1983, the year Glen Canyon dam nearly failed ~ Arizona Central

Tim Lane and I were still sweeping storm boards on Red Mountain Pass, June of 1983 for the Insitute of Arctic and Alpine Research San Juan Project.  It was a big winter but the heavy snows (above normal density, almost 15% or twice the average) didn’t really begin until February and continued much like  this year (2019) into late spring (June).  It was truly an amazing experience on a daily basis wondering if the storms were ever going to end.  All of this snow finally melted in the north San Juan mountains and flowed into the Colorado river basin and eventually to Glen Canyon dam to overflow its top..  Kevin Fedarko wrote ‘The Emerald Mile‘ that contains a fine chapter on the winter of 1983 that created this near disaster.  

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The first public sign that something was up came in the form of a short story in the Arizona Daily Sun in Flagstaff. It was only six paragraphs, but it appeared on the front page above the fold:

“Glen Canyon Dam Water Releases to Increase,” the headline read.

It was June 2, 1983, and the story didn’t even begin to hint at the drama that was about to unfold.

“PAGE — Early snowmelt due to higher than normal temperatures is forcing the earlier than normal release of water from Glen Canyon Dam here, authorities said Thursday.”

Almost every word was an understatement.

“The water releases were to begin at noon today and (Glen Canyon recreation area superintendent John) Lancaster said they could go as high as 38,000 cubic feet per second,” the story said.

The releases were likely to continue for the next month and campers along the Colorado River were advised to seek higher ground and secure their boats.

Two weeks earlier, embattled Interior Secretary James Watt had paid a visit to Glen Canyon, the nation’s second highest concrete arch dam, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of its completion.

Soaring 710 feet and anchored in Navajo sandstone, the dam was conceived in desert thirst, born into controversy, and swaddled in argument.

The debate over Glen Canyon Dam was not just emblematic of the new American West, but part of its fabric.

On one side, Native Americans and environmentalists decried the loss of a pristine canyon filled with sacred and historic sites and an ecosystem as beautiful and enigmatic as the Grand Canyon. On the other, developers and chambers of commerce argued for the need to protect downstream users from flooding and to provide the water and power needed to turn small desert cities into the sprawling metropolises they’ve become today.

By June 1983 the debate had long been settled in favor of growth, but there was a new question looming: Could people safely control nature? It was a question fueled by nature’s unpredictable wrath as 8 trillion gallons of water in one of the nation’s largest reservoirs bore down on 10 million tons of concrete in one of the nation’s largest engineering marvels.

It was uncharted territory for both people and nature, and the stakes were high.

Within a month of the AP news story, water in Lake Powell would come within inches of topping the dam’s massive spillway gates as engineers frantically tried everything they could think of, rigging 4-by-8 sheets of plywood to extend the top of the gates and releasing more than half a million gallons per second into the Colorado River.

de3beb03-8163-4a46-984a-e32f43900759-Dam-Flashboards_7-7-1983_copy.jpgLake Powell water levels rose steadily during June and July 1983, forcing the Bureau of Reclamation to use plywood barriers to keep the lake from spilling over the closed gates on Glen Canyon Dam.
(Photo: Photo courtesy Bureau of Reclamation)

 

Before it was over, the force of the water releases would gouge house-size holes in the dam’s crippled concrete spillways. The white water would tinge red from the bedrock sandstone, and ominous rumbling sounds would be heard as boulders the size of cars belched from one of the spillways into the river.

The more water the engineers released, the more damage they did. But they had no choice.

“We were sitting on a pretty good catastrophe waiting to happen,” said Art Grosch, an electrician who worked at the dam and ran electrical cable into the mangled spillways.

