Tag Archives: Glen Canyon Dam

Big Drought Little Time

California by treaty receives the largest allocation of water from the Colorado River. These are “senior” rights. A stakeholder with subordinated rights is out of luck, in the sun, and destined for hell. The megadrought has let the cat out of the bag and now across the American West our water distribution system is unable to respond— this is water’s version of the deer in headlights moment. 

Stark Beauty

Litigation is slow. The “Millennium Drought”— this dryer and hotter pattern has persisted for 22 years— stakeholders have been dragged to the negotiating table kicking and screaming— the clock is ticking, the water levels on Lake Powell continue falling— the jig is up, the moment of reckoning is here. 

What is terrifying is a desperate subordinated water rights claim held by a water agency in a major metropolitan area could find its supply completely cutoff. The court’s hands would be tied, the law as written could trigger a catastrophic climate induced humanitarian disaster. Pitting a handful of farms in California against a bone-dry Arizona city is something everyone agrees needs to be avoided. Forty million people in the American West depend on the water from the Colorado River. Unknotting this tangled web is a task that will require ungodly quantities of water and time. This relentless drought is dragging the region into the mother of all water wars. 

Go down to any neighborhood saloon. Select a handful of average citizens. Put the facts down on the table. Here’s the water, this is how much we’ve got, this is where it goes, these are the various stakeholders, here’s how much each has been promised, here’s how much there actually is, and what dear neighbor should the nation do? 

Holding your breath won’t work, hoping it will rain isn’t a plan, depending on the summer monsoons is delusional, even if there was an above average year, the immutable fact is the Colorado River is a finite resource, and with each passing year the river yields less water to an ever-thirstier American Southwest. 

Every single precious drop that falls from the sky that is used in Colorado is another drop of water that will never make its way downriver to Arizona, Nevada, Utah and California. Have you seen Colorado in the last few years— how many more people live there— how much more water is diverted near the river’s headwaters, that never makes its way downriver to the states of Nevada, Utah, Arizona and California.

Lake Powell was never a good idea, from its inception there were political forces afoot at the Bureau of Reclamation fueling the drive to construct the dam that should have never been built. Now whether the dam should have been built is a pointless waste of time, the science is in, the situation isn’t going to change, the lake is doomed.

Eight out of every ten gallons of Colorado River water is used by agriculture, and eight out of ten of all those gallons are destined for forage crops, the most valuable of those is alfalfa. Producing meat and dairy takes a lot of water. Only two of every ten gallons is used to grow all the other food that ends up on our kitchen tables. 

The great Southwest expedition leader John Wesley Powell had told leaders long ago, like in 1880’s that this region would not support large scale ranch and farm operations. His advice was ignored. The Law of the River dates to 1922— when there were all of 6.4 million people living in the seven western states. Today forty-million people are dependent on this vital watershed. 

Democracy is on the ballot this November. Anti-democracy forces within the Republican Party are ascendent. A lot of ink is spilled over the situation on our southern border with Mexico and the efforts to stim the tide of immigrants seeking to enter this country. Whipping up Republican voters on this issue is misplaced, it’s the shortage of water, that’s our emergency, reallocating the water from the Colorado River is going be the political hot potato of this new century. 

Expect the Bureau of Reclamation to keep its head low until after the November election, that’s my prediction, then after they’ll announce cutbacks— they will be historic. The Supreme Court will end up having to weigh in. Bankruptcies will ripple up and down along the Colorado River basin as operators are disrupted by the lack of water. Negotiations between the seven states, 30 tribes and Mexico will prove to be intractable. The current regulatory apparatus is broken, archaic, ill-suited to the task. Not the Federal Government. or the State Water Resource Agencies can deliver water to customers that no longer exists. Negotiations will prove futile, litigation will grind on for much of the decade, even still after all the pain and tumult caused by the drought in the end there will be much less water coming down the Colorado River. Pretending there is some sort of work-around isn’t policy, it is denial.

The best way forward is to release the remaining water from Lake Powell (currently it is 25% full) and store it in Lake Mead. Then, repurpose Lake Powell, there is a proposal to make this area a national park, it would be called Glen Canyon National Park. Pipelines would need to be reconfigured to supply water to city of Page and the Navajo Nation. The upheaval in the farm and ranch industry will be ongoing. Rural citizens will be hard hit. Like Nevada’s boom and bust mining industry we should expect there to be more ghost towns. 

Farms that grow vegetables will replace the alfalfa producers. Water efficient laboratory meat production will replace conventional ranching. As we build out our new energy system, we’ll build in good paying jobs to replace those that will have been lost from a lack of water. This reckoning has been a long time coming, it is here, it is time, and it is happening. Our climate emergency is complex, multifaceted, and leaving no corner of our world untouched. Time to put our most talented to work on adapting to the change. That deer in the headlights moment— that’s all of us staring down the threat to civilization’s survival. Lake Powell is telling us we haven’t a choice, our time is up, that we must roll up our sleeves and get to work. There’s not a second to lose.

Can Kicking Over— Hard Part is Here

Half-truth tellers, braggarts, and exaggerators are stealing water from Americans. Take the executive director of this outfit called the Agribusiness and Water Council of Arizona. With millions of acres farmed in Arizona less than half is dedicated to the food that ends up directly on our dinner plate while a whole lot more of the crops that are grown ends up getting stuck inside the mouth of various grass burning barnyard animals that then end up on our kitchen tables. Figure meat and dairy production is worth over $2 billion where lettuce out of Yuma adds up to about $700 million. Add up the market value lemons, cantaloupes and pecans and you are hovering right around $1 billion all in.

