Dry Times x 2

A deeper dive into Glen Canyon Dam Data and an excerpt from Behind the Slickrock Curtain

In response to Wednesday’s dispatch on hydropower waning across the Southwest as a result of the drought, dedicated Land Desk reader Jerry Zink pointed out that the Lake Powell surface-elevation graph was fine and good, but was less representative than a graph showing how many acre-feet of water are in the reservoir. He also noted that as the amount of water in the reservoir drops, so too does the generating capacity of the power plant in the dam (because water pressure drops, too).

Knowing a challenge when I saw one, I dived down the rabbit hole and came up with a few more graphs for y’all to ponder. So here you go:

This is the number of acre-feet of water stored in the reservoir. Storage in the lake is currently at only 34% of capacity. Source: US Bureau of Reclamation.
This graph shows how much power was actually generated by Glen Canyon Dam’s power plants each month. Unfortunately, the data only goes back to 1995, so…
… here’s a version of the storage graph starting at 1995, so that you can compare it to the power output. As you can see, power output and storage levels are matched up, more or less. But I wanted to dig down deeper, so…
I crunched some USBR numbers and came up with this, which basically shows the way the power intensity—or the generating capacity—of the dam changes according to how much water is in the reservoir. What this means is that as the lake drops, dam operators need to run more water through the turbines to generate the same amount of juice.

So, basically, this just reinforces the concern I expressed in the last post: Warming temperatures, dry times, and dropping stream and reservoir levels are diminishing the output from Southwestern hydroelectricity dams. And it’s happening just when that power is badly needed due to increased demand and the shutdown of some big coal power plants around the region in recent years.

It should be an interesting summer, power-grid-wise. We’ll be keeping you up to date.

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And now for your Memorial Day fiction read, a drought-related excerpt from: Behind the Slickrock Curtain: A Project Petrichor Environmental Thriller, by Jonathan P. Thompson. Lost Souls Press, 2020. www.lostsoulspress.com

Eliza Santos and Malcolm Brautigan floated in silence across a sere land further desiccated by chronic drought, Eliza swerving around axle-breaking potholes and slowing only when they came upon mini-herds of feral horses standing near the road, their haunches a line of ribcage ripples, foraging for whatever weeds might be growing in the beer can-filled barrow ditches.

They were in Utah, now, and Santos kept a close watch for cops. They two fit the profile, after all—an unkempt couple in a Subaru with Durango plates. Law enforcement in these parts tend to equate Durangoans with pot-smoking, toadstool-licking, backpacking environmentalists, and therefore worthy of harassment. A few years back a Durango couple closed a corral gate out of common courtesy. Next thing they knew they were detained and charged with “wanton destruction of livestock.”

“You think my current craving for a burger will get me arrested around here?” Brautigan mumbled.

“Huh?”

“Oh, nothing,” he said, tensing up yet again as Eliza took a corner way too fast, again. “If we get pulled over, tell the cop we’re from Cortez. Or better yet, Dove Creek.”

Eliza rolled her eyes, but didn’t say anything. That her husband Peter was a few days overdue was one thing. That he was behind the Slickrock Curtain during one of the hottest, driest times on record was definitely more worrisome. If he’d broken a leg or got pinned under a rock, he’d die of exposure and of thirst in no time at all.

On the main highway Eliza floored it, cops be damned, blasting through the small Ute Mountain Ute community of White Mesa and past the metal buildings and tailings piles of the White Mesa uranium mill before finally slowing down on the outskirts of Blanding, the county’s biggest town with fewer than four thousand people. Blanding was originally named Grayson. But like most towns in the region, it wore its identity loosely, and when some rich guy came along and offered cash for a library in exchange for naming the burg after his wife, the community jumped at the offer. The town’s newer name fits the overall ambience quite well, except on those rare occasions when the local girls get frisky after downing too many root beer floats at the combined bowling alley and gas station. 

Peter’s truck was sitting where he—or his abductor—had left it, near Parley Redd’s hardware store, the doors unlocked, some Sonic wrappers on the passenger side floor. His backpack and other gear was notably absent, meaning presumably he had hitchhiked his way deeper into Canyon Country.

“That’s not like him,” Eliza said, worry in her voice. “He wouldn’t want to rely on someone else like that. Unless he was purposely trying to cover his tracks?” 

 “And why,” came a voice from behind them, “would someone want to do that?”

Santos and Brautigan wheeled around to see a man regaled in the uniform of the San Juan County Sheriff, a sizable sidearm strapped to his belt, which was cinched with a turquoise bedecked buckle. It was Kenneth Etcitty, a longtime Navajo politician and activist. He was tall and lean with broad shoulders and built more like an Olympic swimmer than the rodeo champ he once was. Brautigan reflexively backed up, pressing himself against the hot metal of Peter’s truck.

