Wednesday, January 16, 2013

More Than Disappearing Mountains

Last August as Mugsy, my English bulldog, and I guided our Jeep on an ascent into the Rocky Mountains for an annual lake rendezvous with family.  I wasn’t the only traveler to remark that the mountains that usually form a backdrop to Denver were invisible and apparently had been for some time.

Those of us native to the Rocky Mountain west realize that Denver is more in the High Plains than the Rockies. The only difference between there and Kansas or Nebraska is that you can usually see them from there.

The view of the mountains from Denver last August was obscured by haze from one of the 3,527 weather records broken in the US alone last year, this one for heat.

The mountains were further obscured  with smoke from a nearby forest fire.  But the view isn’t the only thing disappearing from that part of the world.

Ground water is rapidly deleting.  That means it is being pumped out faster than it can recharge.  According to a study released last year, some parts of the High Plains will be unable to support crop irrigation within the next 30 years.

Many officials tragically make the mistake of believing that because their communities rely on surface water from streams, rivers and lakes, such as Durham, North Carolina where I live, that they are immune from issues surrounding ground water.

However, ground water and surface water are interdependent.  Streams and rivers are not only the beneficiaries of ground water but they also contribute to it.  It is a mistake to believe that a process such as fracking won’t be hazardous just because a community relies primarily on surface water.Hydrologic Cycle - Jeremy Carlson

Where I grew up in the nook of Idaho framed by the Tetons, Yellowstone Park and the Continental Divide, water that has percolated for thousands of years through volcanic rock spews back out of the ground at 120 million gallons per day from a place appropriately named Big Springs, fueling the 127-mile Henry’s Fork of the Snake River.

Half way across my native Fremont County, Idaho, the famed fly-fishing river spills over both the Upper Mesa and Lower Mesa Falls, out of the mountains and down across the Snake River plain to its rendezvous with the South Fork near Idaho Falls.

The Snake River arcs just under the southern edge of Idaho’s 80 recognized mountain ranges to its rendezvous with the Columbia River and then the Pacific Ocean.  But the 10,000-square-mile Idaho aquifer the huge river dissects -- the one “famous for potatoes” -- is imperiled.  

Holding as much water as Lake Erie, since the start of this century it has been in crisis with more water being pumped out than the system can replenish.  Idaho is nearly covered by mountains, huge rivers and glacial lakes, yet 96% of the population is dependent on ground water for domestic water needs.

Ground water isn’t just at issue in the western United States.  Across the nation, ground water accounts for 22% of fresh water withdrawals, 37% of agricultural use, 37% of public water supply withdrawals and 51% of all drinking water for the total population.

More and more ground water is being depleted for industrial purposes.  Fracking is not the only industrial risk from ground water mining.

Some states such as Oregon have began to create “water banks, much as we have a national petroleum reserve.  Other communities such as Pocatello, Idaho are preparing to inject treated wastewater back to help recharge aquifers.

Every community should be looking at dual-water distribution systems such as those pioneered by St. Petersburg, Florida in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Relying on simply discharging treated wastewater back into rivers and lakes fails to grasp the full hydrologic cycle.

It is estimated that failure to act on climate change is creating an annual drag of $1.2 trillion in forgone prosperity, 1.6% of all global GDP.  Yet, the issue of desertification is not limited to the American west nor is it all about the increasing heat.

A new breed of “green” cattle rancher is riding to the rescue, using technologies practiced by wild buffalo herds to preserve grassland and reclaim land and ground water as well as reduce greenhouse emissions by using techniques that were used by my great-grandparents from both sides of my lineage.

Other westerners such as those working in the Western Wastersheds Project are working to bring free-market, full-cost (triple-bottom-line) accounting to the use of public lands for grazing as a means to do the same.

It is much too early to wonder as author Mark Binelli did last month, after witnessing disappearance of the same mountain view, “Will the West Survive?”  But it may be time for another road trip!

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