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Record Drought Reveals Stunning Changes Along Colorado River

Posted on 11 May 2015 by asb

A boat wends its way around the curves of Reflection Canyon, part of Lake Powell in Glen Canyon. The “bathtub rings” on the walls show past water levels.

Photograph by Michael Melford, National Geographic Creative

LAKE POWELL, Utah—In early September, at the abandoned Piute Farms marina on a remote edge of southern Utah’s Navajo reservation, we watched a ten-foot (three-meter) waterfall plunging off what used to be the end of the San Juan River.

Until 1990, this point marked the smooth confluence of the river with Lake Powell, one of the largest reservoirs in the U.S. But the lake has shrunk so much due to the recent drought that this waterfall has emerged, with sandy water as thick as a milkshake.

My partner DeEdda McLean and I had come to this area west of Mexican Hat, Utah, to kayak across Lake Powell, a reservoir formed by the confluence of the San Juan and the Colorado Rivers and the holding power of Glen Canyon Dam, which lies just over the border in Arizona. Yet in place of a majestic reservoir, we saw only the thin ribbon of a reemergent river channel, which had been inundated for most of the past three decades by the lake. We called this new channel the San Powell, combining the name of the river and the lake.

Virginia W. Mason, NG Staff Source: Bureau of Reclamation, National Park Service

We had also come to see firsthand how drought is changing the landscapes of the desert Southwest. Here, judging by the lack of conservation reform, water has seemed to be largely taken for granted. But our recent float suggests that profound changes may be in store for the region. (See “The American Nile.”)

Sweating in the desert heat, we loaded our 15-foot (5-meter) kayaks with two weeks’ worth of food and ten gallons of water—enough to last us two days. Drinking from the silty river or fecal-contaminated areas of Lake Powell frequented by houseboats was not an option (Glen Canyon Recreation Area, which includes the reservoir, is visited by more than two million people a year). The contours of our journey—where we camped, our hiking destinations, and how far we paddled each day—would be defined by the need to find potable springs.

Like bicyclists shunning the interstate, many kayakers have avoided Lake Powell ever since the builders of Glen Canyon Dam finished flooding 186 miles (300 kilometers) of the Colorado River Valley in 1980. The reservoir was named after John Wesley Powell, the National Geographic Society co-founder who first paddled most of the Colorado River and who later, in public office, tried to limit population growth in the arid Southwest. The dams and the enormous reservoirs that were later built in the desert would have horrified him.

Motorboaters call Powell’s lake the “Jewel of the Colorado” because of its unnatural emerald hue—Glen Canyon Dam now captures the silt that used to make the Colorado, after its confluence with the San Juan, the most colorful river in the West. Paddlers call it “Lake Foul” for the noise and stench of outboard engines.

In 2011, Lake Powell contained plenty of water.

Photograph by Jon Waterman

“Extreme” Drought

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, 11 of the past 14 years have been drought years in the Southwest, with the drought ranging from “severe” to “extreme” to “exceptional,” depending on the year and the area.

At “full pool,” Lake Powell spans 254 square miles (660 square kilometers)—a quarter the size of Rhode Island. The lightning bolt-shaped canyon shore stretches 1,960 miles (3,150 kilometers), 667 miles (1,073 kilometers) longer than the West Coast of the continental United States.

The reservoir serves multiple purposes. It stores water from the Upper Basin states of Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, and Colorado so that the Lower Basin states of California, Nevada, and Arizona can receive their allotted half of the Colorado River; it creates electricity through hydro-generators at Glen Canyon Dam; and it helps prevent flooding below Hoover Dam (240 miles or 390 kilometers downstream), the site of North America’s largest reservoir, Lake Mead.

The irony, as most students of this river’s history now know, is that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation created these enormous reservoirs during the wettest period of the past millennium. According to modern tree-ring data (unavailable during the dam-building epoch), the previous millennium experienced droughts much more severe than those in the first 14 years of the 21st century. Many climate scientists think the Southwest is again due for a megadrought. The Bureau of Reclamation’s analysis of over a hundred climate projections suggests the Colorado River Basin will be much drier by the end of this century than it was in the past one, with the median projection showing 45 percent less runoff into the river.

