Tag Archives: Lake Powell

Two Harbors Via Hite Marina

There are 30 miles of ocean between Marina del Rey to Catalina Island’s mooring field at Two Harbors. Further east if you were to launch a boat at Glen Canyon Dam on a once and now no more full Lake Powell you would travel 186 miles end to end. At 7.5 knots you will make the trip out to Catalina Island in four hours. The trip from one end of Lake Powell at this same speed would take 25 hours.

Great Blue Heron Hanging Out

Last Friday’s hazy air shrouded our view of Catalina. We couldn’t see the island until halfway out on our trip across. Coastal ocean sailing differs from boating on a lake, sea state plays a bigger role, faraway low-pressure systems can send steep swells, crew can be wearied by rough water, and if another swell is coming from another direction the passage may become difficult to the extreme.

Gales can sweep across the desert and make navigation on Lake Powell all but impossible. Messing about on water with a boat is never risk free. Imagining taking a round trip from one end of Lake Powell to the other would take two days of nonstop sailing and motoring. The same roundtrip to Catalina would require 8 hours, one-sixth the amount of time. Big water can swamp the imagination, it is just too big to grasp.

The ocean between Los Angeles and Catalina can reach depths of 3000 feet. Lake Powell at its deepest measures 404 feet, but on average is just over 130 feet. For air breathing terrestrial types both body’s of water are experienced at their surface. Imagining that I am sailing in deep water concentrates the mind, this is when a sailor spitball’s their vessel is taking on water and since death is so permanent and life so sweet perhaps you might want to come up with a to-do list of ways of staying in the game. Prior to sailing to Catalina, the skipper and his second in command made sure the bilge pumps worked and that the through hull fittings weren’t leaking. There’s a longer list and more thorough inspections are part of responsible boat preparation.

Life aboard a saltwater sailing craft equipped with a functioning watermaker is mind altering. The vessel Spirit when making water can produce 150 gallons in a few hours’ time. Besides making water for drinking and cooking there is water for showering, and for spraying off the topsides and deck. Making water doesn’t cost much once you’ve decided to install a watermaker, this initial acquisition cost is the biggest expense of all, it makes no sense not to put the watermaker into service once installed.

Meet Chickpea 14 weeks old

Desalinating water takes a lot of energy. Aboard Spirit there is an electric generator that is switched on to provide power to the watermaker. Every other day the generator is started to top off the batteries and to fill the water holding tanks. The diesel generator burns about ½ gallon of fuel per hour.

Rural desert dwellers sometimes need to clean up their residential water supply. If the water is really contaminated distilling is necessary, most of the time reverse osmosis systems will do the trick. In Arizona their water board survey teams have studied bringing desalinated water up from the Sea of Cortez by pipeline. This would be useful for residents and useless for agriculture because of how expensive the water would be to desalinate.

In Dubai the United Arab Emirates operate large desalination plants, but then they also are sitting atop some of the largest oil reserves in the world.

As conundrums go, and the drought in the American West is one hell of a nettlesome problem there are simply too few skilled multidimensional scholars capable of grasping both the magnitude and complexity of the challenge.

Crossing by sailboat from Los Angeles to Santa Catalina Island only hints at the enormity of what civilization is grappling with. Setting aside the technical challenges and finding the courage to face the economic and political compromises has so far proven utterly impossible.

Mooring in Two Harbors, Santa Catalina Island

Long ago John Wesley Powell surveyed the Colorado River and concluded that there was not now nor would there ever be enough water for large scale farming. His advice was ignored, our state and national leaders buckled under pressure and have for a century bumbled and stumbled along until now. Both Lake Mead and Lake Powell are 25% full and expert water surveyors working with climatologists put the odds of these two reservoirs ever being topped to full again at a probability of zero chances. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton coming back from the dead and happily remarrying is as likely.

Spurring the states to act the Bureau of Reclamation had urged negotiators to come up with a new voluntary plan. The Bureau set a deadline that has come and gone, and negotiators were unable to agree on anything. Instead, this slow-motion climate related dire circumstance that is already altering the fated promising lives of 40 million citizens rests like a gigantic bowie knife on the neck of the American West’s future.

I keep reassuring readers that the residential water supply isn’t the main source of the problem, it is what is going to happen to the farmers and ranchers, and the tumult that will result. Political leaders’ careers will hang in balance, lawyers will haggle in court for decades fighting over water that no longer exists. Nobody wants to settle, everyone wants to fight, and the real nightmare scenario are the senior water rights holders in rural farming communities going to court to cut off access to water for the millions of residents in Tucson, Phoenix, San Diego, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. This is how water law is settled. The courts have no choice but to follow the law as written, likely it is a lifetime appointed judge that will incur the wrath of any water user that comes out on the short end of the stick. The losers will not just lose access to water, but they will lose their livelihoods too.

“Nobody can tell anybody nothing.” The miserable rotten truth of the matter is agriculture has been hell bent on using water, and they’ll irrigate old school style, like same as 10,000 years ago, gripe bitterly about being asked to change crops or try using drip irrigation technology.

Because of the size of this problem, if you’ve ever gone from Los Angeles out to Catalina that doesn’t begin to scratch the surface to how big this mess is. It’s so big most of us have not the scale of imagination to visualize the colossal pickle we are all in.

Pretty near as best anyone can tell what is happening is that the whole stinking pile of stakeholders are holding onto hope. If we could just wait it out, hope it will rain, that the reservoirs will fill and that the region can just continue on business as usual.

Lake Powell at 25% Capacity

What comes next is unthinkable, but that is what is on offer, a crisis of such magnitude it blows our minds. Policymakers at the Pentagon are one agency that understands. If millions of acres are pulled from production, then add the continued chaos at the border, the weather continues to get hotter and dryer— that’s a combustible confluence of trouble that could trigger what is described as a region of a country that descends into chaos and becomes ungovernable. A long slow utterly ungovernable storm tossed ride on a boat is an unpleasant bit of passage making. Navigating through this peril with blinders having kicked the can down the road until the bitter end has trapped the stakeholders across the American West into a boxed canyon— the game is up, and the time of reckoning has arrived. We can do this, we just can’t keep doing this the way we have— while we can we might choose to take the path of good governance— that’s what we pin our future on— the hope we can make some sense of all this water that’s gone missing and still manage our affairs peacefully.

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.