Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon will continue to be closed due to “extreme damage” from the latest round of heavy rain and flooding Saturday night, the Colorado Department of Transportation announced Sunday afternoon.
“This assessment was provided by senior operations supervisors and engineering staff who described damage to the viaduct structure unlike anything they had seen before,” a news release states. “CDOT crews are assessing damage and continue to clear debris and mudflow when weather conditions are safe.”
CDOT Denver Metro Communications Manager Tamara Rollison said Sunday there currently is no estimation as to when I-70 will reopen.
“Our region — three crews — is out there in full force,” she said. “And then we have other regions that are also augmenting them as well, too.”
I-70 has been closed to traffic since Thursday night. A quick storm moved in and hit the Grizzly Creek burn scar, in the process stranding 108 motorists and their passengers. Some took refuge in the Hanging Lake Tunnels area and were eventually evacuated. Meanwhile, between 65-70 people were stranded at the Bair Ranch exit and were also eventually evacuated.
No one was injured or killed.
Every time it rains, CDOT workers who are mobilized to clean up and mitigate the area have to be pulled out and wait until it stops raining to start working again.
“But our number priority — and I just can’t stress it enough — is safety to the traveling public,” Rollison said. “And also safety to our crews and the folks who are working in the canyon. When we have a threat of rain, we evacuated them.
“We get them out of there so that they are out of harm’s way,” she added. “But when it’s safe for them to come back, they go back in and they do their work. So it’s quite an effort that is going on right now.”
Motorists are advised to use the alternative northern route via Interstate 70. Westbound motorists should use Colorado Highway 9 north toward Steamboat Springs, U.S. Highway 40 west toward Craig and Colorado Highway 13 south toward Rifle, and vice versa for traffic coming from the west.
This summer, CDOT is closing the interstate when a flash flood warning is issued for the burn scar area.
“For trucks planning to travel through Colorado, CDOT recommends they take Interstate 80 through Wyoming,” the release states.
Reporter Ray K. Erku can be reached at 612-423-5273 or email@example.com
By Miguel Salazar
- July 24, 2021
A FAREWELL TO GABO AND MERCEDES
A Son’s Memoir of Gabriel García Márquez and Mercedes Barcha
By Rodrigo Garcia
As dementia gripped Gabriel García Márquez, the writer known for his depictions of memory and time was on the verge of losing both. “Memory is my tool and my raw material. I cannot work without it,” García Márquez would repeatedly plead to his son Rodrigo Garcia. “Help me.”
In short, fragmented chapters, Garcia, a television and film director, provides an intimate portrait of his father as he has never been portrayed: forgetful, frustrated, despondent. García Márquez’s despair is agonizing to witness. He becomes unable to write or recognize familiar faces, and he loses the threads of his conversations as they are happening. He attempts to reread his own books — an act he previously avoided — and upon finishing them is surprised to encounter his face on the book jackets. He once asked, puzzled, “Where on earth did all this come from?”
Even as his dementia advanced, Gabo, as García Márquez was affectionately known, retained his wry humor: “I’m losing my memory,” he remarked, “but fortunately I forget that I’m losing it.” He was still able to recite poems from the Spanish Golden Age from memory and sing the lyrics to his favorite vallenato songs, his eyes beaming “with excitement at the opening accordion notes.” At one point, García Márquez asked to return home to his childhood bed in Aracataca, Colombia, where he slept on a mattress next to the bed of his grandfather Col. Nicolás Márquez, the inspiration for the beloved Col. Aureliano Buendía in “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”
Then there is Mercedes, Gabo’s tireless co-conspirator, his “last tether.” Garcia recalls her tempered reaction at the moment of her husband’s death, when she worked swiftly with the nurse to prepare his body and let out only the briefest of cries before recomposing herself. She was fiercely independent: After Mexico’s president referred to her as “the widow” during a memorial service for García Márquez at the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City, she threatened to tell the first journalist she encountered of her plans to remarry. Even in the days before her death in August 2020, Garcia recalls, she remained “frank and secretive, critical and indulgent,” sneaking cigarette puffs despite suffering from respiratory problems at the end.
