A dwindling Lake Powell, LaVoy Finicum Road, and more
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I spent a good portion of August driving around the Four Corners in my trusty Silver Bullet looking out at the landscape, visiting folks, and attending events for my new book, Sagebrush Empire. Below are a few of the images I captured, along with a bit of the story behind each, in no particular order. For higher resolution images, visit
Mexican Hat rock against the backdrop of the Raplee Anticline–which resembles a giant, Kodachrome serpent and was formed by the Laramide Orogeny–in San Juan County, Utah. The rock and a portion of the anticline north of the San Juan River were included in the Inter-Tribal Coalition’s original proposal for a Bears Ears National Monument. When President Barack Obama designated the monument in 2016, he just left both formations just outside of the boundaries. And, of course, they are not within the Trump-shrunken boundaries, either.
A trip to St. George, Utah, took me into the country surrounding Zion National Park and among the massive sandstone formations from the Jurassic. It also took me through the epicenter of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the communities of Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah, which sit below the pictured cliffs. I didn’t stop for a beer or coffee in either town, though the joint-community offers a brewery, espresso shop, and even a liquor store that I’m told peddles Polygamy Porter. I did venture a little ways down LaVoy Finicum Road, however, named after one of the leading figures of the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016. Finicum was shot fatally by federal agents after he and others ran a roadblock and then he jumped out of the car with a loaded firearm in his pocket and told the agents to shoot him.
A barbwire fence in Butler Wash, Utah, with the Abajo Mountains in the background. The fence marks the beginning of the use-fee area of Butler Wash, meaning that a hiker or sightseer must pay $5 per day to access the public lands behind the fence. Meanwhile, a livestock operator would pay just $1.35 to put a cow/calf pair on the same land for an entire month.
Two sections of an especially spectacular rock art panel within the boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument. Note the artistry and the technical skill–and time–required to peck these figures out of the rock. And then note the bullet holes put there by some, pardon my french, dumb-ass. This is one of the reasons people want elevated levels of protection in the form of a national monument. Although a monument designation can’t stop this sort of desecration, it is a starting point and provides the framework for better enforcement of existing laws and a channel for educating the public about visiting places with respect.
Wahweap Marina on Lake Powell. Lake levels were once high enough to cover all of the land in the mid-ground of the photo as well as the bases of the formations behind it. But warming temperatures, rising demand, and aridification are shrinking the entire Colorado River system, Lake Powell included. Before this year, the lake’s level was at its lowest-since-filled in 2005, when it dropped to the canyon-revealing 3,555 feet. It hit that level again this July, then continued dropping another seven feet so that now it sits at 3,548 feet. When I visited, the temperature exceeded 100 degrees and water was evaporating at an alarming rate. The decreasing levels have diminished hydropower output from Glen Canyon Dam, further straining heat-stressed electrical grids across the Southwest. Meanwhile, all of the regular boat ramps on the lake are closed to motorized vehicles. Only one auxiliary ramp, at Wahweap, remains open to smaller boats.
An old truck in Fredonia, Arizona, just over the state line from Kanab, Utah. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration just released data for the climatological summer, showing that Utah, California, Nevada, Oregon, and Idaho all experienced their hottest summers on record this year.
Farmer’s Ditch near Hotchkiss, Colorado. The heavily agricultural North Fork Valley started out the summer in a drought and a bit of a panic, as water managers warned ditch shareholders that they could lose irrigation water as early as July, long before the main harvest. But a cool spring kept snow around longer than expected and summer rains filled Paonia Reservoir enough to keep almost all the ditches running all summer.One exception was the Fire Mountain ditch, with water right dates tied to the construction of Paonia Reservoir. It was shut off in August.
Out with the coal, in with the sun. The Black Mesa coal loading silo on the left is now obsolete, since the Navajo Generating Station and its feeder Kayenta Mine are both closed. The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority’s Kayenta Solar Project is shown on the right.
Smoke from wildfires burning in northern California, as well as in Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, enhances an August sunset in Hovenweep National Monument. The Dixie Fire–now nearing 1 million acres in size–and Caldor Fire continue to burn in California. Fire season in the southern part of the state is just getting going. After experiencing one of its most devastating fire seasons on record in 2020, Colorado has mostly escaped serious fires this summer.
A good portion of the Four Corners Country finally received much-needed rainfall in July and August, sometimes to deleterious effect. For the first time in months potholes in the sandstone filled up with water. The drought, however, is not over.
Sunrise over the Great Sage Plain.