Lake Powell: Doing Things Differently


We decided to do things on Powell a little differently than the average visitor. Thanks to the innovative folks at Jack's Plastic Welding, we got that chance. The Jack's Plastic 22 foot long solar powered raft took us 160 miles in 6 days from Hite, Utah, to Glen Canyon Dam without a single drop of fuel.  

First, a bit of background. Glen Canyon Dam was proposed in the 1950's and completed in 1966. Powell briefly reached full pool in 1980 and has steadily declined ever since. The reservoir drowned Glen Canyon, one of the Colorado's most celebrated canyons in the eyes of early explorers. John Wesley Powell remarked upon the canyon saying, "we have a curious ensemble of wonderful features - carved walls, royal arches, glens, alcove gulches, mounds, and monuments. From which of these features shall we select a name? We decide to call it Glen Canyon." Beyond the tragic environmental consequences of the Dam, its societal purpose remains unclear. Is there any reason for the dam? The surrounding area, virtually devoid of population, does not require a reservoir of this size for drinking water purposes. The dam is simply a delivery system. The 1922 Colorado River Compact arbitrarily placed the boundary between upper and lower basin states at Lees Ferry, 15 miles downstream from Glen Canyon Dam. The upper basin states, therefore, simply built the dam in order to store water for delivery to the lower basin. What if the boundary was 300 odd miles downstream? In that case, Lake Mead (which remains at 50% capacity) could easily fulfill this same purpose without drowning Glen Canyon. As it is, the only true affect of Lake Powell is to provide added surface area for evaporation. An average of 860,000 acre feet of water evaporate from the reservoir each year, accounting for 6-8% of the Colorado River's flow.


We began our solar powered journey at the Hite Marina in Utah. The Marina is essentially a ghost town. Years of drought have left the original boat ramp hundreds of feet away from the water and only small boats can now launch at the small, muddy ramp that remains. Beginning early in the morning, we rigged up the solar raft and got under way. The Jack's Plastic Welding Solar Boat is outfitted with 4 solar panels. We cruised at 3-4mph most of the time and fit 5 people relatively comfortably. As we made our way downstream, we saw several of the first tell tale signs that the environment was changing. The river's silt quickly disappeared. By the first evening we were cruising through unnaturally clear blue waters. Just as striking, we quickly took notice of the "bath tub ring." The lake is 60 feet lower than its maximum and is marked by a ring of white stained rock on the once orange walls, showing how high the waters used to reach. Despite the awe inspiring beauty around us, these marks of degradation reminded us constantly that something is terribly wrong.


We continued on. Day after day of endlessly beautiful red walls marred by the bathtub ring and the unnatural water color. Soon, however, a different aspect of Powell caught our eye. Hite may be a ghost town but the other marinas are not. As we approached Bullfrog Marina and Hall's Crossing. We began to see two story houseboats, three story house boats, jet skis, speed boats, and even floating restrooms. Other visitors to the lake whizzed by us. The wakes from their 60mp+ speeds rocked our boat violently as we plodded along at 3mph. The lake has brought 3 million visitors a year to experience the unnatural beauty of a desert sea.


One of the difficult things about crossing Lake Powell is that it is beautiful. I want to hate it. I hated the dam and the lake for years before I actually visited. In the end, I come away torn. The brief affection that I had for the beauty that remains has, in the end, only made me long more for the beauty that must have been. That such a degraded place can still retain such beauty and can pass silently into oblivion, still adored by 3 million visitors a year... it is even more a tragedy. Against all these hard facts, however, the Lake remains one of the most visually beautiful places I have visited in the West.

Despite this, I still come away from the reservoir crossing with hope. The fact that we can cross Powell in a solar powered boat proves that things can be done a different way, a way that isn't typically conceived of. Even though this is a small scale achievement, hopefully someday the communities of the Southwest can collectively expand on this kind of lesson in order to view the dam and the reservoir in a different light.

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The Hole in the Colorado River

This blog was originally published in the Huffington Post by the Down the Colorado team. Click here to read on Huffpo. It's about one week into our kayak journey down the Colorado River, and we're walking along a highway. Record heat, record drought. Half the state is up in flames and the river we're supposed to be following is nowhere in sight. We walk along the asphalt shoulder, looking to where the sagebrush and yellowing grass on the hillsides meets the rich green and purple of the irrigated alfalfa fields below. The only relief we get from sun's relentlessness comes from the quick blasts of breeze that ride on the tails of each passing semi-truck.

We're walking towards the town of Hot Sulphur Springs from Lake Granby where we last saw the river. Why aren't we floating downstream as the title of our expedition, Down the Colorado, seems to promise? There are several reasons. First, we've reached what's known locally as the "hole in the river." After the Granby Dam, the river shrinks in size. Some 60 percent of the water is corralled from the upper Colorado and its tributaries and directed to the Front Range through a series of canals, pumps, tunnels, reservoirs and siphons. With this season's low run-off, the remaining water below Lake Granby is incapable of floating our tiny inflatable rafts.