Garcia’s account is honest — perhaps to a fault, given the strict division his parents imposed between their public and private lives. In 1957, a full decade before the publication of “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” García Márquez destroyed all records of his correspondence with Barcha. Even with his father’s blessing — García Márquez told him, “When I’m dead, do whatever you want” — Garcia describes the disappointment and shame he feels of riding his father’s coattails: “I am aware that whatever I write concerning his last days can easily find publication, regardless of its quality.”
“A Farewell to Gabo and Mercedes” is in large part carried by anecdotes about García Márquez’s life, but it is most telling when Garcia is prompted to reflect on his own, and reckon with his insecurities. Over the course of writing the memoir, he becomes aware that the wall his parents constructed around their private lives also extended, in part, to him. He spent 50 years not knowing that his father had no vision in the center of his left eye, and learned only toward the end of his mother’s life that she had lost two siblings as a child. “In the back of my mind is the preoccupation that perhaps I didn’t know them well enough,” Garcia writes. “I didn’t ask them more about the fine print of their lives, their most private thoughts, their greatest hopes and fears.”
At the memorial service in Mexico City commemorating his father’s life, Garcia recalled one of his father’s sayings: “Everyone has three lives: the public, the private and the secret.” As he watched the mourners assemble, he wondered whether any were from his father’s secret life. Life, García Márquez once wrote, is not what one lived but how one remembers it. Some of those memories will forever remain beyond reach.
How the Head of the N.R.A. and His Wife Secretly Shipped Their Elephant Trophies Home
The couple had their names removed from the shipment, and placed an order for the animals’ feet to be turned into “stools,” an “umbrella stand,” and a “trash can.”
By Mike Spies
July 29, 2021
In the early fall of 2013, an export company in Botswana prepared a shipment of animal parts for Wayne LaPierre, the head of the National Rifle Association, and his wife, Susan. One of the business’s managers e-mailed the couple a list of trophies from their recent hunt and asked them to confirm its accuracy: one cape-buffalo skull, two sheets of elephant skin, two elephant ears, four elephant tusks, and four front elephant feet. Once the inventory was confirmed, the e-mail stated, “we will be able to start the dipping and packing process.” Ten days later, Susan wrote back with a request: the shipment should have no clear links to the LaPierres. She told the shipping company to use the name of an American taxidermist as “the consignee” for the items, and further requested that the company “not use our names anywhere if at all possible.” Susan noted that the couple also expected to receive, along with the elephant trophies, an assortment of skulls and skins from warthogs, impalas, a zebra, and a hyena. Once the animal parts arrived in the States, the taxidermist would turn them into decorations for the couple’s home in Virginia, and prepare the elephant skins so they could be used to make personal accessories, such as handbags.
The LaPierres felt secrecy was needed, the e-mails show, because of a public uproar over an episode of the hunting show “Under Wild Skies,” in which the host, Tony Makris, had fatally shot an elephant. The N.R.A. sponsored the program, and the couple feared potential blowback if the details of their Botswana hunt became public. Footage of their safari, which was filmed for “Under Wild Skies” and recently published by The Trace and The New Yorker, shows that Wayne had struggled to kill an elephant at close range, while Susan felled hers with a single shot and cut off its tail in jubilation. Plans to air an episode featuring the LaPierres’ hunt were cancelled.
Records obtained by The Trace and The New Yorker show that Susan leveraged the LaPierres’ status to secretly ship animal trophies from their safari to the U.S., where the couple received free taxidermy work. New York Attorney General Letitia James, who has regulatory authority over the N.R.A., is currently seeking to dissolve the nonprofit for a range of alleged abuses, including a disregard for internal controls designed to prevent self-dealing and corruption by its executives. In a complaint filed last August, James’s office asserted that trophy fees and taxidermy work “constituted private benefits and gifts in excess of authorized amounts pursuant to NRA policy to LaPierre and his wife.” The new records appear to confirm those allegations. The N.R.A.’s rules explicitly state that gifts from contractors cannot exceed two hundred and fifty dollars. The shipping and taxidermy of the Botswana trophies cost thousands, and provided no benefit to the N.R.A.—only to the LaPierres. In the complaint, James’s office alleged that the LaPierres also received improper benefits related to big-game hunting trips in countries including Tanzania, South Africa, and Argentina. The attorney general declined to comment further on the details of the case.
