From Las Cruces, New Mexico to Moab, Utah, Drought & Exploitation Threaten the Flow of Two Southwestern Rivers
On May 20, 2013, I visited Canyonlands by Night & Day, along the Colorado River at Moab,
Utah. Although the Colorado spread from bank to bank, I would not have
guessed that as I watched, the river crested. Only afterwards did I
hear from a local resident that the river had crested that day in Moab.
Although the drying environment in the High Southwest is obvious, for a
while that day I believed that the river was still rising.
When I arrived at the dock, the evening river tours were still hours away. On that lazy afternoon down by the river, I found the place almost deserted. As I roamed the promenade above the river, no other humans appeared. As I looked down, I could see water rushing past the dock. The water was swift, turbulent and cold. Anyone falling into that torrent would have quickly drowned.
Looking upstream at the U.S. Hwy. 191 Colorado River Bridge, I could see high water marks well above the observed water level. After studying stream flow data from the Cisco Water Resources Station, operated upstream by the U.S. Geological Survey, I uncovered the story. Only two years prior, the Colorado River crested in Cisco, Utah on June 9, 2011. That day, the discharge was at almost 50,000 cfs, with a gauge height of over sixteen feet.
It was on that day that the Colorado River flooded the lower reaches of the Moab UMTRA Superfund site. The flood destroyed a new riverside bicycle path and lapped at the edges of the toxic, nuclear waste dump commonly known as the Moab Pile. Despite a documented paleo-flood history of far greater floods, the wizards of the UMTRA cleanup world had elected not to protect the nuclear waste dump from increased river flow.
At Cisco, on the afternoon of May 20, 2013 the Colorado River temperature hit a mean low point of about 58 f degrees. Discharge, (measured in cubic feet per second) peaked at 12,500 cfs on the prior afternoon. The flow rate held at around 12,000 cfs on May 20, and then fell steadily to 6900 cfs by May 24.
Perusing the excellent database available at the USGS website, I was able to select data from any recent timeframe. Over the 94-year history of the Cisco gauge, I found that the Colorado River averaged 20,000 cfs throughout the May 19 – May 25 period. Several days after my 2013 visit, the discharge rate at Cisco stood at only thirty-five percent of average. With Moab being downstream from Cisco, we can extrapolate a one-day delay for all Moab statistics. Thus, as I watched, the river crested in Moab on the afternoon of May 20.
Almost one year prior, the river crested on May 25, 2012 at just over 4000 cfs. Between the two years, average flow at the crest of the spring flood in Moab was less than twenty-eight percent of the ninety-four year average. During my October 6, 2012 excursion on the Canyonlands by Night and Day Dine & Unwind dinner tour, a river depth of eighteen inches prevented our boat from traveling more than a mile upstream. Near the riverbanks, the air smelled of rotting plants and other undesirable effects of low water. On that tour, the discharge rate of the river at Moab stood at forty-two percent of the long-term average.
The main water sources for the Upper Colorado River Basin are myriad mountain streams and the small rivers that they feed. As we know from archeological evidence, by 1000 CE the Colorado Plateau had entered into a protracted and severe drought. By 1300 CE, not one human remained alive within the confines of the Colorado Plateau. The devastation brought by drought, overpopulation and internecine warfare had driven everyone from that former land of plenty.
Although there was no single event that caused the Great (Anasazi) Disappearance, misuse of natural resources played a major role. With their penchant for building grand, wood-beamed kivas and multifamily dwellings, Pre-Puebloan cultures within the Colorado Plateau denuded huge swathes of the land. Eroded wastelands created by their handiwork are still visible on satellite photos of the area. The Chaco River in Chaco Canyon is a perfect example. Major parts of the Chaco River watershed are parched and rutted.
It was only five years ago that I first heard dire, scientific predictions of prolonged drought in the Four Corner States of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. Today, Western U.S. drought maps show unprecedented environmental distress prevailing in parts of New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado. Somewhere between the headwaters of the Rio Grande River in Northeastern New Mexico and the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma is the vortexual center of the Great Western Drought.
Not coincidentally, that area has seen the longest-standing overgrazing of cattle anywhere in the U.S. What once were rolling grasslands now support only scrub and mesquite. Facing starvation of their bedraggled herds, ranchers are now removing cattle from those public lands. As drought destroys all but the heartiest plant life, scientists tell us that the grasslands are unlikely to recover.
A recent article in the Los Angeles Times chronicled the devastating effects of drought throughout the Rio Grande Valley. While New Mexico’s venerable Elephant Butte Reservoir stands at only three percent of its 1980’s levels, the State of Texas is suing New Mexico for pumping too much of its own groundwater.
