Saturday, December 19, 2009

Itinerary for Europe in the Spring

On April 13, 2010, we fly from San Francisco, via Boston, then direct to Sao Miguel Island in the Azores, to continue exploring the "water line" along the 38th parallel. From the Azores, we will fly to Lisbon, Portugal on April 16, then drive south to reconnect with the latitude line at Sines. Several RAMSAR sites-- wetlands of international significance--are along that stretch of Atlantic coastline. Moving eastward across the Alentejo province will bring us to the Guadiana River, where a massive dam forms the largest reservoir in Europe, the Barragem do Alqueva. The nearby town of Moura is also host to the biggest photovoltaic solar generating plant in the world.

Exiting Portugal, we will enter Spain's Extremadura province, the home of several of the conquistadors who found familiar conditions in the dry harshness of the New World's desert lands. For example, Jerez de los Caballeros, in Badajoz, was the birthplace of Vasco Núñez de Balboa and Hernando de Soto. Our route intersects with Cordoba, Andalucia, and the Guadalquivir River, and then passes through the southeastern province of Murcia. Spain's recent approach to water supply issues has them planning 21 desalination plants; the one now being constructed in Torrevieja will be Europe's largest. We hope to see how well Spain is meeting its professed goal of using renewable energy to meet the large energy demands of these desal plants.

Reaching Sicily from Spain may involve round-about flights through Barcelona and Rome. If we find ourselves in Barcelona, the Maritime Museum and Aquarium there offer opportunities to learn more about the Mediterranean Sea. Alternatively, we may ride a ferry to Spain's Balearic islands of Ibiza and Formentera. By April 28, we expect to be in Sicily. The 38th parallel line runs along the north coast, from Palermo to Messina. Sicily has serious water supply issues to investigate, but another goal is to help out with the annual survey of migrating raptors at the Strait of Messina, where birds moving between Africa and Europe make their landfall on the southern tip of Italy.

Leaving Italy, we will travel by ferry to Greece on May 2. Zakynthos, west of the Peloponnesian coast, is one of a handful of Mediterranean islands where beaches serve as nesting sites for endangered loggerhead turtles. We will arrive a few weeks too early for the breeding season, but hope to meet with the local Archelon Sea Turtle Protection Society representatives to learn about their challenges and efforts where human activity on the beaches is the biggest threat to the nesting turtles. There are more RAMSAR wetlands on the west coast of Peloponnesia, south of Patra. And north of the Gulf of Patra is Greece's largest lake, Trichonis, being considered for inclusion in the Living Lakes network (Mono Lake is included). Reaching Athens, we will explore the history of water supply for that metropolis from the reservoir at Marathon (26 miles north, of course), and then cross over to the island of Evia. There, at Lake Dystos, local farmers once tried to fill in the lake to create more farmland, but it today remains an important wetland area for birds and yet another RAMSAR site.

Our route takes us by ferry across the Aegean Sea to the island of Samos, where, in the 6th century BC, a tunnel through a mountain was bored to carry water from the west side to the drier east side of the island--an amazing engineering feat in that ancient time.

On to Turkey, where the ancient city of Ephesus is on our latitude-line route. Cappadocia and salt lakes await us in the center of the country, and then the Anatolia region, and the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Turkey has built dozens of large dams there. The Ilisu dam, on the Tigris, is now under construction, but is very controversial, as villages and the town of Hasankeyf will be flooded, displacing tens of thousands of residents and covering archaeological sites that include some of the earliest known human settlements. Turkey's dams on these rivers have also heightened tensions downstream, where Syria and Iraq worry about how much water will still enter those countries. We will, finally, visit the large, saline Lake Van in eastern Turkey to finish this leg of our around-the-world travels.

We expect to be back in California about May 21, then will organize our travels in Asia, which will happen in September and October, 2010.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Water Line: Across California on the 38th Parallel

A year ago we traveled from our home at Mono Lake, near the eastern edge of California, across the state to Point Reyes, where a lighthouse sits at 38°00' (it is intriguing that lighthouses mark the 38th parallel line at each edge of the continent). The 17-day trek was done on foot, bicycles, and by boat. Starting from Mono Lake, where a battle over stream diversions by the City of Los Angeles was won by citizen activists (the Mono Lake Committee, National Audobon Society, and CalTrout), our route intersected with the Sierra crest snowpack/glacial melting/climate change story; with Hetch Hetchy reservoir inside Yosemite National Park; with the New Melones Reservoir on the Stanislaus River; with the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta; with San Francisco Bay; and with Point Reyes at the Pacific coast. At each location we met with persons involved with those water topics--researchers, environmental activists, park rangers, and local residents--and were delighted that so many people took time to educate us. The full story will be told in our book and a shorter version was published by Coast & Ocean magazine (online, with 15 photographs, at

