Sea turtles are often victims of ocean plastic entanglement and ingestion. Photo by Jonathan Waterman
Tonight, anchored along the western shore of Lanai Island, we’re reveling in the briny land smell beneath volcanic seamounts and mountain goat habitat. Our scientific research is complete and all that remains is a final cleaning of the ship, a barbeque on deck, an alcohol-free swizzle party and another refreshing swim in the Pacific. Strange indeed to spend a month at sea and only swim once we reach land again—but that’s all about safety, better known to sailors as “situational awareness.” I’ll come back to that.
Tomorrow, Friday, we’ll dock in Honolulu and I’ll catch a plane home to Colorado. Six miles above the Pacific, looking down over our vast ocean, I’ll be served food and drinks in single-use plastic containers that are designed to be thrown away. Chances are that some of this plastic will make it back into the ocean because most ocean plastic likely comes from the land.
What can we do? It would be a Sisyphean task to sweep the ocean clean of plastic. Even if we somehow succeeded in sucking out the plastic this process would simultaneously eradicate the essential water-borne plankton and collapse the food chain. So to clean up our oceans, it’s more probable to reform societal behavior and consumerism to slowly stop the flow of new plastic and allow the marine ecosystem to heal.
Back to situational awareness. On a blue-water voyage like ours, we developed a keen situational awareness by paying attention to our surroundings and the consequences of our actions at all times. While working atop the doghouse you stay crouched to avoid being clocked on the head in case the main boom swings. While aloft, or throughout the ship, you reserve one hand for holding on. While walking the deck at night you feel with your feet to avoid tripping and falling overboard.
Situational awareness at home is much more complex task. In particular, how do we assess the consequences of our actions as consumers? How do we strike a balance between unnecessary throwaways versus those vital plastics in medical equipment, eyewear, or computers? After all, plastics have made life on planet Earth safer, more convenient, and even pleasurable.
These are the kind of questions I have begun asking after a month out in the vast Pacific subtropical gyre, where we caught hundreds of tiny plastic pieces—often so small that we needed a microscope—every time we deployed a net. The questions reflect my concern that we could be better stewards of the planet Earth.
Since we’re still at sea, with no Internet or other tools available to research potential solutions, I employed situational awareness and consulted my shipmates. Situational awareness on board a tight ship also demands careful etiquette to avoid insulting or stepping on another sailor’s toes. Consequently, I offer my shipmates’ suggestions gently, with the hopes that we can be perceived as role models rather than enviro-cops.
Also, the consensus among my fellow sailors is that plastic is too vital to be completely eliminated; rather it is the disposable and non-renewable plastics that we need to address. And since plastics are petro-chemical products, our reliance upon fossil fuels further contributes to an economy of disposable plastic.
So here’s what the ship’s company plans to do to help make a difference as consumers and citizens:
But these ideas are merely a starting place. As consumers, we can also demand legislation at a federal level, banning throw-away plastics, while pressing manufacturers for change—at least in paring down unnecessary wasteful plastic products that end up in the ocean. It’s really a matter of scale, of situational awareness. So Susan Freinkel concluded in her book, Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, when she emphasized that there’s nothing wrong with material things so much as how “our material possessions connect us to one another and to the planet that is the true source of all our wealth.”
Bow watchers aboard the Robert C. Seamans looking out for plastic in the heart of the Pacific Ocean. Photo by Jonathan Waterman
As we sail closer to port, mahi mahi fish have been hitting our lures and tropicbirds circle our masts. We have not seen land for over a month but as I write these words, we’ve just crossed the EEZ (U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone) within 200 miles of Hawaii. We’re now 34 days at sea and 2,100 nautical miles from San Diego.
Several days ago, with a collective sigh of relief surpassed only by the direction and strength of the winds, we finally caught the easterly trades. We’ve pressed most of our canvas—the squares’ls, the fisherman, the main—to ride this broad reach toward our final destination, Honolulu. Presently we’re sneaking south of huge low-pressure systems in the North Pacific, rocking through confused seas as storm-generated swells collide with the prevailing winds. “The other end of the bathtub,” as our captain Jason Quilter calls these sloshing conditions, opposite the North American shore.
The captain calls the trip a success, but he quickly adds that we couldn’t have pulled it off without hard work and exceptional team spirit. “We’ve done all the sampling that we needed, and safely too,” he says, referring to the tricky deployment of heavy net gear and the use of a hydraulic cable winch in topsy-turvy sea conditions. He admits that we’ve been challenged by big swells that chafed the gear and made it difficult to sail. Still, even with a convoluted and indirect route to Hawaii (veering north from the trade winds to mid-gyre and the tsunami-debris zone where all of our sampling took place), we’ve managed to sail two-thirds of the way.
All of the crew agree with the captain that morale is high. Although we’ve received scant outside news, let alone election polls, on Super Tuesday (in addition to those of us who sent in absentee ballots before leaving port), all 38 onboard will vote for the Whale, the Pelican, or the Green Flash Party. Our three shipboard President and Vice President nominees are running on the platform of ending prohibition given the current “dry ship.” Along with this political news, our satirical ship newspaper, The Compass Rose Times, recently featured our ship astronomer’s proposed renaming of several stars: the Bill Murray constellation. And our three, over-used computers, with no internet connectivity, feature our exclusive “FaceBoat” page, membership 38, recently hacked to add a flattering home-page photograph of the presumptive President from the Pelican Party, (a.k.a., the ship engineer). He’s running on a campaign to create more bird sanctuaries. The Whale Party, meanwhile, does not approve single-use plastics on future Robert C. Seamans cruises—another platform universally agreed upon by our three political parties.