Taxidermy work orders containing the LaPierres’ names called for the elephants’ four front feet to be turned into “stools,” an “umbrella stand,” and a “trash can.” At their request, tusks were mounted, skulls were preserved, and the hyena became a rug. The episode represents a rare instance in which the gun group’s embattled chief executive is captured, on paper, unambiguously violating N.R.A. rules; the e-mails show that Susan directed the process while Makris’s company, Under Wild Skies Inc., which received millions of dollars from the N.R.A., picked up the tab.
Global Earth Overshoot Day was July 29 this year, the earliest ever to be calculated.
What is Earth Overshoot Day?
This date marks when humanity’s annual demand on nature exceeds what Earth’s ecosystems can regenerate in that year. And over just the past 20 years, the date moved forward three months to July 29. It’s the earliest ever to be calculated.
Overshoot is a blunt reminder that we are consistently depleting our natural capital, compromising the planet’s future. It means globally, humanity is currently using natural resources 1.75x faster than our planet’s ecosystems can regenerate. That’s equivalent to using 1.75 Earths this year.
We don’t have 1.75 Earths, we only have one. We’re living beyond our means until December 31st.
Why does it matter?
Healthy, self-sustaining ecosystems such as oceans and forests are indispensable to keep our planet livable by regulating the climate and absorbing carbon emissions. But from rapid deforestation to intensive food systems, we are using resources unsustainably and forcing more carbon into the atmosphere than can be naturally sequestered.
Overshoot Day highlights the huge disparity between the exploitation of Earth’s resources and the social, environmental and economic impacts faced by people as a result.
An individual country’s overshoot day is the date on which Earth Overshoot Day falls if all of humanity consumed resources like the people in this country. In 2019, Papua New Guinea’s overshoot day falls on December 7. Compared to the UK, this is nearly a whole 7 months earlier.
But despite their minimal ecological impact, rainforest and coastal communities in Papua New Guinea are already seeing the detrimental impacts of sea-level rise and increased extreme weather events from climate change.
“The rainforest’s stability is an insurance for my life irrespective of where I live on the planet. That is why supporting Cool Earth is such an important climate action.”
-Professor Dr. Johan Röckstrom – Co-author of the “Hothouse Earth” theory
What can we do?
Creeks, rivers and lakes that are fed by melting snow across the U.S. West are already running low as of mid-July 2021, much to the worry of farmers, biologists and snow hydrologists like me. This is not surprising in California, where snow levels over the previous winter were well below normal. But it is also true across Colorado and the Rocky Mountains, which in general received a normal amount of snow. You’d think if there was normal amount of snow you’d have plenty of water downstream, right?
Over a century ago, snow scientist James Church at the University of Nevada, Reno, began examining how the amount of snow on mountains related to the amount of water in riversfed by the melting snow. But as hydrologists have learned over the many decades since, the correlations between snows and river flows are not perfect. Surprisingly, there is a lot researchers don’t know about how the snowpack is connected to rivers.
Of course, a dry winter will result in meager flows in spring and summer. But there are other reasons snow from the mountains won’t reach a river below. One growing area of research is exploring how droughts can lead to chronically dry soil that sucks up more water than normal. This water also refills the groundwater below.
But another less studied way moisture can be lost is by evaporating straight into the atmosphere. Just as the amount of snow varies each year, so too does the loss of water to the air. Under the right conditions, more snow can disappear into the air than melts into rivers. But how snowfall and loss of moisture into the air itself relate to water levels in rivers and lakes is an important and not well understood part of the water cycle, particularly in drought years.
Losing moisture to the air
There are two ways moisture can be lost to the atmosphere before it reaches a creek or river.
The first is through evaporation. When water absorbs enough energy from the Sun, the water molecules will change into a gas called water vapor. This floating water vapor is then stored in the air. Most of this evaporation happens from the surface of lakes, from water in the soil or as snow melts and the water flows over rocks or other surfaces.