Last winter was snowy in the Rockies, and runoff was at 96 percent of the historical average. Because of the previous years of drought, however, Lake Powell had risen to only half full by fall.

But Lake Mead was in even worse shape. This year it plunged to 39 percent of capacity, a low that has not been matched since Hoover Dam began backing up the Colorado River in 1935. In August, the Bureau of Reclamation announced that Lake Powell would release an additional 10 percent of its waters, or 2.5 trillion gallons, to Lake Mead. That release will lower the water in Lake Powell by about three feet (one meter).

By 2014, Lake Powell was full of plant life and silt.

Photograph by Jon Waterman

Rise of Ancient Ruins?

Fifty miles (80 kilometers) up from the Colorado River confluence, on what is commonly known as the San Juan River Arm of Lake Powell, we kept poking our paddles-cum-measuring sticks toward the shallow river bottom, shouting: “Good-bye, reservoir! Hello, San Powell River!” In a four-mile-per-hour, opaque current, always hunting for the deepest river braids, we breezed past fields of still-viscous, former lake-bottom silt deposits. Stepping out of the boat here would have been an invitation to disappear in quicksand.

We paddled downstream, looking for the edge of the reservoir. We passed caterwauling great blue herons, a yipping coyote, and squawking conspiracies of ravens. By late afternoon, dehydrated by the desert sun, we stopped at one of the few quicksand-free tent sites above the newly emerged river: a sandy yet dry creek bed draining the sacred Navajo Mountain.

We slept in the perfume of blooming nightshades; wild burros brayed throughout the night. Here, more than a dozen miles below our put-in at a marina that once served the reservoir, the swirling “San Powell” River continued to sigh 15 feet (5 meters) below our tent.

In October 2011, when the reservoir was at 70 percent of its capacity, I had stood on a rocky shore above where our tent now stood and photographed Lake Powell’s Zahn Bay here in the San Juan River Valley. It’s dry now, and the lake bottom is a cracked series of chocolate-colored hummocks, surrounded by the invasive Russian thistle and tamarisk, native willows and sunflowers, and pockmarked by burro hooves.

For five days, we wouldn’t see a human footprint or hear the ubiquitous whine of Lake Powell boat traffic.

Half full, the amazing vessel that is Lake Powell has lost 4.4 trillion gallons of water in the recent drought.

By day three, desperate to refill our water bottles, we found a newly created marsh where the river thinned before dropping into the deeper reservoir. Unlike anything I’d experienced elsewhere on the sterile Lake Powell, abundant small fish and aquatic life supported American pelicans, mallards, coots, mergansers, green herons, hawks, and kingfishers. The silty river is also sheltering endangered razorback suckers and pikeminnows that are preyed upon by non-native fish in the clearer waters of the lake.

Within a decade or two at the most, if the drought persists, we can expect to see hundreds of inundated ancient Anasazi ruins rising above the drying reservoir. Archaeologists will be delighted, just as kayakers like us delight at the reemergence of a river. But more than 36 million people in and around the Colorado River Basin depend on this vanishing water.

As we finally reached a body of water wide enough to be properly called the reservoir, many miles below where we had expected to find it, we continued paddling in a chocolate pudding of ground-up river debris. Some 94 feet (29 meters) above our craned heads, on the red sandstone walls of the reservoir, we saw the “bathtub rings”—the stains left by river minerals in wetter times.

That night we did a quick calculation: Half full, the amazing vessel that is Lake Powell has lost 4.4 trillion gallons of water in the recent drought; the deeper vessel of Lake Mead at 39 percent capacity has lost 5.6 trillion gallons of water.

This aerial view of Lake Powell and Glen Canyon Dam was taken in 2009.

Photograph by Peter McBride, National Geographic Creative

Big Impact

As central California (beyond the reach of Colorado River water) has already been hamstrung by an even more exceptional drought, many farms and dairy operations have shut down, rationing has begun, homeowners are being fined for watering their lawns, and the state has begun relying on finite groundwater supplies. And as extensive farm networks are served by the Colorado River, it is likely that nationwide produce prices will soon begin to rise.

What’s next? As Lakes Powell and Mead continue to plummet, officials are now predicting rationing by 2017 for the junior Colorado River water-rights holders of Nevada and Arizona.