As we draw closer to the islands and even more bird life, we have passed out of the relatively barren gyre and plastic zone. Meaning that our nets are now being pulled back aboard with little plastic—ending the tedious hand counting of thousands of tiny plastic pieces.
To recap the last five weeks, we completed 90 neuston net tows, 10 MOCNESS tows and 13 manta net tows that captured 65,857 pieces of plastic. “Every single sample taken from the gyre had plastic in it,” says our chief scientist, Emelia DeForce. “Also, I’m amazed by the submersion of plastics in the water column due to wind action. There’s so much more plastic we aren’t even detecting.” Although DeForce had a good idea this would be the case, until this cruise, she hadn’t had the tool—the MOCNESS—to prove it.
Other researchers onboard are also working toward their own conclusions. Zora McGinnis, a grad student from Hawaii Pacific University, is wrapping up her data from a visual survey. After 81 hours of painstaking observation from the bow, visually logging 2,516 pieces of plastics, Zora’s impression—not yet backed by hard data—is that there’s a greater diversity of objects and sizes than recorded during her sail from Hawaii to California in 2009.
Along with Greg Boyd, an SEA research assistant, Zora was surprised that none of the larger fish (one tuna and five mahi mahi) caught contained plastic in their stomachs. Half of these fish regurgitated the contents of their stomachs before being pulled aboard, so that data set is small—but Zora has frozen 30 smaller fish for later stomach analysis.
Meanwhile, Greg’s work in bioluminescence involves the most readily used form of communication on the planet because of the abundance of marine micro-organisms; this research could yield a breakthrough in the emerging science of plastics at sea. Although there is a lot of data crunching and lab analysis yet to come, Greg’s research has shown that plastics are bioluminescing. Chances are that the culprit of this glowing phenomenon is bioluminescent microorganisms. Make no mistake about it: this ubiquitous, new sea of plastic hosts staggering numbers of microbes. En masse, these tiny organisms could effectively change the once dark Pacific Ocean at night.
As for the conclusions of the least salty sailor on board, never shipped so far from land, I now have a deeper understanding of plastic pollution. I too am excited about the research, while dismayed by the ramifications. Far from being an island of trash—commonly referred to as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—the micro-plastics rafting in mid ocean are often as thick as (sub-millimeter and shrunken) confetti floating above a ticker-tape parade. In terms of our stewardship of the planet, it’s shocking to think that we’ve had the capability to begin filling our oceans with non-organic and toxic plastic. It’s clear to me that plastic has entered the food chain—from zooplankton to fish to humans—and has already changed the ecologic health of the Pacific.
With thoughts of plastic fluttering in our minds like the pollution to stern, we continue to deploy nets, unfurl the sails, take sextant readings, climb the rigging, and stand bow watch. Anticipation for our ship election continues to ratchet higher. And naturally, our thoughts turn toward families at home and the news awaiting us onshore. While removed from the minute-to-minute analysis of this year’s election taking place on land, I can’t help wondering: how many future presidential campaigns will it take until candidates address the health of our oceans?
More potential tsunami debris: a 10-foot tender alongside the Robert C. Seamans. Photo by Jonathan Waterman
For the last few days, fully inured to life-a-tilt and the complex movements of the sea, we have plied south and southwest winds to continue sailing west. We’re 1,500 miles and 25 days out from California, with 900 miles and 12 days left at sea. Within a day we plan to turn south toward Hawaii. It’s still a guessing game on whether we’ll benefit from a northeast or northwest wind that we need to fill the sails to Honolulu.
From the starboard rail yesterday, we watched a tropicbird on the hunt: hovering and dipping and gliding in the lee of our ship. Suddenly, as flying fish skittered like albino swallows across the swells, the red-billed tropicbird tucked its head and bulleted straight into the sea while a mahi mahi jumped out of the water in a greenish-blue blur and snatched a flying fish. Sailors on deck whooped; my camera lens clicked, but even at 1/1250 of a second I couldn’t fully capture the action. Still, I went below feeling privileged to witness the reflexive intuition of predator and prey attuned to their movements against the shifting Pacific.
We spent most of our Saturday afternoon scrubbing the boat. We carried the galley’s cooking implements to the deck and scrubbed every foot of the ship below: vacuuming ventilators, repairing gray-water pumps, oiling wood, and polishing brass. All the while, we stood or kneeled wide-legged and braced against the cacophonic rise and fall of an unpredictable ocean.
Then at 1900 (7pm ship time; 6pm Hawaii time) on Saturday, Captain Jason Quilter called an all-hands muster on the quarterdeck. We huddled to port in the dark with 20-knot winds and shouted out each of our assigned crew numbers; as usual, all were present. But the situation was unusual. We’d never been mustered in the evening, and more than a few of us prepared for news of a coming storm, rather than what was announced: a 7.7-magnitude earthquake near Canada’s Charlotte Islands. The captain—concerned about a tsunami that might damage Honolulu—had received a mariners weather message moments earlier on the ship’s Immarsat C satellite warning system.