This gentleman Chris Udall who runs this water council lobby shop wants everyone to know all about how his organization is just worried to tears about the water used to grow lettuce in Yuma (half the truth) while never once mentioning anything about the hay, dairy and cattle operators (the whole truth). You want to get serious about life you’ll want to get a cowpuncher all worked up over the cost and quality of his romaine lettuce in his Caesar salad. Those boys get off work and they like settling in for whiskey drinking, dingo dog storytelling and when they can some good old-fashioned water thieving and hoodwinking reminiscing of which the 1950’s is best remembered for.  

Water resource managers across the Colorado River basin can’t tell nobody nothing, not like they don’t know what the problem is, where the water is going, and what to do about it. You can know it from the top of your head to the tips of your toes, but it is an unspeakable crime to say it out loud. If you are an employed official and say alfalfa into a microphone during a regional water crisis meeting, you are soon to be an unemployed water resources official just as sure as night follows day. Dedicated southwest alfalfa growers will take you and your smart aleck unwelcomed comments out into a field build you a memorial, buy you a gold watch and send you off into early retirement.  

We are less than one week away from all hell breaking loose out West where things are not just going to get wild, things are already plenty wild enough, things are about to get full on crazy as a cowpie. Folks in the upper basin states of Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico are about to square off against the lower basin states of California, Nevada and you guessed it Arizona.

The head in sand approach to fixing the West’s water shortage problems is about to have a head on collision with this nasty creature known as the megadrought. Anyone and everyone except for perhaps this lobby shop outfit knows there is all kinds of hell and misery heading right toward the good members that they are in the business of representing. There is a lot that needs to get done if we stand any kind of chance of surviving this climate change catastrophe. Let me just give you a little itty-bitty list of possible fixes. Wireless soil moisture meter switches could be one place to begin. Try what is called micro drip irrigation systems is another ready for primetime technology just sitting there asking to be strung on out across the fruited plains of our parched landscape. And damn it there are some souls giving these emerging technologies an honest go gosh try but there’s just too dang many footdraggers and naysayers gumming up the transition to a more enlightened use of our water resources.

I just like the sound of a farmer who has taken the time to laser level his field of melons. Laser leveling should be written into the law same as on—the—level—politicians. If everything was on the level most of our problems would be solved and we could get onto fixing bigger problems until there ain’t nothing left to fix but a cocktail.

Glimpse at Lake Powell

Water managers have the most miserable jobs known to civilization. Work in the mortuary business is more fun, at least it is more honest. Every stinking time you think you’ve left some boneheaded water use policy for dead the thing scrambles back to life and goes on the attack again. Advocating for new dams, reservoirs and water pipelines falls from the lips of every trick roper just this side north of the border. Of course, this avoids any discussion of exactly where in the hell any of this non-existent water is going to come from.

What we have is not a water storage problem, what we have is a water use problem. And not to put too fine a point on this water use problem but what we really and truly have is an industry that uses most of all the water that falls from the sky and is threatening to go Medieval on our water resource managers if they don’t get every last single drop to grow whatever the hell they want, and don’t you dare tell them what they can and cannot grow.

Temporary fixes are headed to the Colorado River basin. Senator Krysten Sinema snuck climate emergency drought relief funding into the legislation passed this last weekend. All in there will be $4 billion for the water managers to work with. They’ll be paying out money to have operators fallow their fields. This will forestall the worst of the worst of the damage done by the drought, but it doesn’t do it for long and we’ll be right back in the same corner next summer. If you can’t grab water, might as well grab a few billion that you can use to keep your water grabbing constituents afloat, at least until you can come up with something better.

Water politics is one nasty bit of business. Remember it was a thousand years ago that the Anasazi vanished without a trace. The idea of our modern-day civilization being forced to abandon the Southwestern United States seems inconceivable. What is beginning to shape up is that our drier and hotter climate is making a mess of our economic system, the whole enchilada is breaking down. You can retire to a region in drought, you can go there to be there, but you won’t have enough water resources to do much of anything else. A steady diet of Jack Rabbit isn’t the stuff from which dreams are made of.

All of us detest all the traffic we’re always going nowhere bumper to bumper in. Take half of a small town’s reason for existing away (rural agriculture) and you haven’t got enough left over to even run a drive-thru java joint. So yeah, I’m very worried about the lives of the people that live anywhere near where all this water is no longer going to be available. Whole communities are going to just dry up and blow away, same as a thousand years ago people will have to pick up and move.

The population of Page, Arizona sits right at 7,487. The citizen in faraway Phoenix might depend on the same water but they can’t walk out their back door and look off into the distance and actually see the megadrought and the water missing from the nations second largest reservoir. Some vendors have provided houseboats for tourists coming for holiday. That’s not looking like an industry with a lot of upside, in fact I’d say that many of the larger houseboats will be too big to move and will end up being cut up for scrap. Liquidation takes a toll on hope. Imagine getting out of the alfalfa growing business altogether and sending all that water down the Colorado River. Sometimes we pretend like we’re not picking winners and losers, but that’s really what is on view here. That’s the plain truth. Everything and everybody depends on water for one thing or another to do with their ability to exist and thrive. It isn’t like we won’t inhabit such places like Page, there will be people, but the next generation will be here living and working in ways our modern day water managers dare not even speak of. This new century could use a reboot and a do-over, failing that we are likely to see wholesale changes in what we do for work and how we grow the food that makes its way to our kitchen tables. Next week change takes a first tentative step in that direction.

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!