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Water Grab in Eastern Nevada

We arrived in the old mining town of Pioche, 37°56', 114°27', on a bitterly cold afternoon. The local history museum provided a warm shelter and many interesting exhibits. It was staffed by Barbara Zelch, who told us her husband has been very involved in the battle over Las Vegas planning to export groundwater from eastern Nevada valleys. There are so many parallels to the Owens Valley/Mono Lake/Los Angeles Aqueduct history in this current water grab--family ranches being bought up for their water rights, local people overwhelmed by the big city movers-and-shakers, water to be moved hundreds of miles to fuel development and growth in a sprawling metropolis.
Glennan Zelch met us in the Pioche library, across the street from a building rented by Southern Nevada Water Authority (Las Vegas), but sitting empty with only pretty photos of Nevada in the windows. so far. Glennon is a retired civil engineer who had lived in Louisville, Kentucky and worked with water systems. The Zelch's moved to Pioche 8 years ago, not knowing about Las Vegas's pipeline plans. This project is complicated by the biggest water basin, in Snake Valley being shared between Utah and Nevada. Concern is building in Salt Lake City, not only about the depleted groundwater basin, but unhealthy particulate dust (shades of Mono and Owens Lake, again) should the groundwater table drop significantly. On the day we were in Pioche, a district judge in Gardnerville, NV, overturned a 2008 state ruling that had granted the Southern Nevada Water Authority permission to take groundwater from three other valleys in central Lincoln County (west of Pioche). This should slow things down, but stay tuned for much more on this issue. This water grab issue seemed to bring us full circle, as we approached our Mono Lake home.
After Pioche, we crossed Nevada, seeing wild horses and watching for aliens along the Extraterrestrial Highway. Our first view of Mono Lake was a thrill-- back home in the Basin after a month exploring our nation's communities and landscapes along the 38th parallel. The angle of light and the evening sky are the same along that latitude, but there's no place like home.

We are home for the winter, now, but we'll be out on the line again by next April to extend this exploration across Europe and Asia. Please take a look at the list of countries we'll visit in the August blog titled "Where in the world does 38°N take us?" We would appreciate any suggestions of contacts for those regions.

Radioactive Cleanup on the Colorado

In Moab, UT, 38°34', 109°32'; we met Kimberly Schappert by choosing the Up the Creek tents-only campground in the middle of town. Kim came to Moab over 20 years ago, and started a mountain biking magazine. She has seen Moab change from a small mining town with a Uranium Cafe and Atomic Grill, into a mecca for outdoor recreation. Kim became involved in county government and worked for years to get the huge uranium tailing pile on the north end of Moab cleaned up. Decades of tailings piled adjacent to the Colorado River were sending a radioactive plume of groundwater seepage (also polluted with ammonia) toward the river. The mill served dozens of uranium mines south of Moab (near the 38th parallel) and was located in Moab because of the large amounts of river water needed to process the ore. Millions of downstream users in Arizona, Southern California and Las Vegas, were threatened. The funding is finally in place to move ahead with the cleanup, which began last April (the mining company went bankrupt to protect itself, so we taxpayers are paying the bills). We had a morning tour of the site by Department of Energy contract geohydrologists, Ken Pill and Liz Glowiak. Truck containers are loaded with contaminated tailings, then the containers are transferred to clean trucks that move to trains hauling the material about 30 miles north out of the watershed. Moab wash runs right through the site, carrying surface water to the river. There is a need to dry out the tailings before they are moved, and much monitoring of groundwater going on with test wells. Ken and Liz showed us the "habitat " area along the river. Birds were singing and fish swimming among the small strip of riparian plants left along the river front. There is a huge potential for this site at the gateway to Moab once the tailings are gone. It will take 10 years of constant work to move 2 million tons, a mountain of tailings.

Arches National Park is literally next door to the tailings pile. Our driving route across Utah forces us to go around the majestic Colorado River and Green River canyons that we had canoed last spring (the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers is within a mile of the latitude line). The 38th parallel route passes through a series of incredible national park landscapes, all sculpted by water: Canyonlands NP, Lake Powell NRA, Grand Staircase-Escalante NM, Capitol Reef NP, and Bryce Canyon NP.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Telluride 350

A lot of planning has gone into this trip, but the surprises keep coming and have made for some of our best experiences.
Telluride is a ski town that used to be a mining town and is almost right on the 38th parallel. We planned to look into water issues (San Miguel Creek runs right through town), then learned that a 350 Global Climate Change event was scheduled for October 24. Mono Lake, our home in the Eastern Sierra had a similar event planned with canoes spelling out "350." In Telluride, they were making a 350 "sign" out of bicycles, solar vehicles and hybrid cars, and they asked if our Prius could become part of it! The "New Community Coalition" sponsored the local event which was also occurring, the same day, in over 5,200 locales in 181 countries, all pointing to the goal of reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere back down to 350 parts per million.
Our blue car ended up front and center in the picture, forming the top of the number "5," and directly in front of the court house podium. Dave was enlisted to climb up to the top of the building across the street and help the organizers with the photo shoot. Meanwhile, Janet spruced up a poster that the local high school kids had made, to make the letters stand out. It was nice to be a part of a community, if however briefly.