Tsunamis travel as fast as jet airplanes across the ocean. As I lay in my rocking berth at approximately 2130, reading a book with heavy-lidded eyes, I did not feel the inch-high wave that passed beneath our hull. This surge of energy sped west at more than 400 miles-per-hour as birds flew high and fish dove deep with the knowledge of a quaking earth in their gills. Two hours later, just before midnight ship’s time, this water-borne energy rose up the slopes of the great underwater mountain of Hawaii in a micro-second. Gulls and other shorebirds had already innately reached for the safety of sky as the force transmitted through water from a 2,200-mile-distant shifting Canadian ocean floor met the Hawaiian Islands. Tens of thousands of people (forewarned by the recently installed International Tsunami Warning System) had already fled to high ground. Fortunately, the wave rose only 2.5 feet above normal tide lines.
Although this earthquake and tsunami caused no significant damage, the catastrophic, 2011 Japanese tsunami—from a more severe earthquake—has left its debris scattered in a thousand-mile-wide, eastward-flowing swath across the northern Pacific. Reminders of this devastating event crept in Sunday morning, when we pulled alongside another likely piece of last year’s tsunami debris: half of a 9.5 x 5 feet-wide boat. The red and white, Fiberglass fishing tender, thick with barnacles, had been jaggedly ripped apart by the waves.
We took pictures and video, looked for identifying print, and pushed the wrecked tender away from the hull. I went back below, to the ship’s library, where I helped Emilee Monson of the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry catalog pieces of plastic to be used for public outreach.
Over the course of a couple hours, we plucked out ten different-shaped, 1 to 4 mm-sized pieces from a jar thick with recently dip-netted plastic. We placed each piece on the compound microscope, focused a laser beam on its surface, then allowed the spectrometer to measure the frequency of light vibrating off each plastic surface. Throughout, we moved carefully around the delicate equipment and hazardous laser beam, bracing against the swells. To our eyes through the lens of the microscope, this plastic all looked different: tan, white, moon cratered, or cracked like a dried riverbed. Profile readouts from the spectrometer allowed us to identify eight of the pieces as high-density polyethylene (HDPE). Of the two unidentifiable pieces, one appeared to be polystyrene, aka Styrofoam. Although this is only a random sampling, most of the plastic gathered by SEA in the Atlantic over 25 years is either polyethylene (PE) or polypropylene (PP).
HDPE belongs to the most popularly known plastic family, constituting more than a third of all products manufactured around the world. It makes up cereal bags, plastic grocery bags, containers of milk and juice, plus any number of household containers.
Elsewhere on board, since our Sundays offer a small respite from net deployments and class time, crew not on watch were getting haircuts on the foredeck, dancing to the engineer’s banjo playing on the quarterdeck, or sewing bags from sailcloth in the eating quarters—all keenly awaiting our evening movie night. By 2000 hours, the 29 of us not on watch crowded into the saloon around our makeshift, white sheet movie screen. Someone turned on a fan, the lights went off, and the laptop projector came on. Swaying with the pitch and yaw of our ship jumping through an ever confused sea, we hooted and cheered at Captain Irving Johnson’s 37-minute, 1929 film. After all, “Around Cape Horn“ was shot in an age before plastic, when wooden- and steel-hulled ships sailed without radar into the wild and stormy Pacific.
As we continue sailing west, we have more questions than answers about our plastic quarry. We’re now more than halfway to Hawaii, with California 1,200 miles and 17 days behind us. While we’ve conducted more than 40 net deployments and counted close to 40,000 pieces of plastic in the North Pacific gyre, researchers at Sea Education Association (SEA) and elsewhere cannot say for any certainty what happens to the floating plastic.
The plastic could linger in the ocean for an indeterminate number of years, but no one can say how long it takes the plastic to disappear from the surface and what happens next. In the Atlantic Ocean, particle traps have been placed deep in the water column near Bermuda, and despite the presence of floating plastic in the region, researchers have not detected plastic in the traps.
To move closer toward the answers, it’s useful to look to the Atlantic Ocean, where plastic research has been conducted for more than a quarter century. A paper by SEA scientists and collaborators, “Plastic Accumulation in the North Atlantic Subtropical Gyre,” published in Science in August 2010 is insightful. Their data came from more than 6,136 surface tows that were conducted onboard SEA’s sailing research vessels from 1986-2008, from which more than 64,000 plastic pieces were handpicked and counted. One could expect that these data would show that plastics are increasing in our oceans. After all, plastic has become ubiquitous and in demand over the last couple of decades. For instance, beginning in 1950, half a million tons of plastic were created in Europe. This number has increased more than 500-fold in just 50 years, now they are producing over 260 million tons of plastic. Although the Marine Pollution (MARPOL) legislation of 1988 prevents the dumping of plastic in the ocean, plastic use is increasing and that plastic ultimately ends up somewhere, either in a landfill or in the ocean. A 2002 New Zealand report summarized that MARPOL is “widely ignored” and ships alone dump 6.5 million tons of plastic a year into the world’s oceans. The Science paper documents a five-fold increase in plastic production worldwide during the period of the Atlantic plastic collections studied.
This plastic abundance makes the paper’s conclusion all the more startling: “Despite a strong increase in discarded plastic, no trend was observed in plastic marine debris in the 22-year data set.”
So if the surface-level plastic isn’t increasing in the oceans, is it biodegrading? According to a study “Degradation of Plastic Carrier Bags,” published recently in Marine Pollution Bulletin, only biodegradable bags breakdown quickly. Compostable polyester bags, according to this study, degraded completely after 40 weeks in the sea. The majority of plastic bags used are not compostable or biodegradeable, and are made of materials such as polyethylene which degraded by only 2% in that same amount of time. It should be noted that most biodegradable or compostable plastics are made to compost in a hot landfill rather than in a cold ocean. Added to that is the fact that degradation in the sea involves sunlight and most of these UV rays are blocked and absorbed by barnacles or other biomass growing on the plastic—slowing degradation. Eventually, these plastics are reduced to smaller pieces, such as the micro-plastic soup we’ve encountered here in the Pacific.