Another way moisture can be lost to the atmosphere is one you might be less familiar with: sublimation. Sublimation is when a solid turns directly into a gas – think of dry ice. The same can happen to water when snow or ice turns directly into water vapor. When the air is colder than freezing, sublimation happens when molecules of ice and snow absorb so much energy that they skip the liquid form and jump straight to a gas.
A number of atmospheric conditions can lead to increased evaporation and sublimation and eventually, less water making it to creeks and streams. Dry air can absorb more moisture than moist air and pull more moisture from the ground into the atmosphere. High winds can also blow moisture into the air and away from the area where it initially fell. And finally, the warmer air is and more Sun that shines, the more energy is available for snow or water to change to vapor. When you get combinations of these factors – like warm, dry winds in the Rockies called Chinook winds – evaporation and sublimation can happen quite fast. On a dry, windy day, up to around two inches of snow can sublimate into the atmosphere. That translates to about one swimming pool of water for each football field-sized area of snow.
Sublimation is mysterious
It is relatively easy to measure how much water is flowing through a river or in a lake. And using satellites and snow surveys, hydrologists can get decent estimates of how much snow is on a mountain range. Measuring evaporation, and especially sublimation, is much harder to do.
Today researchers usually estimate sublimation indirectly using physics equations and wind and weather models. But there are lots of uncertainties and unknowns in these calculations. Additionally, researchers know that the most moisture loss from sublimation occurs in alpine terrain above the treeline – but snow scientists rarely measure snow depths there. This further adds to the uncertainty around sublimation because if you don’t know how much moisture a system started out with, it is hard to know how much was lost.
When scientists have been able to measure and estimate sublimation, they have measured moisture losses that range from a few percent to more than half of the total snowfall, depending on the climate and where you are. And even in one spot, sublimation can vary a lot year to year depending on snow and weather.
When moisture is lost into the atmosphere, it will fall to the surface as rain or snow eventually. But that could be on the other side of the Earth and is not helpful to drought-stricken areas.
It is hard to say how important loss of moisture to the atmosphere is to the total water cycle in any given mountain range. Automated snow monitoring systems – especially at high elevations above the treeline – can help researchers better understand what is happening to the snow and the conditions that cause losses to the atmosphere.
The amount of water in rivers – and when that water appears – influences agriculture, ecosystems and how people live. When there is a water shortage, problems occur. With climate change leading to more droughts and variable weather, filling a knowledge gap of the water cycle like the one around sublimation is important
The composite image offers a startling look into a violent event.
Sarah Cascone, June 4, 2021
NASA’s latest image of the Milky Way is two decades in the making.
The dramatic view of the heart of the galaxy combines 370 observations taken over a period of 20 years and features billions of stars.
“What we see in the picture is a violent or energetic ecosystem in our galaxy’s downtown,” astronomer Daniel Wang of the University of Massachusetts Amherst told the Associated Press.
“There are a lot of supernova remnants, black holes, and neutron stars there. Each X-ray dot or feature represents an energetic source, most of which are in the center.”
Wang created the composite photograph while working from home over the past year, according to CNN, combining data from the orbiting Chandra X-ray Observatory and the MeerKAT radio telescope in South Africa.
He published the resulting image and his associated findings in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society journal.https://www.youtube.com/embed/Ov2nX954Ui8?feature=oembed
The stunning photograph shows hot gas streaming out of regions near Sagittarius A*, a supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy some 26,000 light years away.
Wang believes this is evidence of a magnetic field reconnection event, when two opposing magnetic fields collide and combine, expelling large amounts of energy. It’s believed to be the same phenomena that triggers solar flares and the Northern Lights.
X-ray & Radio Image of G0.17-0.41. Image courtesy of NASA/CXC/UMass/Q.D. Wang; Radio: NRF/SARAO/MeerKAT.
The Milky Way, a spiral galaxy, formed about 13.51 billion years ago. Observing the galactic center is difficult because it is surrounded by a thick fog of dust and gas, but the new photo reveals a interstellar tapestry of gas and magnetic fields.