In the decades that follow, invasive flora and fauna will colonize dried-out reservoir bottoms. River running and reservoir boating may end. Those will seem like minor issues compared with the survival of cities like Los Angeles, Denver, Phoenix, and Las Vegas, all of which depend on the Colorado River. There is talk of diverting more water to the Colorado Basin users from places such as the Missouri River. A massive desalination plant is being built on the California coast. But such solutions won’t come cheap.

Officials are now predicting rationing by 2017 for the junior Colorado River water-rights holders of Nevada and Arizona.

We can hope for agricultural reform, such as irrigation changes, more aggressive crop rotation and fallowing, reverting to less water-intensive produce, or dismantling of the water-intensive southwestern dairy industry. And the exponential population growth of the region—as Powell warned at the end of the 19th century—will have to be addressed. (See “Arizona Irrigators Share Water With Desert River.”)

By mid-September, we reached the speedboat-accessible region of Lake Powell. Motorboaters often stopped to ask if we needed help. Many of these boaters offered us iced beer or bottled water imported from distant regions of the country.

Each day, for 14 days, except during two violent but brief rainstorms, the temperature climbed into the 90s. Often dizzy, and even exhausted from the heat, we parceled out our water, cup by cup, consuming over four gallons daily. And every other day, we walked or paddled miles out of our way so that we could enact a time-honored practice of desert cultures like the Anasazi’s, which vanished in the 13th-century megadrought.

Every other day, we uncapped our empty bottles while honoring this ritual of aridity: Bowing under shaded cliffs at moss-covered seeps, we pressed our lips onto cold sandstone walls and drank those precious drops until our bellies were full.

Jonathan Waterman is a writer and photographer based in Colorado. In 2010 National Geographic published his book Running Dry: A Journey From Source to Sea Down the Colorado River. He is also the co-author, with Pete McBride, of The Colorado River: Flowing Through Conflict. See his previous work “The American Nile.”

Get involved with the effort to restore the Colorado River through Change the Course, a partnership of National Geographic and other organizations.

via: Record Drought Reveals Stunning Changes Along Colorado River

40 Million People Depend on the Colorado River. Now It’s Drying Up.

Eddie J. Rodriquez/Shutterstock

Science papers don’t generate much in the way of headlines, so you’ll be forgiven if you haven’t heard of one called “Groundwater Depletion During Drought Threatens Future Water Security of the Colorado River Basin,” recently published by University of California-Irvine and NASA researchers.

But the “water security of the Colorado River basin” is an important concept, if you are one of the 40 million people who rely on the Colorado River for drinking water, a group that includes residents of Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Tucson, and San Diego. Or if you enjoy eating vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, and spinach during the winter. Through the many diversions, dams, canals, and reservoirs the river feeds as it snakes its way from the Rockies toward Mexico, the Colorado also provides the irrigation that makes the desert bloom in California’s Imperial Valley and Arizona’s Yuma County—source of more than two-thirds of US winter vegetable production.

We’ve known for a while that the river’s ability to meet such demands has become increasingly strained. Climate change means less snowmelt in the Rockies, the river’s source, and a 14-year drought in the Southwest has further impeded its flow, while adding to the demand on it. “The once broad and blue river has in many places dwindled to a murky brown trickle,” the New York Times reported in January. “Reservoirs have shrunk to less than half their capacities, the canyon walls around them ringed with white mineral deposits where water once lapped.”

Lake Mead, the vast Nevada reservoir that traps a portion of the Colorado’s annual flow for distribution to its various users, has sunk to its lowest level since its creation in the 1930s, under pressure from the past decade and a half of drought. According to an excellent National Geographic piece by Sandra Postel of the Global Water Policy Project, Lake Mead was hovering near capacity when the drought started in 2000, equivalent to about two full years of Colorado River water. Today, it holds just nine months worth of river flow—a steep drop.

But the new paper suggests that the situation is even worse than we previously knew. In addition to rapidly drawing down Lake Mead, the region’s thirst for water has extended underground: to the region’s aquifers. For a project called the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment, or GRACE, NASA satellites circle the Earth and carefully measure its mass. “Because changes in water storage result in changes in mass, GRACE provides fairly accurate estimates of water depletion over time,” Postel explains.

