From the air, the Southwest can be seen as a magnificent landscape of mountains, plateaus and deserts cut apart by the canyons of the Colorado River. The view also reveals the impacts of resource development and massive water storage projects that the region's inhabitants have come to rely on – both for economic security, as well as basic necessity.
But in an era that scientists are beginning to call a “mega-drought,” the future sustainability of these projects could be uncertain.
Participating in a program called Flight Across America, eight college students took to the air last week for a bird's eye view of the Colorado River watershed to enhance their understanding of water, drought and resource development in the arid Southwest.
“The aerial perspective allowed us to see the bigger picture,” Northern Arizona University graduate student Ryan Lima said. “Often, we focus on one issue or one place, and our understanding of the scale of that issue is framed by our limited perception.”
Josey Burkett, an environmental studies major at Fort Lewis College, said the aerial perspective showed her things that can't be seen from the ground.
“When you are in the sky, you get a big picture of the stresses placed on our land and water resources by the choices we make,” she said.
The three-day, 1,200-mile flight was sponsored by EcoFlight, an Aspen, Colorado-based nonprofit whose mission is to “educate and advocate for the protection of remaining wildlands and wildlife habitat through the use of small aircraft.”
EcoFlight Vice President Jane Pargiter said that although her organization is decidedly conservationist, it doesn't ask its passengers to hold the same views.
“We try to educate and let the landscape speak for itself,” Pargiter said.
The group met – and flew with – a variety of stakeholders along the way, including conservationists, a land developer, a uranium miner and a farmer from the Navajo Nation.
Beginning in Aspen, the flight flew down the Roaring Fork River Valley, and over the oil fields of the Piceance Basin near the town of Rifle en route to Moab.
Lima said he was surprised by the visibility of oil and gas development in the region.
“It's hard to imagine what hundreds of well pads in a landscape translates to unless you fly above them,” he said. “You really see how fragmented the landscape becomes as a result.”
After a brief stop at Canyonlands Field, where the group met with representatives from the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) and the Glen Canyon Institute, the flight toured the Canyonlands region by flying over the Big Flat oilfield, the Intrepid Potash mine, and down the Colorado River to Lake Powell and Glen Canyon Dam.
Lima said that one of the most interesting things he saw in the Moab area were the solar evaporation ponds at the Intrepid Potash mine.
Potash is used as fertilizer and it can be be found in salt evaporites buried deep in the earth. It is currently recovered through a land- and water-intensive solution mining process, whereby Colorado River water is injected into the evaporites and then brought up to the surface to be spread out into large, solar evaporation ponds. A blue dye is added to hasten evaporation.
“It is stunning to see so much water in such an arid place,” he said. “And to see those colors which seem very alien against the red slickrock.”
Northern Arizona University master's degree student Katie Junghans, who is studying hydrology, said that for her, the flight had many benefits.
“For one, seeing the effects of drought reinforced what I have been taught about the West's water shortages,” she said. “More influential though, was the ability that flying has to bring people together.”
Junghans said that the flight brought together people with opposing viewpoints and gave them a shared experience.
“I gained a well-needed human perspective of the issues,” she said. “All parties have the same concern – protecting the source of water. For these opposing parties to sit together and hear one another out is the first step to achieving understanding and compromise.”
Glen Canyon Institute Executive Director Eric Balken told the students that the current drought was “the new normal.”
His organization is advocating for draining Lake Powell and restoring Glen Canyon. He said that by draining Lake Powell and filling Lake Mead downstream, 300,000-acre-feet of water would be saved that is currently lost to evaporation.
“It doesn't make sense to have two, half-full reservoirs,” he said.
Designed to generate power and store Colorado River water for the six Western states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, Arizona and California, Lake Mead and Lake Powell reservoirs are currently less than half full after 15 years of drought.
Balken said that the Colorado River was over-allocated to begin with, and that the two reservoirs are unlikely to ever be full again, given the current demand.
SUWA representative Neal Clark told the students that the use of water for energy and resource development in the region is a serious concern. He shared figures on water consumption rates for oil wells, and for proposed new potash mines in the area.
Clark said an additional potash mine like Intrepid would require 2,500 to 3,000 acre-feet a year, or the equivalent of Moab and Spanish Valley's annual culinary use.
“The question is always about where is the water going to come from,” he said.
Grand County Council member Lynn Jackson told the Moab Sun News that he believes there is enough water available “if used smartly” to provide for local needs, including resource development.
Jackson said that water use for oil and gas development last year was minimal, and amounted to about 20 to 30 acre-feet. Water-intensive fracking techniques are not utilized in this area, and water is used primarily for mixing with well drilling mud and for dust abatement.
Jackson said that water for future potash development would have to come from the Green River. He acknowledged that the river faces increasing demands, and that projections indicate further drying for the desert Southwest.
Careful planning is essential, he said.
“It's smart to always be thinking ahead for possible decreasing water supplies for all our needs, residential, industrial and agricultural,” he said. “We should have accurate inventory assessments of supply and demand, and then make prudent decisions.”
Junghans said that the future is to be one of increased demands and reduced supplies, and that the greatest challenge Western society faces will be the conservation of water and resources. She said that currently, there's an expectation that water needs can be met through political negotiations and water infrastructure projects.
“An ideological shift needs to occur to move away from this way of thinking,” she said. “Instead of believing water is a right, there should be a move to give people personal ownership of their watersheds. This personal ownership of their water resource is a more effective motivator for conservation and compromise than any top-down legislation or site-unseen water negotiations.”