“There’s no reason why plastic couldn’t break down to a molecular level and exist as finer and undetectable particles in the water,” says Greg Boyd, an SEA employee and researcher onboard the Robert C. Seamans (RCS). Greg’s hypothesis is a work in progress, but it could explain why plastic—at least when harvested through net tows—doesn’t appear to be increasing in our oceans. Microbes also create biofilms over plastic and this might cause the plastic to sink. At the same time, there is evidence (seen through electron microscopes as “pitting” marks on plastic) to suggest that microbes could potentially be physically degrading or even “eating” the plastic.
Aboard the RCS, our experience in the gyre has shown us something different about where the plastic is found. Through every-other-day use of the MOCNESS tow (which opens nets at four different depths in the ocean to collect plastic), we’ve found that plastic is not just limited to the surface zone. Although the plastic levels are thick in windrows where currents and wind combine to create alleyways of plastic flotsam on the surface, MOCNESS harvests have shown us that the wind is also forcing plastic down to 30-foot depths.
So we continue to pitch and roll through this bluest of gyres, hove to for the last two nights to slow down so that we can complete the research. We’ve ducked around several low-pressure systems and hit only minor squalls, and more than few nights the seas have forced us to brace tight in our berths and on deck. We’ll continue to harvest both surface and subsurface samples from the water in hopes of unveiling more of the mystery of plastic’s end.
Between net deployments I cornered Emelia DeForce, PhD, and Chief Scientist on the RCS, to ask if we’ll find anything new. Like many of the sailor researchers, she’s a few nights shy on sleep, but enthusiastic and salty to the core: “Hell yeah,” she replies, with a huge smile, as the stern sits down with another hard boom against a swell. “Ultimately we’re getting closer to tracking how wind, wave, and current energy transports plastic in the North Pacific subtropical gyre. This is what we came for, all of our freakin’ hard work is coming together!”
Hitchhikers on a plastic ball collected Sunday October 14. Photo by Matt Ecklund
We’re ten days and 690 nautical miles out from the nearest land in California. In that time, we’ve conducted 21 net deployments to collect and analyze plastic. We’ve counted a total of 3,190 pieces of plastic, most of it in the North Pacific subtropical gyre. Here in this gigantic eddy-like “trap,” the concentration of floating plastic has increased exponentially.
We’re finding grain-size and quarter-size pieces of plastic in the net cod ends. Occasionally nets have counts as low as ten—versus counts of 1,372 pieces. Why? Because of the gyre’s patchiness, some places are loaded with plastic and others are not. On calm days, often times the plastic can be seen floating by the ship, other times the sea looks clear and free of plastic until you filter it and discover plastic pieces that are invisible to the human eye.
One project (among many onboard) is to count microscopic plastics that aren’t normally tallied with the larger and more visible pieces in the neuston net due to the fact that they pass out of the mesh net as it’s being towed. To measure these, a liter of seawater is dyed pink and vacuumed through a micrometer-sized filter mesh. The dye doesn’t stick to plastic, therefore, the pieces can be seen clear of other microbial life and counted through a microscope. Over the last week, microscopic plastic counts have ranged from 56 to 224 pieces per liter of seawater.
One of the greater mysteries being studied onboard is how pieces of floating plastic act as a host or “island” to creatures large and small, from crabs to zooplankton to microbes. Past studies have shown, for instance, how surface-level plastic gives the water strider insect (Halobates sericeus) a platform on which to lay its eggs. The hypothesis is that the favorable nature of this “plastisphere” for many species could cause a quantum shift in life across the ocean ecosystem. After all, Halobates (or thousands of other species) feed upon the zooplankton and in turn, become part of the food chain for birds, fish and turtles. Yet, until plastics arrived in the gyre, the population of Halobates was naturally limited by what little floating material it could lay its eggs upon.
Until recently, rafting insects and other ocean organisms relied only upon driftwood—coconuts, trees, or an occasional stray buoy. Now these rafters have miniature ocean island chains of floating plastic to travel upon, according to one scientist on board. Mike Gil, from the University of Florida, has joined this cruise holding the equilibrium theory of island biogeography as a framework for his investigation of floating debris. This 45-year-old theory proposes that the larger an island, the more species it will hold, and Mike points out that floating plastic qualifies as islands. He is hoping to compare large and small floating objects and come up with accurate resident species counts.
And like most of the crew, Mike is fascinated with the amount of species-rich biomass bearding the objects we’ve been pulling aboard. When quizzed about the number of species, let alone family taxonomy, he wisely won’t even hazard a guess. As for what we’ve seen, several crabs—up to 1.5 inches wide—were living on a four-inch ball; a three-foot-wide buoy is weighed down by twice its weight in barnacles and worms; a small car’s tire and rim, heavy with algae and organisms, is plainly embossed “Made in Japan.”
Two buoys we pulled onboard were also marked with Japanese characters, one reading “Nichimou” (the name of a fishery industry complex), the other pronounced “Do Nan” which means the equipment came from Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan, 3,360 miles west of our present position.