We also don't want to be caught trespassing. Unlike other states such as Idaho where both the river and its bed belong to the public, Colorado's law dictates that only the river's water is fair game for kayakers. Property owners can't persecute boaters who float past their land, but if you so much as scrape a submerged rock or get out to portage around a barbed wire fence, you enter an intimidating gray area in the law. Kayaking lore is rich with stories of boaters being driven away from some menacing rapid by an armed and irate landowner, but, like fishermen, kayakers are well-known for their tendency to exaggerate.

Nevertheless, when given the choice between a possible run in with a shotgun or sheriff on the river and the eating of exhaust on the highway, we lean towards the latter, although our fears are probably as exaggerated as the stories. All the landowners we've actually met along the way have been supportive of our journey and their generosity has been exceptional. At Grand Lake, for example, we received not only the permission to float a section of river through private property, but we were invited to spend the night as well. All we had to do was ask. But below Granby we don't know who to ask; so we end up walking.

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After eight miles, we reach Windy Gap Reservoir where we meet up with Rob Firth, the Colorado River Headwaters Project Coordinator for Trout Unlimited. He informs us that the full-fledged "hole in the river" begins at Windy Gap and ends where Troublesome Creek reinvigorates the river's flow 21 miles downstream. According to Firth, this stretch is "a terribly dewatered section that puts this river in a very perilous state." He explains the situation to us as we head downstream to see more:

At Windy Gap, Northern Water Conservancy District (a regional water supplier for the Front Range) diverts to 800,000 people between Boulder and Fort Collins. Denver Water has already diverted much of the Fraser River, which joins the Colorado just upstream of Windy Gap. Although Denver and Northern are required to provide a certain amount of flow to senior water rights holders on the mainstem of the Colorado -- namely the Shoshone hydropower plant near Glenwood Springs and the canals that irrigate the Grand Junction area -- the two water suppliers can do a lot of shuffling in where they release the water to meet these deliveries. Drawing from a system of reservoirs on the Blue River, Williams Fork and other tributaries, Denver and Northern can pump much of the upper Colorado across the continental divide and then return the required flows lower down on the river. The section between the last pumping station and where water is put back into river is considered the "hole."

When we cross the Colorado River a few miles down, it looks as if it should be called the Colorado Creek instead. It's clear, warm, and very shallow. Reduced flows are threatening this Gold Medal Trout stream and the broader riparian habitat.

We see a black bear cross the stream several times, perhaps trying to find some relief from the day's heat. Firth, a former game warden, speculates on the bear's curious behavior and tells us that Trout Unlimited's goal isn't simply to maintain quality fishing in the area; it's also to protect the ecosystem as a whole, from the insects to the bears. "If you can keep trout at a healthy level, being kind of the top of the food chain, then everything beneath then has to exist in harmony." Unfortunately, the "hole" is experiencing an unnatural warming of the shallow water, threatening the insect populations that trout and other fish depend on. According to Firth, "38 percent of the macroinvertebrates species have disappeared from this river since they've turned on Windy Gap Dam in 1985."2012-08-07-Firth.jpg

Firth is concerned with the Windy Gap and Moffat firming projects, proposals from Denver and Northern that would divert as much as 80 percent of the river's flow out of the Colorado. "The river reaches a tipping point," Firth says, "where it no longer means one more bucket out means one more bug out. You may reach a point where one more bucket out means everything crashes and you may no longer have a viable trout fishery." To help mitigate the effects of the proposed projects, Trout Unlimited and local landowners are encouraging diverters to take several courses of action. First, the river needs adequate flows through the "hole." If only a fraction of the historical flow is still available, they're asking for a deepening of the river channels in high-risk sections to keep water cooler. They also are advocating for regular flushing flows that will mimic natural flood events. Finally, they're requesting a bypass channel be built aroundWindy Gap Dam that would allow connectivity with the less damaged ecosystem upstream. Both the proposals and what mitigation will be required by Denver and Northern remain under discussion.

When we reach Hot Sulphur Springs, we're able to get back in our boats. The river is still too shallow to float without scraping ground, but Firth has kindly called every landowner between Hot Sulphur and Kremmling, securing permission for our safe passage. We spend two more days bumping along before we pass the Williams Fork and Blue Rivers. For the first time since the river's source, have enough water to attract other boaters, people with a less insane idea of what constitutes a floatable river. We're happy to have made it out of the "hole."