The Colorado River Basin Map: Shannon/WikiMedia Commons

And here’s what GRACE researchers found in the Colorado River Basin region: To make up for the gap between what the Colorado River supplies and what people and agriculture demand, farmers, landowners, and municipalities are dropping wells and tapping underground aquifers at a much faster rate than had been assumed. Between December 2004 and November 2013, the Colorado Basin surrendered almost 53 million acre-feet of underground water—roughly equal to about 1.5 full Lake Meads, siphoned away in just nine years.

“Quite honestly, we are alarmed and concerned about the implications of our findings,” study coauthor Jay Famiglietti, a senior water scientist at NASA and a professor of at the University of California-Irvine, wrote in a blog post. “From a group that studies groundwater depletion in the hottest of the hot spots of water stress around the world—in India, the Middle East, and in California’s Central Valley—that says something.”

Famiglietti’s alarm stems from the fact that in the West, groundwater is essentially a nonrenewable resource. “When we use it, it’s gone,” he writes. No one knows how much is left, but it’s pretty clear that the region can’t keep draining its aquifers at the rate of 1.5 Lake Meads worth every nine years. But because of climate change, the region can expect more frequent droughts and less overall water from the Colorado. In short, Famiglietti writes, “The American West is running out of water.”

Which means it’s probably time to reconsider the region’s Wild West style of regulating groundwater. “If you own the property, the vagueries of groundwater law often mean that you can dig the wells and pump to your heart’s content,” Famiglietti writes. “Multiply that by millions of private wells and you get the picture.”

via: 40 Million People Depend on the Colorado River. Now It’s Drying Up.

The Colorado River Basin Has Lost Enough Water To Fill Lake Mead Twice Over

by Jeff Spross Posted on July 25, 2014 at 1:33 pm

The Colorado River Basin Has Lost Enough Water To Fill Lake Mead Twice Over

The dry bed of the Stevens Creek Reservoir is seen on Thursday, March 13, 2014, in Cupertino, Calif.

The dry bed of the Stevens Creek Reservoir is seen on Thursday, March 13, 2014, in Cupertino, Calif.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

Since 2004 the Colorado River basin — which provides water for seven states — has lost enough water to fill Lake Mead twice.

That’s the word from a new study by researchers at NASA and the University of California, who used satellite data to do a first-ever quantifiable measure of how much groundwater people in the American west and southwest have used up in the current spate of droughts. According to the Wall Street Journal, the team determined that from 2004 to 2013 the basin lost 17 trillion gallons of water, which is enough to supply 50 million homes for a year. Three-fourths of that loss was groundwater, and the fastest rates of depletion occurred in 2013 — following one of the driest years on record.

The Colorado River basin supplies the water for about 40 million people and four million acres of farmland across California, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming.

The study employed a pair of satellites launched by the GRACE mission in 2002, and translated their data on the fluctuations in the Earth’s gravitational pull into changes in total water storage. Separate data sets disaggregated factors like snowpack, soil moisture, surface water, and groundwater. One resulting drawback is that the data can’t get especially granular, nor can it tease apart whether water declines resulted from increased pumping or from lower recharge rates in the basin itself — though the former would go up and the latter would go down during a drought.

The system, described by Jay Famiglietti, one of the study co-authors, as “scales in the sky,” has already been used to measure groundwater depletion in California specifically as well as the Middle East. Just to be sure, the researchers also checked their conclusions against measurements taken from 74 individual wells throughout the surveyed area. The trends in the wells matched the trend in the satellite data.

“That gives us confidence in what GRACE is seeing,” said Stephanie Castle, a researcher at the University of California, Irvine, and the study’s lead author.

“We didn’t think it would be this bad,” Castle continued. “Basin-wide groundwater losses are not well documented. The number was shocking.”

Lake Powell and Lake Mead, both parts of the Colorado River basin, serve as some of the largest reservoirs for that area of the country, and officials are increasingly alarmed by water shortages in both lakes. Between the drought and the demand of rising populations, Lake Mead recently hit its lowest water level ever.