“Hello. I’m Sheriff Etcitty,” the man said. “You must be the ones who called in about the missing fellow.”

“Umm, yeah, Peter. I mean, that’s the fellow’s name. He’s my husband. I’m Eliza Santos.” 

Etcitty waited silently for Eliza to say more. He projected an aura that Brautigan had seen often in sheriffs in rural counties: Droll, competent, understated, and fatigued, the result of having to cover a lot of ground and an oddball variety of crimes and other situations, all while being chronically underfunded, under-appreciated, and overworked. 

“I called a couple days back and asked you to hold off on looking,” Eliza said. “I guess it’s time now to send out the search and rescue team?”

“Once you officially file a missing person’s report, I’ll put out a bulletin. Our deputies have already been keeping an eye on the big trailheads. We need a better idea of where he is before we can send Hank and search and rescue out there. This county’s as big as a whole state out East and as wrinkled as my uncle Herman’s face. Most likely he’s just wandering around out there, a little lost, but otherwise fine—so long as he has water.”

“Well?” said Santos, looking at Brautigan.

“Well what?”

“Where do you think he is? That’s why you’re here, remember?”

“How am I supposed to know?”

“You grew up around here. You and Peter used to come out here together all the time..”

Etcitty quietly watched the verbal volley without expression.

“Okay, okay,” Brautigan said. “You’re right. Let’s see, I would say he could be on Cedar Mesa, maybe Slickhorn Canyon, could be Grand Gulch, but I doubt it, because there are too many people down there, so you should try Arch Canyon, oh, and we used to like to go up to the Causeway and explore those canyons, and Dark Canyon, and …”

“So, what you’re saying,” Etcitty said, “is that we should really narrow our search down to, oh, I don’t know, two million acres? Thanks but no thanks. We need just one of those places to start with. Didn’t he say anything about where he was going?”

“He doesn’t say much at all, except when he’s had too much coffee,” Eliza said. 

Etcitty sighed but kept the placid look on his face, even as a gargantuan, pearly white Ford F-450 pickup truck pulled up next to them, it’s engine roaring. The driver’s side door opened and a man piled out. He had a youthful face, salt-and-pepper hair cut close but not too tight, and in his broad-shouldered, meaty build one could detect a paunchy echo of his days as the star of the San Juan High football team, days that he will forever consider the apex of his existence. He approached the trio with the impatience of those who are accustomed to getting what they want, and who feel persecuted when they don’t. Etcitty locked his thumbs in his belt and bit his lip.     

“What you got, Sheriff? I bet these are the ones who parked this truck illegally here,” the man said. He looked at Brautigan then and squinted. Brautigan recognized him: Bill Stevens, county commissioner. He spoke at, not to, Etcitty, irritation in his voice: “You need to do something about these Durango … people. They could be the ones who’ve been messing with cattle in the backcountry or wrecking our vehicles at the resort.” 

“Thank you for your opinion, Commissioner Stevens,” Etcitty said curtly, not even bothering to look Stevens in the eye, “but this is law enforcement business, not yours.”

Stevens’ face flushed. After a long pause he sputtered a string of words under his breath, something about despots and Thomas Jefferson and who had won the Indian Wars, and then spun around, climbed into the pickup, slammed the door, and accelerated away, his tires kicking up a spray of gravel and the exhaust pipe blowing out a cloud of black smoke. 

“I always heard this was one of the poorest counties in Utah,” Eliza said. 

“It is,” Etcitty replied, “and it gets poorer every day, thanks to guys like that racking up the legal bills just to keep some roads open to ATVs.”

“Then how is it that a local public servant like Stevens drives around in a brand new truck like that?” Eliza asked. “Did you see that thing? An F-450 dually? It’ll put you back ninety-k, easy.”

Brautigan and Etcitty both looked at Santos curiously.

“What? I’m a librarian.”

Following the encounter with the lawman and the commissioner, Eliza unilaterally decided that she and Malcolm would look for Peter on their own, at least for a while. Malcolm protested, but soon gave up and suggested they start their search in Leetso, aka Bonanza, Canyon. The heat was nearly unbearable as they Eliza lead the way—too quickly, by Malcolm’s reckoning—down the sandstone into the canyon. At the bottom of the gorge they found, instead of the hoped-for shade, sun-baked gravel that radiated heat back up at them.