“The galaxy is like an ecosystem,” Wang explained. “We know the centers of galaxies are where the action is and play an enormous role in their evolution.”
See more views of the galactic center below.
Composite image of the Galactic Center made with radio data from MeerKAT. Courtesy of NASA/CXC/UMass/Q.D. Wang; Radio: NRF/SARAO/MeerKAT.
Composite image of the Galactic Center made with radio data from MeerKAT. Courtesy of NASA/CXC/UMass/Q.D. Wang; Radio: NRF/SARAO/MeerKAT.
Composite image of the Galactic Center with labeled features. Courtesy of NASA/CXC/UMass/Q.D. Wang; Radio: NRF/SARAO/MeerKAT./CXC/UMass/Q.D. Wang; Radio: NRF/SARAO/MeerKAT.
Previous periods of rapid warming millions of years ago drastically altered plants and forests on Earth. Now, scientists see the beginnings of a more sudden, disruptive rearrangement of the world’s flora — a trend that will intensify if greenhouse gas emissions are not reined in.
Some 56 million years ago, just after the Paleocene epoch gave way to the Eocene, the world suddenly warmed. Scientists continue to debate the ultimate cause of the warming, but they agree on its proximate cause: A huge burst of carbon dioxide entered the atmosphere, raising Earth’s average temperature by 7 to 14 degrees Fahrenheit. The Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), as this event is known, is “the best geologic analog” for modern anthropogenic climate change, said University of Wyoming paleobotanist Ellen Currano.
She studies how the PETM’s sudden warmth affected plants. Darwin famously compared the fossil record to a tattered book missing most of its pages and with all but a few lines obscured. The PETM, which lasted roughly 200,000 years, bears out the analogy. Wyoming’s Bighorn Basin is the only place on Earth where scientists have found plant macrofossils (visible to the naked eye, that is) that date to the PETM. The fossil leaves that Currano and her colleagues have found there paint a vivid portrait.
Before the PETM, she said, there lived a forest of cypress, sycamores, alders, dogwoods, walnuts and other species, all of them suggestive of a temperate climate — a bit swampy, perhaps not unlike that of the southeastern United States. Then, with the onset of the PETM, that forest disappeared, its trees vanishing from the fossil record. “During the climate event you have a nearly complete turnover of plants,” Currano said. A new forest appeared, this one consisting of palms, heat-tolerant members of the bean family, and other plants evocative of the semi-arid tropics.
It is a story repeated throughout the fossil record: When the climate changes, so does the arrangement of the world’s plants. Species move back and forth toward the poles, up and downslope. Some species grow more common, others rarer. Species arrange themselves together in new combinations. The fossil record reveals plants for what they are, as mobile beings. For plant species, migrating in response to climate change is often a matter of survival.
Warmth-loving plants are growing more common, from the middle of the Amazon to the middle of Nebraska.
As human-generated greenhouse gas emissions cause the world to rapidly warm, this movement is once again under way. Scientists have observed plants shifting toward the poles and upslope. They’ve noted old ecosystems suddenly replaced by new ones, often in the wake of fire, insect outbreaks, drought or other disturbances. They’ve observed an increase in the number of trees dying and watched as a growing number of the world’s biggest and oldest plants, including the baobabs of Africa and the cedars of Lebanon, have succumbed. Just this month, scientists announced that the Castle Fire, which burned through California’s Sierra Nevada last year, singlehandedly killed off more than 10 percent of the world’s mature giant sequoias.
So far, many of these changes are subtle, seemingly unrelated to one another, but they are all facets of the same global phenomenon — one that scientists say is likely to grow far more apparent in the decades to come.
The climate is currently warming at least 10 times faster than it did at the onset of the PETM. Under its worst-case scenario, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects that, over the next 100 to 150 years, Earth’s average temperature could rise by roughly the same amount as it did during the PETM. Dramatic vegetational shifts could arrive not in a matter of centuries or millennia, but decades; a 2019 study, for example, projected that Alaska’s vast interior forests will shift from being dominated by conifers to being dominated by broadleaf trees as soon as the middle of this century.
