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).

Mining the Ogallala

We had experienced a lot of surface water when we visited the wildlife refuges in the middle of Kansas. Farther west, we are now in an entirely different water basin, a portion of the vast Ogallala Aquifer that extends from Nebraska down to Texas. This enormous source of "fossil" groundwater allows the region to grow corn and grain and raise most of the nation's cattle on plains that could not be nearly as productive until the invention of efficient groundwater pumps and center-pivot irrigation sprinklers.

The Ogallala groundwater is being mined.
We learned about that situation by visiting the Kansas Groundwater Management District #3 in Garden City, (37°56', 100°54'). Director Mark Rude explained that there is less than an inch of recharge into the aquifer each year, but the withdrawal is happening, in places, hundreds of times faster than that recharge rate. Pumps are today working at reduced capacities. When the water runs out, the economy and environment of this vast region will have to change.
Meanwhile, in the attempt to slow, if not control the situation, each water user in the District is limited to a set allotment, enforced by well-monitoring meters and sensors. Some farmers, inevitably, play games with the District staff, reversing meters in the pipes so they run backward, for example.
The gloomy news is that the situation has not been stabilized, because the limits on pumping are not adequate. "Economists are winning; not hydrologists," Mark told us. Our investigation also led us to Garden City Mayor Nancy Harness and her husband Donald, and Regional Fish and Wildlife Supervisor Mark Sexson. The consensus was that, east of the 100th meridian, a plan for sustainability has a chance to work, but west of Dodge City, the "plan" is for depletion.
It was a hard thing to hear.
This story extends across the region on the surface, where up to 50,000 ephemeral playa lakes are the most important wetland habitat for birds in the region, while serving as a critical source of recharge for the aquifer.
The story also extends up the Arkansas River into neighboring Colorado. We noted the changing appearance of the Arkansas (pronounced Ar-Kansas in these parts), wet with emergent groundwater in Great Bend, bone-dry in Garden City, perking up near Bents Old Fort, and looking healthy in the mountain watershed in Colorado. But relations between the "upstream" and "downstream" user states are strained.
Before we left Garden City, Mark Sexson showed us an encouraging project he is conducting to clean the water in duck ponds at the city zoo using man-made wetlands. He hopes to extend that effort to clean up feedlot wastewater in the region.

The parallels between the mining dilemmas of the Ogallala and mountain-top coal mining are striking: in both cases, a current economic choice will leave future generations with enormous problems and environmental loss. The details of both stories will become important parts of our book.