So as small plastic pieces from around the Pacific Rim countries are mixing with larger debris from Japan, a non-scientist sailor like myself feels safe in saying that we have entered the tsunami debris zone. But I return to Mike to get the bigger picture.
“We’re potentially seeding the ocean with a transport mechanism to take invasive species across the ocean,” Mike says. “Species invasions can have devastating effects on natural ecosystems.” Since conservation biologists believe in preserving the biodiversity of species, he is concerned about biodiversity being compromised by foreign hitchhikers. “It is possible that plastic litter could increase species invasions to new coastlines.”
The first deployment ever of the MOCNESS sampling net without a conducting wire. Photo by Jon Waterman
Three days and almost 400 miles west of California, the rail is now free of slumped crew feeding the fish. From my aft berth, I can hear the deck being scrubbed above. Even though we’ve passed beyond the shallow edge of the continental shelf, we’re still amid cold, northern currents. With the exception of today’s afternoon calm, deck workers are dressed in sweaters and wind gear.
We’ve left the shallow waters and upwellings from the continental shelf along the coast. In place of those productive and opaque waters, we’ve entered the vivid and clear blue zone of mariners’ dreams. Shafts of sunlight penetrate these pellucid waters and glow with the fierce beauty of limitless sapphire.
We’re now regularly seeing larger bits of plastic floating on the surface, even though we have not yet reached the gyre—approximately 800 miles offshore. There, amid the eye of this enormous, clockwise swirling Pacific, tiny plastic particles will routinely fill our nets.
No one can yet say with accuracy exactly where the various types of plastic exist within the ocean. We think, for starters, that the majority of this plastic comes from land. And it is widely believed that the tiny plastic particles we’ll find near the surface represents a small fraction of the denser and more common plastic that falls toward Davy Jones’ Locker. Much of this single-use plastic—such as disposable water bottles—are probably lying on the ocean floor. It’s also speculated that plastic particles are suspended in deeper layers below the surface. And potentially toxic plastic is ingested by every species from copepods to whales. Even humans may not be exempt.
This new ecological phenomenon reshaping and (along with acidification) possibly destroying our oceans was created by a manufacturing revolution after World War II. Susan Freinkel (author of Plastic: A Toxic Love Affair) called it, “Plasticville.” By the end of the 20th century, our world was drawn into the convenience, economy and availability of new lightweight combs, toothbrushes, and bags—to name only a few of the plethora of plastic that surrounds us in our daily lives. Inherent in the manufacturer-consumer cycle is that we’re conditioned to throw plastic away almost immediately. Since the substance is easily manufactured, it can be resold as rapidly as it is thrown away.
Along with every imaginable shape and size, there are thousands of different plastic forms. From the most common polyethylene (bottles, bags, toys), to polystyrene (Styrofoam), to the lesser used acrylics (airplane windows, tail-lights, shower doors). Our quarry is those few plastic “species” that float.
The Robert C. Seamans is equipped with four different nets that will be used for our plastic hunt. Long-handled dip nets will allow us to reach over the rails and scoop up visible pieces of plastic. The neuston net and manta nets both sit on the surface of the water while being towed. Each of them has a cod end that concentrates the sample (ironically enough) into a plastic bottle. They are both towed at 2 knots for 30 minutes to determine the volume of water sampled so that the concentration of plastics can be calculated. Finally, the state-of-the-art MOCNESS net samples below the surface with pre-programmed opening and closing nets. Unlike our other nets, this cable-deployed device—lifted out away from the ship’s hull by a hydraulic J-frame, then lowered into the sea—will allow researchers on board to determine if plastics are forced downward by the effects of wind mixing in the ocean.
Although there are many parts to this research and other science projects that we will be learning about in weeks to come, plastic (and resident organisms) are the main quarry, while the nets are the tools that we carry. Welcome to our hunt.
SSV Robert C. Seamans off the coast of California in July - Jonathan Waterman photo
In 1988, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration researchers measuring pollution in the Sea of Japan predicted that plastic contamination would show up in much greater quantities in the Pacific Ocean. Researchers had already confirmed the presence of a new, giant soup of plastics, which the media eventually dubbed the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
In fact, with the exception of larger plastic that washes up on beaches, most of the plastic floating near the ocean surface is mere millimeters in size, undetectable by satellite, or even human eyes, unless the sea is flat calm. The plastic is suspended at surface level within the collision of currents that creates the 7 million square mile gyre, spinning clockwise like the eye of a hurricane in mid Pacific Ocean. Since little science has been performed, no one has yet accurately quantified the size of this soup—twice the size of the U.S., says the media; twice the size of Hawaii say some researchers. Nor do we know exactly what’s living on it, or how widely it has damaged the natural ocean ecosystem. According to Greenpeace, 267 species around the world are adversely affected by plastic marine debris that largely comes from land and gets trapped within one of five major oceanic gyres.
On October 3, a Sea Education Association (SEA) tall ship with a state of the art laboratory and 38 researchers (including graduate students, educators, an environmental policy analyst, medical professionals, writers, scientists, and professional mariners), will sail due west from San Diego, into the heart of the North Pacific Gyre. The 134-foot Robert C. Seamans, may also encounter debris from the 2011 Japan tsunami.
As the journalist on board, I will be sending back regular dispatches and photographs, detailing events as well as news about our findings. These dispatches will supplement videos sent by the ship filmmakers, and more detailed science, relayed by staff scientists on board, who will be studying the organisms—from microbial life to the larger barnacles and crabs—that live in the floating plastic soup. Through this initial web outreach, with weekly dispatches at National Geographic's blog site http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com and daily dispatches at http://www.sea.edu/plastics/, we’ll share an intimate look at plastic pollution, as well as our 2,500-mile, six-week adventure to Hawaii.