Whether legal or not, the extensive pumping of groundwater for irrigation and household use is causing the Rio Grande to recede underground. In the near future, the flowing river may disappear entirely from the surface of the land. Near Las Cruces, New Mexico, pictures show families with young children wading barefoot across the Rio Grande. Each day, the rivulets contract, leaving a relative trickle in the river as it bends toward, El Paso, Texas.
Split by the U.S. Continental Divide, the Rio Grande Valley and the Colorado Plateau are two separate, yet adjacent watersheds. With their close geographical proximity, the environmental problems experienced in each are different only by degree. Gripped by drought, the Rio Grande Valley is a harbinger of a bleak future for the adjacent Colorado Plateau. As the Anasazi overused their lands and natural resources, so too are we.
In less than one year, the first tar-sands extraction-solvents will enter the Colorado River watershed at a Book Cliffs mine near Moab. Uintah County and the State of Utah are eager to facilitate planned destruction within the Book Cliffs landscape. As proof, Uintah County is using public money to pave the aptly named “Seep Ridge Road” from Interstate I-70, all the way to the strip mine. Every drop of tar sands oil-sludge coming from that mine will move by truck or rail to refineries elsewhere in the country. Requiring huge inputs of energy at the mine, plus shipping and refining costs well above that of traditional oil extraction, the strip mining of tar sands in the Utah desert is a game of diminishing returns. In the alchemy of turning solid rock into oil, we consume so much energy that only an unwitting or cynical investor would see value in light of such widespread environmental destruction. Just because we can turn rock into oil does not mean that we should.
Recent state and federal approvals for mineral extraction in the Moab area include a new hydraulic (in-situ) potash mine in Dry Valley near Canyonlands National Park. Its industrial facilities may soon be visible from the now pristine Anticline Overlook. Elsewhere, near Moab, oil and gas leases spring to life in unexpected and environmentally sensitive locations, such as Dead Horse Point. If the land is not within a designated national or state park, almost every acre is fair game for mining.
During my May 2013 visit to Moab, I found what appeared to be a clandestine oil-shale strip mine. Hidden by a butte from the Valley City Road, only a wrong turn on a new, unmarked dirt road took me to that place. Located near the southern rim of the Salt Valley, the mine and its access road do not appear on any map. As the crow flies, the mine exists only a few miles from the southern boundary of Arches National Park. Nowhere could I find a corporate name, road sign or scrap of paper indicating who was digging into the previously untouched land.
It is with boundless energy and enthusiasm that mining, petrochemical and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) interests have rammed mining and drilling applications through a broken process. Despite the efforts of environmental groups to publicize this slow-motion rape of Southeastern Utah, new plans continue for a water-lift and hydroelectric plant on the Colorado River near Moab. Although rarely making more than regional news, a Nuclear Power Plant at Green River, Utah will soon break ground. Not since the Uranium Boom of the 1950s has Emery, Grand or Uintah County seen such levels of unchecked mineral exploration and exploitation.
As the result of unchecked extraction and processing in the 1950s, the Moab UMTRA Superfund site still faces decades of publically financed cleanup. Yet today, we set in motion myriad water wasting or aquifer destroying projects in the desert. Any single mineral extraction or power-producing project may look good to investors or consumers. However, when taken as a whole, the Colorado Plateau and its namesake river may soon follow the Rio Grande River to a point of no return.
In matters of drought and depopulation, we must concede that the Pre-Puebloan (Ancients) were the real experts. In the High Southwest, if we stop and listen, the Spirit of the Ancients is all around us. In the end, through overuse of natural resources, the Ancients helped change their weather cycle toward hotter and dryer. Today, drill rigs, gas compression sites and diesel equipment of every variety pollute both water and air, drowning out the Ancients’ warning cries.
Over a two-day period during my July 2013 visit to Moab, the monsoon unleashed torrents of rain. Water visibly eroded the ground at the Moab Rim Campark, where I stayed. Still, when compared to the deep snowfields that once lingered into summer in the high country; these thunderstorms produced a mere drop in the bucket. Wondering how the Moab Pile might have fared under such a sudden deluge, I went to see for myself. Although the UMTRA Moab site is now six million tons lighter and smaller than it was five years ago, erosion channels marked its sides. Was that runoff of toxic and nuclear waste contained in catch basins or did it run directly into the Colorado River?
While looking across the Moab Pile toward the Moab Rim, I saw a huge face in the rocky crust of the canyon wall. After a few moments, I realized that successful removal of six million tons of contaminated soil allowed me to see the Ancient Spirit of Moab from that spot. Locked in stone for half of eternity, he seemed to say, “Remember those who lived here long before. Learn to respect the land and its resources. If you do not, you too shall experience a devastated landscape, unfit for human habitation”.