Scientists debate what this floral rearrangement will look like. In some places, it may take place quietly and be easily ignored. In others, though, it could be one of the changing climate’s most consequential and disruptive effects. “There’s a whole lot more of this we can expect over the next decades,” said University of Wisconsin-Madison paleoecologist Jack Williams. “When people talk about wildfires out West, about species moving upslope — to me, this is just the beginning.”
Williams is a senior co-author on a study published this month in Science that provides context on floral change in the present and recent geological past. Led by University of Bergen ecologists Ondřej Mottl and Suzette Flantua, the team of researchers used more than 1,000 fossil pollen records collected from around the world to compare rates of floral change over the last 18,000 years. It is the largest such study of its type, Williams said, representing many thousands of hours of combined scientific effort.
The researchers found that the rate of change peaked first as the world warmed at the end of the last ice age. Then, the rate of change began climbing even faster beginning between 2,000 and 4,000 years ago. This was a period when the global climate was relatively stable, so the changes were likely due to human activities. The study suggests that people, who have spent thousands of years rearranging the world’s plants for agriculture and other reasons, currently remain the strongest driver of change in the shifts of the world’s plants. But it also affirms how powerfully climate has driven change and suggests how it might again. “There’s likely a human legacy from quite some time ago,” Flantua said. “On top of that we’re adding a quite massive change in temperature. It is a dangerous combination.”
Native species or invasive? The distinction blurs as the world warms. Read more.
How will floral change look and feel to those living through it? While the fossil record offers a useful sense of the big picture, it is often fuzzy on the specifics, particularly at the scales of years and decades. Scientists trying to track the comings and goings of plant species in the present face a similar problem. Plants are constantly casting off seeds and spores, little genetic fingers that will grab hold wherever they are able. When physical or biological conditions change, so do the places where various plant species can find purchase; over time, the range and abundance of the whole species shifts. That’s how it works in theory, anyway. Catching it happening is another matter. To do so, scientists need long-term records for comparison. Such records are unevenly distributed around the world, and all are of either limited geographic or temporal scope; global satellite imagery, for instance, dates only to the 1970s.
Still, in the places where scientists do have long-term historical records, they’ve tended to find plants on the move in recent decades. Shrubs are popping up across the Arctic. New species of plants are colonizing mountain summits. In one of the most wide-ranging studies of floral range shifts, a group of researchers led by University of Miami ecologist Kenneth Feeley used herbarium data to track how plant communities across the Western Hemisphere had changed from 1970 to 2011. Comprising 20,000 species and 20 million individual observations, the data shows that warmth-loving plants were growing more common nearly everywhere the researchers looked, “from the middle of the Amazon to the middle of Nebraska,” Feeley said.
Some species can migrate remarkably fast, perhaps as much as a mile a year.
This type of floral change will likely often go unnoticed by people, said Yale School of the Environment geographer Jennifer Marlon, who studies the public’s perception of climate change. People, she said, are attuned to the wild variation between days and weeks and seasons, not the long-term shifts wrought by the changing climate. People also tend to have a short memory of their surroundings, a phenomenon known as the “shifting baseline.” “We just forget very quickly what the baseline was,” she said. “We tend to normalize change around us.”
The species whose migration we’ll likely notice first are those of agricultural, commercial or cultural importance. University of Maine paleoecologist Jacquelyn Gill points to sugar maple, whose range scientists project will shift far to the north in the coming decades. “As an ecologist, I’m happy that sugar maple is tracking the climate,” Gill said — it is a sign of resilience. On the other hand, she said, “As a person who lives in Maine and loves maple syrup, I am extremely concerned for the impact of sugar maple’s movements on a food I care about, on my neighbors’ livelihoods, and on the tourist industry.”
These shifts in species’ ranges also have serious implications for conservationists. Experts say the changing climate means that Sequoia National Park will eventually be left without its sequoias, Joshua Tree National Park without its Joshua trees. As with Gill’s sugar maples, this is distressing from a human perspective, though potentially of little importance from the plants’ perspective. The question is whether sequoias, Joshua trees, and countless other plants will be able to reach newly suitable habitats. For decades, scientists have debated whether plants would be able to track the rate of climate change, and whether people should intervene to help rare, isolated species reach more suitable habitat.
