pueblo and their abandoning the dwellings was thought to be the result of climate change and drought. New theories speculate that there is evidence of tension between tribes and potential of mass killings, enslavement, and cannibalism. The lack of water may have set in motion a more predatory behavior between the various groups settled in this region.  

Perching as they did on the cliffs appears to be designed as a fortress structure. The cliff dwellings were not built to withstand water scarcity. After the end of the last ice age, while the climate shifted from wetter to drier conditions no longer favored a people living in this region. The vast system of freshwater lakes begin evaporating and are gone in just a few thousand years.

A wave of immigrants then swept across the continent introducing Old World technology to a New World. Coal was burned to power the steam engine, then oil was refined to power the piston engine. There were sewers and water wells. By 1895 hydroelectric power stations began making electricity available to the masses.

A straight line connects the carbon based energy system of the Industrial Revolution to the climate emergency.

Traveling across the Navajo Nation in Northern Arizona and New Mexico the evidence of our first people is scattered across a vast landscape. Genetic markers identify the Korean peninsula as the origin of these people. Navajo prefer the name Diné to identify the people of their nation.

The ancestors of the Diné have been in North America for tens of thousands of years. The new human inhabitants evolved with a climate that grew warmer and drier, at this same time period animals such as camel and mastodon vanished into extinction.

These first people began to fabricate cliff dwellings and whole villages, fields were cultivated and farmed diverting water from the adjacent rivers. The Diné describe water as a living spirit, that the rivers, lakes, sun and earth are key to unlocking the miracle of life.  

Waterways

As the Department of the Interior rolls out the non-carbon based renewable energy system for this new century Biden’s Build Back Better plans is to enlist the wisdom of our indigenous people in our effort to reimagine our economy.

The Industrial Revolution was powered by and is still dominated by use of fossil fuels. We’ve altered our climate and it is now clear that mankind has unleashed all manner of trouble upon itself. It is the culture of our first people who have lived here longer than any other people, that it is the Diné who have sought out a means of being here in harmony with the earth. For our world to survive we would be wise to enlist the talents of all our tribes, each part of our many people can contribute to this transformational journey.

Embracing a multicultural path to fixing our energy system is only one of many existential challenges confronting the American West. Wildfire, heatwaves, and drought are the tip of the spear to the changes bearing down upon this region.

Most urgent is the persistent loss of water flowing into the Colorado River. Constructing both the Glen Canyon and Hoover Dam’s occurred during an era that was unusually wetter than at present.

Appointed by Bill Clinton former Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation Daniel P Beard in 2015 concluded that the time had come to remove the Glen Canyon Dam. What prevents this right decision from being taken? A set of interlocking stakeholders that receive subsidized water. The unfettered flow of the Colorado River water to western landholders is about to be shattered.

Beard dubbed this group of lucky water rights holders the water nobility. The senior most water rights holders have been allotted subsidized water worth thousands and thousands of dollars that they would then use to grow hay crops worth hundreds and hundreds of dollars.

Water law is complicated but the problem it has created is not. Too much water is being wasted growing too many crops unsuited to this region’s climate. Members of the Water Nobility have outsized wealth created by receiving an irrationally bestowed entitlement. This is the people’s water, it is for all of us, not just the lucky few. But the current stakeholders will fight to keep what they’ve mistakenly come to believe is their water.

Diné farmland

What we’ll see play out over the next years are negotiations between Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, California, and our international neighbor to the south Mexico. Every stakeholder is going to demand more, and all will come away with less, some will lose access altogether.

The Bureau of Reclamation and Department of Agriculture will attempt to bring an end to subsidizing crops grown with subsidized water. The firestorm these changes setoff are going to be monumental. But the climate emergency is now upon us and with its arrival the American West finds itself struggling to divide up less and less to the point where there is no more water to divide up.  

Knowing full well that they will fight to the last drop, surrendering nothing, arguing over everything, never agreeing to anything, holding out as the American West is brought to the brink. This is the tragedy of the commons playing out before our very eyes. The pending negotiations over how to share what water remains in the Colorado River does not yet dominate the headlines, but this crisis even if it rains this next season is going to pit state against state all too soon.  

Postscript… I’m preparing a new plot to a comedy. Some pieces of the water crisis will be folded into this struggle. I see this as Little Big Man and Dr. Strangelove doing battle with the Monkey Wrench Gang. I remind myself while trying to plot this story that Hayduke and Mandrake are both still very much alive!