JW on the Colorado River's End, Sonora, Mexico--Pete McBride photo
We paddled past plywood shacks and children flipping stones into a narrowing stream known as El Rio Colorado, sucking us, it seemed, like flotsam toward the drain. I held my breath, hoping the river wouldn’t stop. Upstream, on the border bridge, trucks free of mufflers tore through the morning haze, redolent of burning garbage.
Two miles into Mexico, my hopes of a complete 1,450-mile descent ended in a foamy pond of congealed fertilizers, distillate of countless American lawns and 3.4 million thirsty farm acres.
I splashed out in bare feet, worried that our most iconic white water river would make me physically ill. My companion, Pete McBride, stayed clean by climbing out through the tamarisk trees. We tried to wipe the river shit off our pack rafts with tamarisk fronds, cursing the system that has diminished the Mighty Colorado to a stinking cesspool.
Then we deflated and taco-folded the little boats onto our packs and began walking the route of 19th-century steamships. Bushwhacking and trudging through sands washed from the Rockies, baked by the hot sun, we perspired faster than we could drink. We stumbled south a dozen miles into Sonora, Mexico.
The sun faded over the distant Sierra del Mayor, dappled an incandescent-carrot hue through steaming Mexicali air pollution, and we collapsed a dozen feet above one of many desiccated water courses. Then we passed the tequila.
The Colorado River has been engineered to death. More than 100 dams and 1,000 miles of canals divert its water to most every farm, industry and city within a 250-mile radius of the river. Each year, seven western states and northern Mexico take 16.5 million acre-feet (enough water to supply 33 million American households) of river water. Amid the 12th year of drought in the southwest, climate models show that conditions will continue to dry the snowmelt-fed river. Add explosive population growth, increasing the demand for water, and the river’s future becomes a ticking time bomb.
This was my sleepless perspective from the 3,000-square mile Colorado River Delta, being subsumed by the Sonoran Desert. Our hips and elbows pockmarked the white sand riverbank. Distant dogs howled with hunger, while the northern horizon burned white hot with the international border’s halogen lights. Since 1998, drought and overuse of the river have stopped it from flowing across this border to the sea. For most of the final 70 miles, Pete and I would be walking.
Dawn blazed straight into the heat of day, and to ease the pressure of water ballasting our packs, we agreed to scrap our ill-conceived rationing plan. Over the next few days, we guzzled 100 pounds of water, shifting the weight from our backs to our bellies, stung by the knowledge that a river was supposed to flow where we staggered through brush and poured sweat and drank water imported from far-off aquifers. Occasionally the river would reemerge in stagnant ponds shaded by cottonwoods and guarded by reluctant great blue herons, icons of a former cornucopia.
We wandered for 10 days, southwest into Baja California, then south toward the Sea of Cortez. Most of the time we were lost in the dried-out maze of delta cut by farm fields, salty canals, potholed tarmac and railroad tracks. Eventually, a small tributary, El Rio Hardy, acted as delta resuscitation – hygienic as an intravenous drip from a catheter. Meanwhile, a newly developed, water-borne infection in my blistered and red swollen feet had me hobbling.
We reinflated our boats and paddled the Rio Hardy before it could be sucked under the vast delta. On the second day afloat, we found an unexpected, wet paradise. The glowing, green-phosphate water turned clear, scrubbed clean by a rowdy coiffure of reeds and plants.
These curlicues of hidden river were lush with an upwelling of underground water, temporarily arisen before it would be reabsorbed and blocked from the ocean by ancient sand grains – spread as far as we could see – carved from and carried 600 miles out of the Grand Canyon. Here, briefly, nature endured: rattling kingfishers, squadrons of circling mallards and hushed, stern-faced cattle egrets. We could smell the postcoital tang of ocean tides.
Tamarisk thinned. Salt grass bearded the ground. Pintail ducks, curlews, ibis, plovers and black-crowned night herons fluttered and gabbled and splashed. We were surrounded by sere mountains and an infinite sky bisected by a once unstoppable river that knew no banks. As the stream narrowed, we could feel it gathering momentum, as if it would once more meet the sea.
I had to stop holding my breath.
[Pete McBride handstanding at an unexpected flow 20 miles from the sea; JW photo]
Help Save the Colorado River Delta
June 2008, as I began paddling the 1,450-mile long Colorado River, the knowledge that the river had not reached the sea for a decade outraged me. And it wasn’t just because portaging the last 90 miles would be a challenge. It is outrageous because we have shunted our most iconic western river to the greatest desert estuary in North America and not only has this been swept under the rug by our Bureau of Reclamation, but people I met everywhere along my journey from the Rockies toward the Sea of Cortez were largely unaware that the river had run dry.
More than a few times I quoted the Ecclesiastes verse: "All rivers run into the sea," thinking that this would help move people, make them understand that by God or Nature or the Whimsical Ways of the Planet that mountains should always touch the clouds, oceans lap the shores, birds fly the skies, and rivers hit the sea. And when these things stop happening, that's when we need to take action and "give a shit." To elaborate on the choice quote, a Bureau of Reclamation official told me he didn't "give a shit about a bunch of birds" (360 species to be exact) that live on the delta, one of the many reasons why, he felt, that sending river water south of the border didn't matter.