“That lake (Powell) is 190 miles long and has something like 2,300 miles of shoreline,” he said. “And it was rising a foot a day.”

~~~  CONTINUE  ~~~

Monsoon update from Joe Ramey, Mountain Weather Master and former meterologist with the NWS

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Remember me? Climate is nearly always more interesting in the rear view mirror. It has been a very interesting year so far with the startling cool wet winter and spring that completely erased drought from Colorado. Now we have this overdue monsoon that has dried all those early-season grasses into kindling. Monsoon seasons too are best resolved in the rear view mirror. Perhaps we will say the third week in July was the beginning.
At the NWS offices here in GJ and down in southern NM, we had an adage: the monsoonal moisture won’t get pulled up into the Rockies until mountain snow melt is complete. The idea is, it is difficult to create a Four-Corners thermal Low while the sun’s regional energy is still being used to transition ice to water and vapor. And since Low pressure sucks, its hard to suck in the subtropical moisture without it.
So I was surprised in late June when the CPC outlook showed above normal precipitation chances for western Colorado while the high-mountain snowpack was still impressively deep and the 10-day forecast models still looked dry. Since I had no finger on the pulse I thought those climate guys must be onto something interesting. Well we are still waiting for something interesting.
The new one and three month outlook is no longer excited about the Southwest monsoon.

 

But there is some reason for hope. The vast majority of the mountain snowpack is in the rivers and the wee rest will follow shortly. The weather pattern turns more favorable: the subtropical High has been suppressed to our south but begins to rebound northward this weekend as a trough comes in off the Pacific. So this will produce a S-SW flow. There is an inverted trough that looks to work up from Mexico next week perhaps up into western Colorado by mid-week. This could bring deep moisture with it. Of course that will render my swamp cooler useless here in GJ so I will venture out in the early morning only. Lets hope it happens! Water is life.
Hope your summers are going well.
Joe Ramey

The Gold King Mine Has Been Leaking Since 2015. Here’s What To Know About What Comes Next ~ Interview with old friend Jonathan Thompson

Water flows through a series of sediment retention ponds built to reduce heavy metal and chemical contaminants from the Gold King Mine wastewater accident outside Silverton, Colo., in this August 2015 photo.Brennan Linsley/AP
Water flows through a series of sediment retention ponds built to reduce heavy metal and chemical contaminants from the Gold King Mine wastewater accident outside Silverton, Colo., in this August 2015 photo.

In August 2015, the Gold King Mine blew out.

When it did, more than 3 million gallons of orange wastewater spilled into the Animas River in southern Colorado.

The accident occurred at an inactive mine where polluted water had been accumulating for years before an Environmental Protection Agency crew accidentally released it during cleanup work.

The EPA declared the mine, and 46 others near it, a superfund site. Since then, the agency has been waging fights over who is going to clean up the site — and who is responsible.

The water has led to environmental hazards that some say have severely hurt fish and wildlife populations in the river.

Sunnyside Gold Corp. has spent millions of dollars trying to clean up the site. This month, it told the EPA it won’t carry out the cleanup work ordered by the agency.

Jonathan Thompson is the author of a book on the disaster. Here’s what he said you need to know about the mine.

 

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This interview has been edited for clarity.

What’s the latest?

The EPA recently ordered the Sunnyside Gold Corp. to do some drilling work to investigate where the water originates to help with cleanup. But just a few days ago, Sunnyside Gold sent a letter to the EPA essentially saying, “No, we’re not going to do it.”

What’s their rationale for refusing?

Back in 1992 when Sunnyside Gold Corp. closed their mine and started cleaning up, the company came to an agreement with Colorado that they would plug the mine and do a certain amount of cleanup.

Sunnyside Gold also agreed to clean up unrelated, neighboring mines to offset the pollution in the river. In a way, they were like pollution credits.

The company spent well over $20 million on clean-up. Now they’re basically saying, “Look, we came to this agreement with the state — the EPA signed off on the agreement — and we did everything that we were supposed to do.”

So what’s the next step?

We’ll it’s going to be another court battle, likely. So far, it has been the subject of a number of ongoing lawsuits. This is just going to add to that legal quagmire. In the meantime, it’s just going to delay progress on the superfund cleanup.

Do you foresee the cleanup will eventually finish?

It will take place, it’s going to take a long time. And that’s not totally surprising. Superfund designations tend to be very long, drawn out processes. Don’t expect them to wrap up the cleanup any time in the next 10 years, maybe not the next 20.

What are the detrimental effects to the environment?

Mostly it’s to aquatic life: bugs and fish. It’s bad for them. We’ve seen that dramatically on the Animas River, where the mine spilled into. The number of species of fish downstream for maybe 40 miles downstream has declined.

Are people threatened by these kinds of spills?

Not necessarily. People were certainly affected because they had to close the river and they had to shut off irrigation ditches. And it was also emotionally and psychologically traumatic for people, to see the river turn that color. As far as health effects go, there wasn’t enough lead or mercury in the spilled water to really affect human health, and many wastewater treatment facilities downstream are able to clean these things out.

High Coots

Peter by the lake
Pens haiku on butterflies.
Writing moves the earth.
 
Green woods, cobalt sky,
White clouds, primary colors.
Few pastels to paint.
 
Monsoons, heavy rain, 
Clover & moss come alive.
Read a book; stay dry.
 
Peaches & cherries,
Early season Hotchkiss fruit. 
Corn, chilis yet to come.
 
Walk, hike, trek, ramble,
With friends into Swamp Canyon.
Elderhaus on foot. 
OYAMASI
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