That night, we camp near the gates of Gore Canyon where the Colorado ceases meandering through flat ranch lands and cuts directly into the jagged Gore Range. The mosquitoes are so thick we eat dinner in the tents. Smoke from wildfires to the west enriches the red haze at sunset. Red light lingers over the menacing notch in the mountains, looking like something out of Middle Earth. Tomorrow we will enter that canyon to tackle what may be the highest quality Class V rapids on the entire Colorado River.

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Powell to Powell Completed

We just finished up the Powell to Powell leg of our journey at Hite, UT, after running Cataract Canyon.  After about 43 days, we have completed paddling the length of the upper Colorado River. Stay tuned for a more detailed write-up of the last part of the journey; for now, here are a few photos.

This pretty much sums up rafting.

Evening light downstream of Moab, UT.

White stripe in Cataract Canyon.

Hackysack high above the river, at The Loop.

The Doll's House, Cataract Canyon.

 

Big Drop #3 in Cataract Canyon.

The team at Hite, UT, with Lake Powell in the background. Photo by Brendan Boepple.

Desert plains near Hanksville, UT

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Posted on July 31, 2012 and filed under Media, Uncategorized.

Photo Essay: Glenwood to Moab

We have been on the river and away from the internet for a while now. We have just arrived in Moab, Utah and we are about to start floating through Cataract Canyon. These photos show a few of the interesting things that we encountered from Glenwood to Moab. Stay tuned for more detailed updates when we finish Cataract at the end of July!  

Many great blue herons have chicks at their nests close to the river (and the road).

Zak shows his Wu-tang Clan pride next to the graffiti under a bridge in Silt, CO. We passed many towns along the I-70 corridor past Glenwood. It has been strange to be traveling via river and camping out despite being next to civilization.

Between Glenwood Springs and Grand Junction, gas development is in full swing. Fracking (pumping mixtures of water and chemicals underground to extract natural gas) is commonplace, even near the river.

Will holds a garter snake. Even along I-70, the riparian corridor is filled with life.

 

Portaging Cameo Dam after a run-in with the dam keeper.  This is operated by the Bureau of reclamation and is one of the most important diversions on the Colorado- Its water rights are even senior to those owned by Denver and can force water to remain on the west side of the continental divide. This water is mainly used for crop irrigation in the Grand Valley.

David paddles a fish ladder/diversion dam upstream from Grand Junction, CO.

Will stands at the last in a series of diversions before the "15 miles reach" between Pallisade and Grand Junction, CO. The 15 mile reach is a section of river that is nearly dewatered to irrigate crops in the Grand Valley. Most of the water returns to the river by seeping through the ground or by flowing all the way through the irrigation ditches. We began the day with approximately 2700 CFS. Only 400 cfs remained for the 15 mile reach.

Harvesting wheat in Fruita, CO. We spoke with the farmer who owns this land and he explained to us that water projects are entirely necessary for the future of agriculture in the West and that we need to build more dams to manage the river properly for this purpose.

Sunset in Ruby Horsetheif, just downstream from Fruita, CO. A park ranger informed us that this section of river sees 25,000 visitors each year.

A collared lizard in Westwater.

The crew paddles through the rapids of Westwater Canyon, UT. This is the first long stretch of river away from roads and railroads since Rocky Mountain National Park.

Lightning illuminates the clouds and canyon walls in Westwater.

Floating through the flat water on a hot day.Hiding out in the shade of our sweet wing on day 2 of Westwater. We discussed the Colorado Plateau with author Steve Trimble, left.

Mike White joined us to float from Westwater to the Dolores Confluence. Mike works with the Southwest Conservation Corps to coordinate wilderness work crews that remove invasive tamarisk trees along the Dolores river. Behind him you can see an entire bank of defoliated tamarisk.

We were greeted with beautiful afternoon light on the canyon walls as we approached the Canyons near Moab, Utah.

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Posted on July 22, 2012 and filed under Media, Uncategorized.

Why You Should Question Your Continental Divide

This blog by the Down the Colorado Expedition was originally published in the Huffington Post.  Click here to read on Huffpo. The continental divide follows a simple rule. It is a line, often in the mountains, that shows water the way downhill to the ocean. Like a boundary between two kingdoms, the side of the continental divide that water falls on determines which sea will receive its tribute. No river is allowed to cross the continental divide, and no water is allowed to deny its rule. In most of the United States, for example, the divides points the way to both the Atlantic and Pacific, no matter how far off they may be.

Hence, visiting the divide is always an exciting experience, especially for the well-hydrated boy of around 10-years-old. He cannot help looking upon such a magical line without gaining a sense of undue power. Each year, a certain percentage of our population (mostly male, mostly young) will test the divide's simple rule. Some will advance only as far as their imagination will take them, others will put the rule into practice, but there are few who will visit the divide and fail to ponder their unique chance to contribute to two oceans at once. All it takes is one well-placed, glorious 180-degree arc of perfect urinary omnipotence.