Still, many people whom I met were concerned, and many others shrugged their shoulders because they thought there was nothing that we could do about it. But along the way I learned how the problem could be fixed and that the delta is far from dead both in terms of people who care about it and the remarkable habitat that still remains.
In January 2009, when I finished that long portage to the sea—hampered by an infection in my feet from polluted water at the border, amazed by the amount of bird life and wetlands that have somehow survived—I promised to bide my time and find a way to take action on this issue. The delta, after all, is the most beautiful place on the whole river.
Two and a half years later, it’s time. A rewrite of the International Treaty (governing the U.S.-Mexican border) is imminent. Bringing water back into the delta and to the sea is the most important job among the many issues facing the Colorado River. There’s a lot of work to do, but if we can perform this one act, it will show the rest of the world that we care, not only about the river and the Sea of Cortez, but about Mexico and those creatures at risk—vaquita porpoises, totoaba (giant bass), shrimp, and the many birds—south of the border beyond reach of our endangered species law.
Tucson, Arizona’s Sonoran Institute—along with scores of other researchers and conservationists—has been working diligently on the delta in hopes of affecting change. They have been planting trees, involving local communities, monitoring bird life, catching precious water to make wetlands, working to promote tourism, looking for ways to buy water, building marshes to clean waste water effluent flowing into a Colorado River delta tributary, and prompting communication to ensure cooperation between the Mexican and American government—in particular, the International Boundary Water Commission (IBWC).
So this is a call to action to save the Colorado River Delta. By signing letters to Secretary Clinton of the State Department and to Interior Secretary Salazar (who oversees the Bureau of Reclamation) at TakeAction.org, we have an opportunity to affect change, to show the dam(n) managers that we do in fact give a shit. And someday soon, the next generation of paddlers will have the opportunity, like the river, to run to the sea. --JW
Photograph of Colorado's Snowmass Mountain (14,092 feet) coated with spring windstorm dust by Peter McBride--from the new book, Colorado River; Flowing through Conflict.
At first glance, the September 20 report on the "Response of Colorado River runoff to dust radiative forcing in snow," from the online version of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, wouldn't seem to merit such wide play. But the study's unabashed quantification of the startling loss of water due to dust coating the mountains that feed the Colorado River, allowed both mainstream and scientific journals to weigh in from coast to coast.
Each year, the study concludes, 35 billion cubic feet (261 billion gallons) of water are lost in this dust up. Annually, this is five times more water than needed to restore flows through the dried-out Colorado River Delta so that the river can once again reach the sea; twice Las Vegas' draw; and enough to supply several dozen cities and thousands of farms that divert the Colorado River headwaters out of the river basin, under the Rockies through 12 tunnels, and onto the semi-arid plains of eastern Colorado.
Although the Colorado River is hardly the longest river, at 1,450 miles it is one of the steepest rivers. It drains 243,000 square miles (or a tenth of the continental U.S.'s land area), grows more than 3 million acres of farms, and slakes the thirst of nearly 30 million people. While the river's demise has been foretold through all but the most entitled water owners, called buffalos, of the basin, the dust study is unique because it shows exactly how much water is lost to a seemingly arcane environmental factor that may be more related to population growth than climate change.
For those living outside the Rockies, in regions of more than 20 inches of annual rainfall, it's tough sledding to visualize how dust on the mountains can diminish (according to the study) five percent of the river. But for residents in the semi-arid mountains or arid deserts of the west, these increasingly common dust storms plaster reddish-brown war paint on living-room picture windows, car windshields, or the snow-covered Rockies. For backcountry skiers, the spring snowfield dust is akin to skiing on glue.
"Dust can have an impact even when it's too sparse to notice," said study leader Thomas Painter, a snow hydrologist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "But it can get to the point where it looks like cinnamon toast."
Normally a clean, white snow surface reflects 80 percent of heat back into the atmosphere. Dust, however, allows the snowpack to absorb more heat, and increases evaporation, which reduces the overall amount of water flowing from melting snowpacks, the Colorado River primary source. The dust speeds up snowmelt runoff by an estimated three weeks and wreaks havoc on the irrigation cycles of farms downstream. In addition, while the dust effectively creates an artificial and unnaturally early spring, it also accelerates the growth of plants that absorb more water. This plant growth accounts for the biggest water loss.
Photograph of Strontia Dam delivering Colorado River water to Denver by Jonathan Waterman, from his and Peter McBride's photography book, the Colorado River, Flowing Through Conflict.
The study notes that heavy dusting of the snow pack began with the settlement of the West in mid 19th century. By coring lake sediments in the Rockies, scientists have discovered that the current time period corresponds to a 500 to 600 percent increase in dust deposits. Throughout the dry southwest, domestic livestock, road building, and urban growth have repeatedly broken the fragile desert crusts that would otherwise prevent wind from carrying off desert soils. Continuing development throughout the burgeoning states of New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah allow the prevailing winds to carry off the dust and deposit it on the Colorado River's lifeline: the snow-covered Rocky Mountains.
"Actions to stabilize soils and minimize activities that disturb soils could potentially decrease dust emissions and the loss of runoff," Painter said. "Clean your snow, it lasts longer--it is that simple."
As scientists, Painter and his coauthors have shone defining light onto the river crisis, along with a new path toward water sustainability, but the hard part comes in inspiring the lawmakers and water operators of the Colorado River Basin to implement these and other necessary actions to affect change.
