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The river and the drought

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Jonathan Thompson | Apr 18, 2013 05:00 AM

 

“We’re geniuses!” bellowed my good friend, G, as we embarked on a rafting tour of the San Juan River in southeastern Utah. The temperature was nearing 80 under a cloudless sky, only a slight breeze blew upriver and the water was unusually clear. The ranger had just told us we’d have the place pretty much to ourselves: Several other parties had cancelled due to low water and a storm forecast for the middle of the week. We, however, knew better. Weather forecasts more than 24-hours out are almost always wrong, and the stream gauge was probably broken. There would be plenty of current to carry us along on a seven-day tour of sandy beach camps and Edenesque side canyons. Geniuses, indeed.

San Juan Light
Storm clouds and evening light over the (low water) San Juan River this April. Photo by Lydia Thompson.

That was Saturday. By Monday, our confidence in our cleverness had waned. We awoke to a stiff up-river wind and an apocalyptic sepia-toned sky. After a Saharan-style dust storm added a distinct crunch to our lunch, one of four adults (outnumbered by seven minors -- definitely not genius and a sure set up for a Lord of the Flies situation) was blown off her boat into the river. The same wind pushed my boat and me into a cliff, then upriver 50 yards. Then the icy rain came, along with the concession that, yes, weather forecasters do know what they’re talking about. We had to stop and build a fire under a ledge to keep hypothermia at bay, at which point J, G’s young son, observed: “We are not geniuses.”

The water level was the clincher. On the day we put in, the river was running at about 550 cubic feet per second in Bluff, Utah, and would drop below 500 during the trip, according to USGS data. That’s about one-fourth of the median flow for this time of year, and about equal to the monthly mean in April 2002, a notoriously dry year.

I didn’t need to raft the San Juan to know we’re in the grip of what’s shaping up to be another bad water year, but 83 miles in the slow-moving current, the thick dust blowing into the air and each of those rocks that hung up my boat really drove it home. It was drought incarnate, confirming the grim stats that have been pouring in from around the Southwest.

Here’s part of the reason* the water was so low, in graphic detail: There’s just not enough snowmelt to fill the rivers.

San Juan Basin Snowpack
San Juan Basin snowpack levels.

The good news is that this year’s snowpack in the Four Corners area, after running neck-and-neck with last year, has pulled ahead thanks to some cold temperatures and the very storm that battered us on the river. The bad news is that it will take a major shift in weather patterns to bring snowpack and river levels up to anywhere near average.

Then there’s all the dust, the cause of the ominous orange skies. Such dust storms are not uncommon around here. Spring winds scour soils from the Four Corners lowlands, lift them up into the air, and send them into the San Juan Mountains, where they fall out with snow and rain (nice NASA image of the most recent dust storm). We call these events San Juaners. Our San Juan River dust storm became a San Juan Mountain mud storm a few hours later. In Durango, cars and windows were coated with a gritty red slime (another San Juaner followed just a week later, whipping up a wildfire along the San Juan near Farmington, NM, and causing a fatal car crash nearby), and the mountain snow took on a red-brown hue. Such dust storms occur every year, but drought exacerbates them. And they exacerbate the drought, too: The dust causes snow to absorb rather than reflect sunlight, thereby resulting in faster snowmelt and an earlier end to the spring runoff.

The Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies, based in Silverton, Colo., has been investigating the dust events for several years, and deemed the April 8-9 dust event the worst they’ve seen since at least 2009. It was the sixth dust event of the season. Number seven began on April 14 and was still gusting and dusting 36 hours later.

Dusty Durango
Thick dust obscures the morning sun in Durango, Colo. in April. Jonathan Thompson photo.

And what happens up high will be reflected down low in a couple of months. Unless the current storms keep pounding the high country for weeks, we can expect Lake Powell -- the barometer for precipitation health of a good portion of the West -- to continue to drop. The water level there is starting the runoff season a whopping 40 feet below last year, and the April 1 forecast for the streams that fill the lake was quite grim. On the other side of the Divide, things are even worse. John Fleck, at the Albuquerque Journal, reported early this month that the Rio Grande is likely facing its worst runoff year ever.

As the recent storms indicate, however, snowfall season’s not over yet, and dire forecasts could be proven wrong. We may be redeemed, yet. On day six on the river, the winds died and the air warmed enough to pacify the children and avert a mutiny. The snow that had fallen in the hills to the north and east melted. The river returned to its usual brown hue and the water rose up to 1,000 cfs, just enough to get us over most of the silt bars that have developed on the last runnable stretch of the river before Lake Powell. Finally, I could rest my weary shoulders, lay back, look up at rock and sky and listen to the water lapping against the boat and geese honking in the distance. As I watched a raven ride a thermal inches away from a sandstone cliff, hundreds of feet above, I thought: We are geniuses, after all.

*Because a good portion of the San Juan’s flow is regulated by Navajo Dam, far upstream, streamflow figures are not a direct representation of the water situation in the basin.

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor for High Country News. His Twitter handle is @jonnypeace.

Warren Musselman
Warren Musselman
Apr 18, 2013 10:57 AM
There is far more to this than just a low water year. Lake Powell has caused upstream aggradation of silt past Slickhorn Rapid at this point and it will only get worse. I used to regularly run the San Juan down to only 350 cfs back in the early 90's and 450 cfs in the early 2000's. By 2025 it is believed the river will become unrunnable because of the silt flats. There is an interesting article in the Spring 2001 issue of "The Waiting List", the journal of the Grand Canyon Private Boaters Association that clearly outlines the problem and lays the fault squarely on Glen Canyon Dam, the 1983-84 flood events and the channelization of the riverbed below Clay Hills due to tamarisk holding the post-dam channel in place. It would take a VERY substantial and long duration flood to flush the channel back to what it was pre-dam. After my trip last October, I vowed I'll never go back to the San Juan without at least 1000 cfs of flow.
Jonathan Thompson
Jonathan Thompson Subscriber
Apr 18, 2013 11:28 AM
Warren, Great point. It's true that the siltation/sandbars below Slickhorn Canyon are the result of Glen Canyon Dam, and even when water levels are good it's tough to raft (I figure it's only a matter of time before someone starts offering burro porter services to pack rafts and rafters out of the river at Slickhorn Canyon -- remember, you heard it here first.) But on our trip the water was so low that we were having problems getting stuck on rocks and gravel bars far above Slickhorn. Oddly, even at low water, the notorious sandbar section seemed easier to navigate than usual, according to the experienced San Juan runner on our trip; he theorized that some channels had been cut by a massive flash flood that had ripped through the canyon at some point in recent months. Thanks for the comment and the insights!

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