Telluride has solar panels on its schools and library and nearby Mountain Village has a "Green the Gondola" campaign to offset 20% of the energy used by the gondola that connects the two communities, by installing solar panels.
We also learned that Ouray (our previous day's stop) was the first town in Colorado to convert its street lighting to LED bulbs.
We met another cross-country traveler, William Grote, who happened to be in Telluride and also joined in with the 350 event. This young man is making the trip west to east in a solar-powered recumbent bicycle, and reading the Lorax book to school children along the way .
It was hard to leave Telluride (next stop, Moab, Utah), but we finished off with human-powered fruit smoothies that we blended by pedaling a stationary bike!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Headwaters State - Colorado

We reached Salida, Colorado along with a night of winter weather. So we stayed two nights with our former Mono Basin neighbors, Shannon and Brett, took a day off from traveling, and learned about a battle led by local citizens against the export of nearby mountain "springwater" (actually groundwater) by the Nestle Co. to their Denver bottling plant.

Then, on to the Great Sand Dunes National Park, which was a National Monument until the Nature Conservancy purchased a local ranch to foil a water export scheme meant to serve more development along Colorado's front range. As a result, enough acreage was added to the monument to reclassify it as national park, plus a new National Wildlife Refuge was made from the other Baca Ranch land. The entire water story across San Luis Valley is fascinating and will become a major story for our book. We were helped by Paul Robertson, the local project coordinator with the Nature Conservancy (seen here with Dave as they study our GPS unit to confirm that the highway sign is truly at 38 degrees north). The Rio Grande River moves across this large valley and there are two additional wildlife refuges. Migratory sandhill cranes were there the day we visited!
After an oil change for our dependable Toyota Prius, we drove a spectacular mountain road up to Ouray, where rivers run orange and there's an intriguing mining cleanup story to tell. Tomorrow, Telluride.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Santa Fe Trail--Kansas to eastern Colorado

Across much of Kansas, the historic Santa Fe Trail closely follows our target latitude line and, not coincidentally, also closely follows the Arkansas River, the major surface water source in this part of the country.
We entered Kansas at Fort Scott, one of a series of forts built along what was intended to be the permanent boundary to Indian territory, and later functioned as protection for settlers using the Santa Fe Trail.

This is prairie country--rolling dry hills had replaced the green of the Midwest heartland. The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve (38°26', 96°33'), was established 12 years ago in eastern Kansas. Because of local opposition to a "real" national park, the legislation creating the park limited National Park Service acreage to about 100 acres; the rest of the 11,000 acres are owned by the Nature Conservancy and considered private land. Some of that history was told by William Least Heat Moon in his book PrairyErth, which focused on this Kansas county. Moon wanted to write about the "center" of the country, and traced diagonal lines from the 4 corners (northwest to southeast and southwest to northeast), finding that they intersected here--a calculation that also coincided with the 38th parallel. The week after our visit, 20 bison were scheduled to be introduced to the park, brought from Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota.
We visited Pawnee Rock, a major landmark along the Santa Fe Trail that was unfortunately quarried later. A viewing platform shows how tall the big black rock used to be. Not far away was Fort Larned ,on the Pawnee River, serving travelers on the trail.
In Dodge City, Queen of the Cowtowns, we reached cattle feedlots and the 100th Meridian--the 100 degrees West latitude line. From there on, as we moved westward, we would come to appreciate "the line between the humid east and the arid west," as recognized by John Wesley Powell. In land with less than 20 inches of annual rainfall, Powell wrote, "agriculturalists will early resort to irrigation."
In western Kansas, Garden City is home to the Sandsage Bison Range, (37°56', 100°54'), 3670 acres where Tom Norman, the State Park manager showed us the herd of 90 bison , about to be reduced to 60 with an annual round-up. Bison have been here ever since "Buffalo Jones," one of the founders of Garden City, rescued a few of the last remaining buffalo from extinction. A few scattered trees are also on the preserve, evidence of an attempt to create the Kansas National Forest Reserve early in the 20th century. Millions of tree seedlings were planted, but climate and soil realities doomed that quixotic project (a fascinating bit of history we will explore in the book to come).
The Ogallala Aquifer is the overlapping story as we travel through this region (see prior post).