On the one hand, fossil evidence from the late Pleistocene and early Holocene suggests that some species can migrate quickly, perhaps more than a mile per year. On the other hand, studies in Europe and North America suggest that many tree species did not keep up with the climate as it warmed at the end of the Pleistocene.
|Jonathan P. Thompson|
We’ve got good news and bad news to report regarding the big aridification of the West this week. Let’s start with the good: After a two-year hiatus, the monsoon has returned to much of the Southwest, bringing huge rains with it. Tucson’s arroyos are running full and the Sonoran desert is getting positively lush. Multiple highways in Western Colorado were closed due to debris flows and flash floods. And a lot of farmers, especially those who lost ditch water early, are breathing a huge sigh of relief as, we suspect, are their crops.
The monsoon days are the best time of year in the desert Southwest. They always start out clear and hot and the mercury can shoot up into the triple digits before the cobalt clouds arrive, piled miles high in the sky. The first big raindrops bring the petrichor—the scent of blood and iron—followed by the deluge, followed by muddy water crashing through arroyos that were bone-dry just a moment earlier. Then the rain subsides, always just before sunset it seems, leaving the air crisp and clean. And the sun bursts through the clouds, setting the sky ablaze.
J. C y r @AllophileSabino Canyon is flowing again after last night’s storm; closed beyond the 1.5mi point… #azwx #getintotheoutthere July 24th 20218 LikesTomas Dawson @myfjcruiserWhen you realize the flooding is massive. #gatewaycolorado #flashflood #flood July 25th 2021
But all of that moisture falling from the sky isn’t enough to bust the drought, yet, nor can it save Lake Powell, which dropped this weekend to its lowest level since 1969 (when it was still filling up). Lake Powell’s growing bathtub ring is a visual indicator not only of the lake’s level, but also of the aridity of much of the West.
Powell’s downward slide began in 1999, falling 140 feet in just six years and bottomed out—for the time being—during the spring of 2005, before a substantial runoff that year bounced levels back up. But even the huge water year of 2011 was not enough for a full recovery. In the decade since, the level has crashed by 100 feet, in spite of healthy snowfall in 2019, bringing the lake to where it is now: The dam’s hydropower generating capacity is diminished, boat-ramps are rendered unusable, and the Bureau of Reclamation is desperately trying to shore up levels by releasing extra water from upstream reservoirs.
But the worst part of it all is what the shrinkage says about the health of the Upper Colorado River Watershed: it isn’t so good. And it will take more than one good monsoon to bring it back.
Bureau of Reclamation @usbrIn the next few days, Lake Powell’s elevation will drop below the record low of 3,555.10 feet reached in April 2005. These record low numbers stress the need for actions started last week under the Upper Basin Drought Response Operations Agreement.
Plus: Housing crisis creates labor crisis; other news from around the West
|Jonathan P. ThompsonJul 23|
You know that water inequality—and drought—have gotten out of hand when you can see them from space. And this year, satellite imagery that highlights vegetation tells a harrowing story of fallowed fields a stone’s throw from emerald-green ones, of empty ditches next to ones with at least some water in them. And it shows how, during dry years, the abyss between the water-rich and the water-poor widens, a phenomenon most apparent this year in Montezuma County, Colorado.
Exhibit one includes two views of a section of Montezuma County in the far Southwestern corner of the state, one from July 2019 (top) and the other from a few days ago.
The Montezuma Valley north of Cortez looks about the same in both images—a big swath of red, which is an indicator of leafy vegetation (piñon, juniper, and sage don’t seem to register). But the area northwest of there, heading towards Dove Creek, is clearly a lot drier now than it was two years ago. Meanwhile, McPhee Reservoir has not only shrunk considerably—by about 10 billion gallons—but its shape also changed dramatically as a result.
So what gives? Seniority, that’s what.
