On October 11–15 I was fortunate enough to participate in EcoFlight’s Flight Across America. The 2015 theme was Megadrought: Exploring the Future of Water across the Western United States. EcoFlight is an Aspen-based non-profit giving educational and advocational flights to “…encourage an environmental stewardship ethic among citizens of all ages.” I thought Ecoflight succeeded in offering an objective experience, presenting representatives from a wide variety of expertise. They connected the dots between energy developments, public lands, and the impacts both can have on water. This is my attempt to share that experience and the perspective gained.
This post is a way for me to compile photos and events to share the experience, and hopefully serve as a connecting resource. It’s a quick glance at a wide range of topics, so I will use many links. My goal is to focus less on individual details in an effort to capture a wider lens. If you see any inaccuracies please let me know so I can change them. There will be more articles coming from the other students and journalists on the trip and I will share those links as they come.
Flight Across America began with all trip parties meeting in an Aspen park; three pilots, two journalists, two students from Colorado Mountain College, one from Colorado College, one from Fort Lewis, two graduate students from Northern Arizona, and one graduate student from Denver University. First we visited John Denver Park where EcoFlight President Bruce Gordon told us the history of his organization. Denver and Gordon originally came up with an idea for a Flight Across America in the mid-90s. Their plan was to fly policymakers, advocates, journalists and students around the country offering aerial perspectives of environmental issues. After Denver’s passing, Gordon maintained the initiative and has been offering Flight Across America since 2004.
That evening we heard from two guest speakers, Liza Mitchell from the Roaring Fork Conservancy, and Mark Fuller from Ruedi Water and Power Authority. Mitchell explained that seven western states and Mexico rely on the Colorado River. Seventy percent of the water goes to agriculture, but the river is over-allocated. Shortage is especially relevant in drought years, which the western states have been in for the last 15 years. Over-allocation on the Colorado River is a result of the 1922 Colorado River Compact. The Compact, which is the foundation for distributing water rights to the Colorado River, was formed during the wettest decade of the last thousand years. Mitchell and Fuller both talked about the 80–20 divide in Colorado, where 80 percent of precipitation falls west of the continental divide, but 80 percent of the population lives to the east.
Then Mitchell led us through an exercise to visualize sources of depletion by drawing cards with pictures that showed tributaries or sources of consumption. Each card held a corresponding location on a large map we circled around. The cards held a + or — with number of cups to be drawn from a large bucket. Positive values meant drawing from the reserve bucket and moving to the CO River Basin bucket. As you can imagine, there wasn’t enough water in the bucket to meet demand. Other than an experimental pulse flow in May 2014, the Colorado River has not reached the Sea of Cortez since 1998.
Fuller talked about the history and building of Ruedi Reservoir and the hydropower it produces. He told of the transmountain diversions that take water from the Roaring Fork drainage to the Eastern slope. The Independence Pass driversion takes 40,000 acre-feet from Grizzly Reservoir to Lake Ruedi ReservoirCreek, Twin Lakes and the Arkansas River (Corralling the Water, Aspen Daily News). Another 60,000 acre-feet leave Ruedi Reservoir to go to Turquoise Lake on the Eastern watershed. The Roaring Fork drainage provides an average 850,000 acre-feet to the Colorado River.
Flight 1: Aspen to Moab, UT
Our first day began early so we could be in the air at sunrise.
We flew over the contentious oil and gas developments on the Piceance Basin (right) and Roan Plateau (below). For more information check out these High Country News articles: Compromise on Colorado’s Roan Plateau and Protecting the Piceance.
This article describes the water usage associated with fracking: “Fracking has a big water footprint, but that’s not the whole story”
In Moab we met with Neal Clark (left) from Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) and Eric Balken from Glen Canyon Institute. Clark talked about SUWA’s input in the Moab Master Leasing Plan, which will govern 750,000 acres of public land and future oil, gas and potash (agricultural fertilizer) development. He explained that typically people react to developments when they begin operation, but the fight is really won or lost in the leasing phase. He also talked about SUWA’s role in assisting the protection of Bears Ears as an inter-tribal sacred site under the Antiquities Act.
Balken (left) presented Glen Canyon Institute’s proposal to drain Lake Powell into Lake Mead andresurrect Glen Canyon, which was once a proposed National Park. He described the situation on the Colorado River not as a drought, which implies an end, but “a self-imposed water shortage.” The conditions in the southwest should be seen more as the “new normal” with climate projections showing a 30% decrease in snowpack, meaning smaller run-off. Rather than having two half-full reservoirs, a full Lake Mead would suffice. It would be more efficient to store in Lake Mead instead of Lake Powell because the porous rock surrounding Lake Powell absorb 2.5% of its water, the equivalent of Nevada’s share of the Colorado River in one year.
Flight 2: Moab to Page, AZ
After a few hours of informative conversation in Moab we took off for Page, Ariz., and Glen Canyon Dam.
For me this trip held numerous juxtapositions. We were seeing energy developments, power generators, dams and other threats to wilderness and safe rivers, but we were also burning gas as we flew and constantly thirsty. It raised the question if it’s a matter of protecting certain vulnerable corridors? Or does the severity of drought on the Colorado raise and even larger question of how to live in a desert?
Glen Canyon Dam was built in 1956 and cost $135 million to complete. Its 710 feet tall and 1560 feet across the top. It began filling in 1963 and first reached capacity in 1980, it can hold 27 million acre-feet of water. Lake Powell was 51% of capacity at the end of September. Find out more about Lake Powell, including 2015 High Flow Experiments to move sediment downstream, at the Bureau of Reclamation.
Glen Canyon Power Plant has a capacity of 1,320,000 kilowatts. This American Rivers article offers more insight on hydropower, Is Hydropower Clean?
After John Wesley Powell first explored the arid southwest he had two main views, first that because water is the key to development, land management should be organized around watersheds (right). His second view was that communities should be built around “watershed commonwealths.” This opinion opposed the Jeffersonian ideal of independent farmers propelling westward expansion. Read more about Powell here.
Upon completion of our tour of the dam, a Park Ranger led us through an activity to open us to the complications of water storage. We broke into three groups with the topics (as they relate to water): gravity, technology, and sacredness. Technology and gravity were easy to see in our setting, but somehow, standing on top of Glen Canyon Dam wasn’t didn’t inspire us to see the sacred value of water.
After touring Glen Canyon Dam we visited Lower Antelope Canyon- The Navajo National Park Tour guide leading us into Antelope Canyoncharged an entry fee and required hiring a guide, a good example of non-extractive income generation. Our guide explained that the name for the canyon came from traditional hunting of antelope by trapping them in the canyon.
That evening we stayed in Page. The next day we would head to the Grand Canyon. For convenience, I’ll break this into three posts. The next will feature the next two days of the trip: Grand Canyon to Durango to Aspen; touring a Uranium Mine, talking to Grand Canyon Trust, hearing about potential developments inside the Grand Canyon, and stakeholders surrounding the Gold King Mine spill into the Animas.