“We should probably move slowly so we can keep an eye on things above us,” Brautigan said, his face stinging with sweat. “I’m guessing we’re looking for either Peter, who would be down here somewhere”—in which case he would be dead, bloated, and stinky, something he left unsaid—“or the Happy Bonanza Mine, which would be up high.”  

“You’re drenched, Malcolm. Are you okay?

“No, I’m not okay. I have an enlarged heart, diaphoresis, and hyperhydrosis, not to mention psoriasis of my nether regions—.” 

“Ewww. You’ve been internet-diagnosing again, haven’t you?”

“I have. And I learned that these could be symptoms of something fatal. So can we slow down?”

“Life is fatal, Brautigan.” Reluctantly, Eliza slowed her pace. Brautigan followed, peering up through sweat-blurred eyes at the cliffs above, trying to catch sight not only of Peter, but also of hungry predators that might be stalking them. He’d seen mountain lion tracks around here before and surely the drought had taken a toll on the big cat’s usual prey. Two big walking hunks of meat would look quite appetizing right about now, and Brautigan was surely the weaker, slower, more tender quarry. Judging by Eliza’s cooking, Brautigan was also probably the tastier of the two, his wine, garlic, and ice cream-infused perspiration marinating his marbled flesh quite nicely. 

They rounded another bend, and the canyon narrowed, as if its stone walls were giant mandibles and the monster’s mouth was slowly snapping shut. The path was blocked by a wall, streaked with desert varnish. Beneath it was a vague memory of water, a brittle shell of cracked, desiccated mud, the tracks of birds, packrats, coyotes, and other sundry critters quasi-fossilized within. Brautigan found himself playing a particularly disheartening version of the used-to-be game: The last time he was here was years ago in early July. He and Peter had stripped off their clothes and jumped into the chill waters of this very pool and swam across it, barely able to touch bottom. 

The pair scrambled up a pile of boulders to get to the next level of the canyon, where the gorge narrowed, the shade grew deeper, and the temperature was a good twenty degrees cooler than the sun-blasted lower portion. The sky was a skinny strip of blue embraced by black-streaked waves of stone. 

Desert water has a particular redolence to it, akin to the feel of a smooth river stone in the mouth: cool, dark-green, metallic, moldy. The miasma reached them before they came upon the water, a stagnant pool topped with grey-green pond scum. Malcolm got a running start through the cool sand, leapt onto the steeply angled sandstone wall above the water, and, using friction and momentum, made his way above the pool, managing to stay dry but banging his shin on a chockstone at the far end of the pool. 

Eliza refrained from such antics and walked straight into the pool like a sandstone Venus de Milo, oblivious to the scum coating her skin. Nor did it bother her when the little black tadpoles, with their bulbous bodies and lance-thin tails, tickled her toes. 

At the second pool, the carcass of a bird floated on the surface, gray-green dross coating its luminous blue feathers. 

At the third pool, a dead snake, its body almost torn in half.

If this were Ancient Greece, these would be seen as omens, prophesying the emergence and downfall of a cruel leader, or the drowning of truth and beauty by evil. But here behind the Slickrock Curtain, they were merely mundane reminders that the great circle of life and death goes on, usually unnoticed, even in these cool depths. Malcolm followed Eliza’s lead and waded into the water this time, sucking in breath as it reached his crotch, maneuvering as far from the snake-corpse as he could, shivering but reveling in the coolness, wishing he could store it up as if he were a battery and release it later when he needed it most. He searched the mud for human tracks. Found none. 

They reached another pool. This one was devoid of carcasses, but the bottom was almost solid black with wiggling little tadpoles. They trod gingerly in the muck so as to avoid committing mass larvaecide. At the far end, the stone slanted upward with increasing steepness, topping out with an overhang. The opening at the top was narrow, a big chockstone and a bunch of driftwood lodged into it. A ragged piece of red webbing was attached to the chock, a leftover from someone’s long-ago rappel down the pour-over. They both looked at the pool, then at the water-stained spout that they’d have to climb, then at the rock above. 

If Peter were dead, his body might be in a place like this. He wouldn’t have hesitated to climb up or down this, unassisted, and he would have fallen, broken a leg, or his back, or gotten pinned under rock or debris, where no one would have heard his cries for help. He would have lain within the sensuous curves of the canyon walls, rueing the knowledge that the Facebook notification of his demise would be plastered with comments meant to console: “At least he died doing what he loved!” 

The dark cove grew ever slightly darker, a sign that a cloud had passed before the sun. An upstream cloudburst would send a roiling torrent down this narrow passage, filling it up nearly to the brim within minutes. But the cloud vanished within seconds. The forecast was achingly dry, with nothing but thirst on the horizon. …

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