Western water law is based on a simple foundation: First in time, first in court, first in right. Which is to say, whoever files for a portion of the water in a stream first gets priority. When the stream starts shrinking, the junior water rights holders must shut off their ditches so that the senior rights holders can continue to get their share of water.
That’s what happened in Montezuma County. When the flow of the area’s main source of water—the Dolores River—waned after a string of dry winters, and McPhee Reservoir began shrinking, it became clear that there wouldn’t be enough water to go around to all the users.
The river, itself—and the fish and other aquatic life that depend on it—were the first to get cut off, as the McPhee Dam operators decreased downstream releases to about 10 cubic feet per second or less, a mere trickle that does not make it as far as Slickrock, where the riverbed is dry. Next to go were the Towoac Canal (which I’ll get to in a moment) and the Dove Creek Canal, which carries water from McPhee west to the town of Dove Creek. The canal serves Dolores Water Conservation District irrigators from Yellowjacket up to Dove Creek and provides drinking water to the town. During the first part of the irrigating season, flows in the Dove Creek Canal 50 to 75 percent below normal. Then, in early July, they stopped altogether.
The meagre flows in the Dove Creek Canal are manifested in the image above. In 2019, the fields west of McPhee Reservoir were mostly bright red—which is to say the alfalfa, corn, sunflowers and other crops were well-watered and healthy. In 2021, however, many of those same fields show no vegetation at all, indicating that they were fallowed or simply shriveled up due to lack of water. The few fields that did get a little water produced far less. Some Montezuma County alfalfa farmers told the Cortez Journal they expected a 95% decrease in yield this year—which amounts to an equivalent decrease in revenue, more or less (with some help from rising hay prices—up to $300/ton—resulting from scarcity).
Even worse off are the irrigators on the Towaoc Canal, most significantly the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe’s extensive agricultural operations located south of Ute Mountain. Most years, the canal’s flow ranges from 60 to 70 cfs throughout the summer, enough water for multiple alfalfa cuttings and a strong corn crop to feed the operation’s mill. This year flows ranged from 10 to 20 cfs until June, when they plummeted to the single digits, forcing the operation to fallow most of its fields. The results are apparent below.
Now, keeping that image in your brain, go back up to the first image and notice all the red north of Cortez. The Montezuma Valley Irrigation Company was able to keep its ditches about half full this summer, and have yet to be cut off entirely, which should allow them to get more than one cutting of hay and a relatively decent yield from their other crops, assuming the grasshopper plague (of Biblical proportions, I’ve been told) doesn’t devour them. They got more water than other users because they have the most senior rights on the Dolores River, having filed for them back in 1885, a century before construction of McPhee Dam was completed.
If you’re having trouble wrapping your mind around the concept of the Ute Tribe’s farms getting cut off from water before the Montezuma Valley irrigators, you’re not alone. The Ute people were here, relying on the water in the Dolores River, for centuries prior to the arrival of the white settlers who built a tunnel from the Dolores River to a network of canals in the Montezuma Valley. And under the Winters Doctrine, the tribe is entitled to all of the water they need and then some, with an appropriation date of 1868, meaning the tribe should get all the water.
But when negotiating to get their water delivered to them, the Ute Tribe made some concessions. They didn’t give up their 1868 priority date, but they did accept a later priority date for the delivery of that water—at least that’s how I understand this language from the Colorado Ute Indian Water Rights Settlement of 1986:
(Dear Land Desk water expert readers: Please feel free to correct my understanding of Dolores River water rights or to further elucidate the issue in the comments section or via email to me.)
To be sure, all farmers are having a tougher time of it this year, even the ones whose ditches are running full. If they aren’t suffering from lack of water, they’re dealing with grasshoppers, which are more prevalent this year due to the lack of precipitation and the relatively warm winter. If they’re lucky enough to be outside the grasshopper zone, then they’re grappling with heat, which damages the health of crops and the people who tend to them. And if they’re wannabe farmers trying to help supply the burgeoning, pandemic-induced demand for local produce, they’re running into skyrocketing land prices. And guess which land is most expensive and most out of reach of folks on a farmer income? The land with the good water.
And so, wealth inequality leads to water inequality—and round and round we go.