California especially has been punished by droughts in recent years, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, with every last inch of the state covered by “moderate” or “exceptional” drought in April. More than 80 percent of the state is now in extreme drought, as defined by the U.S. Drought Monitor, and things are anticipated to stay that way at least through October. And work released last week estimated the economic damage from the drought this year at $2.2 billion in losses for the California agricultural industry, along with 17,000 jobs gone.

The New York Times just reported that about 34 percent of the lower 48 states have been in moderate drought (as defined by the Drought Monitor) or worse as of July 22. And while the Drought Monitor data only goes back to 2000, the Palmer Index goes back over a century, revealing the current drought is on par with the epic droughts of the 30s and 50s.

Not surprisingly, residents in the most drought stricken states also tend to be the ones who consume the most water, which often means pulling from groundwater reservoirs. Per capita usage is highest in places like California, Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico, and much of the excess usage goes to watering plants, lawns, and landscapes. As much as half of that water is in turn wasted, as it evaporates or

NASA images show how fire, insects and water have changed Colorado

Colorado’s natural landscape has withstood forest fires, beetle infestation and rising temperatures over the last century. Satellite images from NASA offer a unique glimpse at how our corner of the planet has changed. 

Drag the slider back and forth to see the change, and check out NASA’s full “Images of Change” gallery here. 

Black Forest Fire

The Black Forest Fire near Colorado Springs, Colorado, was the most destructive wildfire in the state’s history, having burned over 14,000 acres and more than 500 homes. It was responsible for the deaths of two people and forced thousands more to leave their homes. The fire started June 11, 2013, and was considered fully contained on June 20, 2013. It began along the north side of Shoup Road, which forms the southern boundary of the burned area seen in the June 22 image. The northern portion of Colorado Springs is visible at the lower left.


Great Sand Dunes National Park

The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, home of the tallest sand dunes in North America, is the newest U.S. national park. It is located in the San Luis Valley at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Range in Colorado. The valley’s stream flows change from season to season and year to year, and these images show the difference between 1987 and 2011. Water access is especially critical in the region as center pivot irrigation systems (shown as circular features west of the feeder streams) rely on aquifer recharges. Originally a national monument, the area was given the distinction of national park in September 2004.


High Park Fire

Sparked by lightning on June 9, 2012, the High Park Fire burned more than 87,000 acres near and in Roosevelt National Forest, just west of Fort Collins, Colorado. One person was killed and at least 259 homes were destroyed. High temperatures and strong winds hampered efforts to extinguish the blaze, which was the second largest in Colorado history.


Arapaho Glacier melt

Arapaho Glacier, Colorado. Left: 1898. Right: 2003. Arapaho Glacier has shrunk dramatically since it was photographed in 1898. Measurements collected since 1960 suggest the glacier has thinned by at least 40 meters since then; thinning between 1898 and 1960 is unknown but is probably considerably greater than 40 meters.


Tree loss in Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. Left: September 22, 2003. Right: September 25, 2010. Mountain Pine Beetles killed about 60 percent of the medium-to-large lodgepole pines on the western slopes of the park between the years depicted here. In the 2003 image, dense vegetation (dark green) is seen near the center. In the 2010 image, the dark green has been replaced by shades of brown over large areas, indicating tree loss.


All images courtesy U.S. Department of the Interior / USGS and NASA.

via: NASA images show how fire, insects and water have changed Colorado


runs off thanks to inefficient irrigation methods.

California is also instituting mandatory water restrictions for the first time. The rules would ban wasteful outdoor watering, hosing down sidewalks and driveways, and will require a shut-off nozzle for hoses. Maximum penalties could reach up to $500, enforceable by any public employee empowered to enforce laws, including local water agencies. Work by the Natural Resources Defense Council has suggested that the right combination of water efficiency and conservation methods could close California’s current gap between its water usage and water supplies with room to spare.

Studies have also linked the droughts to climate change, as warmer temperatures alter weather systems to bring precipitation in wider circles around much of the American west. Climate change also brings precipitation in shorter, bigger bursts, and more heat in turn speeds up evaporation and prevents the accumulation of water resources.

via: The Colorado River Basin Has Lost Enough Water To Fill Lake Mead Twice Over


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