Or at least that's how it used to be. The continental divide is still marked on maps of Colorado with some exactitude, but the trustworthiness of this line has become questionable. An adolescent Coloradoan today with aspirations towards this kind of hydrological mischievousness will probably find that ignorance is bliss when visiting most of Colorado's divide. Our world is changing and even the simple joys of yesteryear are no longer as straightforward as they once seemed.

I bring all of this up not to confess to a juvenile sense of humor (which I'm not denying either), but because our Down the Colorado River source-to-sea kayak expedition faced a similar problem recently. We had trouble identifying the source. In theory, it should be easy. To kayak source to sea, you find the start of a river and follow it until it ends. On the upper Colorado, however, matters quickly become more complicated. Ask a ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park where the Colorado starts, and she'll most likely point to La Poudre Pass, just west of Estes Park, Colo. The continental divide supposedly traversed the top of the Never Summer Range through which Poudre Pass passes. But if you hike up to this pass like our team did in June with the intention of contributing to or following the river westward towards the Pacific, you'll quickly find yourself heading towards the Mississippi. This is thanks to the Grand Ditch, a water diversion project built between 1890 and 1930 to support farmers on the Front Range. The Grand Ditch is just what you'd expect; it's nothing more than an earthen ditch dug into the slopes of the Never Summers above 10,000 feet that captures melting snow and funnels it from one side of the divide to the other.

 

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So, it would appear as if the divide has moved. It's no longer at the ridgeline of the mountains but a few thousand feet down the slope. Undeterred by this anomaly, the divide seeker moves downhill to the ditch itself. Water is flowing eastward in the ditch, but the tiny North Fork of the Colorado is headed westward down the hill below towards the Pacific. Right? Well, not exactly and not only because the Colorado no longer reaches the Gulf of California.

The young Colorado flows with gravity for a while picking up volume and heading towards Mexico as has been its habit for several million years. But about 30 miles down from the ditch it stops again, this time in Shadow Mountain Reservoir. Once again, matters are complicated for the giddy ocean filler standing on the divide, or for the kayaker in search of the river's source.

The details are a bit complex and strange and they make take a map to decipher, but bear with me for a minute while I try to spell it out. Eighty percent of the population of Colorado lives on the east side of the Rockies. Eighty percent of the water falls on the west side. In order for Denver and other high desert Front Range cities to grow as they have over the last century, much divide manipulation has been necessary. Nearly every tributary of the Upper Colorado River is diverted through the Rockies to the east.

 

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Near Grand Lake, the Colorado does something remarkable; it flows in a circle. Rivers usually don't do this unless they're the Lazy Rivers found in water parks. Of course, there is nothing lazy about a Lazy River. Most rivers hate working and they flow downhill to avoid it. They let gravity exert the energy and tag along for the ride. Lazy Rivers need to be constantly pumped in order to keep flowing around and around. But the upper Colorado avoids the sloth of the average downward flowing river and has formed it's own not-so-lazy circuit.

Shadow Mountain spills water down several miles of flowing river to Lake Granby, the next reservoir on the Colorado. Our hopeful kayak expedition bumped down the rocky channel in this section amidst osprey nests, and with the intention of following the river. But little did we know, most of the water that flowed between these reservoirs made a lazy loop back uphill from Granby to Shadow Mountain via pump station and canal. We find this out when we make it to the dam that plugs the Colorado at Lake Granby to see a nearly dry riverbed below. Where did our river go? Back up to Grand Lake.

 

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The artificial lake of Shadow Mountain is eight feet deep on average and is connected to Grand Lake, Colorado's largest and deepest natural lake, which is 270 feet deep on average. After being brought up out of Lake Granby, water is drawn through Shadow Mountain and across Grand Lake. And with the water comes the algae and other pollutants of a shallow reservoir, which murk up the once crystal clear Grand Lake. The water is then pumped under Rocky Mountain National Park through 13 miles of tunnel and passed on to the 800,000 people and lawns living between Boulder and Fort Collins.

"Water flows uphill toward money," as the local saying goes, and the money in Colorado can be found among the green lawns and millions of homes to the east of the former divide. 60 percent of the water from the upper Colorado no longer flows to the Pacific, leaving the upper Colorado River and its tributaries to survive off the remaining 40 percent. With the approval of the Moffat and Windy Gap firming projects now under discussion, the amount of diverted water could soon take 80 percent of the Colorado's headwaters.

Boiled down, we have a lawless continental divide on the loose in Colorado. Nobody can pin it down exactly, and it will not stand even for the law of gravity itself.

The moral of our story is to be wary of where you go. If you want to have the simple joy of contributing to two oceans at once, best find a divide outside of Colorado. Besides, contributing to the endless circuit of a Lazy River is just flat out gross because it may very well end up circling there for good.

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