photo credit Bill Liske
photo credit Bill Liske
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.
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.
Lake 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.”
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.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Laura Kudo credit
Elderhaus participants on break. Schultheis, Miller, Friedman, Oyama and Django
G. Oyama photo
south facing mountains