This is the fourth post in a series of Colorado River notes from Jonathan Waterman, author of two books about the Colorado River crisis: Running Dry: A Journey From Source to Sea Down the Colorado River; and the Colorado River: Flowing through Conflict.
In the spring of 2007, as I began preparing for a 1,450-mile journey down the Colorado River, my mother began her fight with rectal melanoma. Since 1976, with her support, I lived for long expeditions, partly for the adventure, but mostly to find meaning and hope amid a world that seemed increasingly disenfranchised from the value of wild places. The isolation and challenges of these journeys were all enveloping and gave me an in-depth sense of place, but on the Colorado River I would carry the baggage about my mother all the way to the sea.
That summer of 2007, because the cancer had metastasized, she had a walnut-sized tumor removed from her brain. I spent a couple of days reconnoitering the river's source at 10,000 feet on La Poudre Pass in my home state of Colorado. There on the continental divide in Rocky Mountain National Park, before the first trickle of water could reach the valley and flow west, a ditch dug more than a century ago sluiced a third of the river east. The "Grand Ditch" is the first of countless diversions we have allowed upon North America's most precipitous waterway. I channeled my anger into organization and preparation--the essential components of any successful expedition.
When mom fell and injured her hip, my brothers and I had to put her in a nursing home. I showed her the maps for my coming journey. I immersed myself into interviews of water experts, or reading reports and water-related books, including Cadillac Desert, A River No More, and Rivers of Empire. In December, before she stopped talking, my mom licked her lips in an attempt to wet her parched mouth and cheerfully conceded that she too was going on a long journey. As she made the final preparations, we brought her back home to die. Meanwhile, I arranged meetings and side trips that would supplement my own observations during the coming expedition. Life, as mom insisted, must flow onward.
Despite her denials and a long fight, my mother (still known by her tennis partners as "the Steel Magnolia") left in January, 2008. Her death left me in state of suspended and often wordless animation. To cope, I continued the sort of work she had always encouraged: plunging into my voyage of discovery from source to sea down the Colorado River.
I snowshoed back up to La Poudre Pass, and while carefully standing below the Grand Ditch, I flung her ashes into the snow so that she could accompany me downstream. The next morning I began paddling a three-pound packraft that would accompany me all the way to Mexico. I thought of my mother a lot during the 1,450-mile journey, wondering how her microbial essence could pass through the dams and diversions that disrupt the Colorado River. Like most grieving sons, I contemplated our differences along with all that she had given me. Although I stayed busy--interviewing researchers, rangers, Native Americans, boatmen, and water operators; confronting rapids; dealing with loneliness during 800 miles of paddling in solitude--I couldn't stop thinking about my mother. I fell into brief depressions. But mostly I received an education about the river ecosystem and water as an exploited resource: watching birds, learning about farm irrigation and municipal withdrawals of water, tracking animals, and touring dams.
I was surprised and elated to discover that many stretches of the riverine are still intact. Desert bighorn sheep supped from the river's edge in protected wildlife refuges and national parks. Brilliant stars in the night sky showed how "the American Nile" carves its path through a section of the southwest still largely free of light pollution. I paddled through dozens of recreation areas where boaters fished, motored, partied and celebrated water as if it would never run dry. I found restoration sites where workers had replaced invasive tamarisk with native willows. I photographed (and wrote in my journal about) polluted water, compromised reservoirs and aquifers, and people indifferent to the crisis of a diminishing river. At night, alone in my tent, I contemplated the ups and downs of the complex relationship I had with my mother.
It took me five months to reach the delta. The river ran dry a couple miles south of the Mexican border in a brown foam of phosphates floating empty water bottles. I spent ten days walking to the sea with my friend Pete McBride. For two days, we paddled south in irrigation canals. In the wastewater of the Rio Hardy tributary, I infected my feet.
Eventually, the Sonoran Desert subsumed the delta in an endless tapestry of cracked mud, surrounded by Sea of Cortez tidal canals that resembled giant dendrites. The microbial remains of my mom--like the pulverized sands from the Rockies and the Grand Canyon that Pete and I stood upon--had stalled 1,420 miles upstream in the depths of Shadow Mountain or Granby Reservoirs.
I traveled the length of the river to write a book and to let readers know not only what remains but what we stand to lose. I used the journey as a retreat to grieve for my mother and ultimately paid tribute to her in the book--Running Dry is a hybrid of river history, adventure, and personal narrative. But I also went for fun and to explore my backyard, to become intimate with the river.
I have spent my adult years taking long wilderness journeys, immersing myself in nature if only to make sense of a world altered by population growth, industry, and the increasingly heavy footprint of humankind. On these expeditions, I often leave home jaded and tired, hoping to return enlightened and energized. More than mastery of the ice ax or paddle, in wild country or riverscapes we can discover new humility, hidden beauty, and unexpected meaning. Out there--where, according to Ecclesiastes: "all the rivers run into the sea"--we can find renewal, inspiration, and a comforting glimpse of eternity. We're flesh and blood, resigned to our three score and ten, but rivers are the lifeblood of the earth, created long before us, to remain long after we're gone.
If there's only one thing I could share with the 30 million people who depend upon the Colorado River, it's this: If we have the power to wrest a river from the Delta, we also have the responsibility to restore it.
As for what I got out of the trip, I have let go of my mother. But losing our river is a death I cannot abide.
The Colorado River hasn’t reached the sea in ages. Is there hope left for this storied but manhandled river? Jonathan Waterman, author of Running Dry: A Journey from Source to Sea Down the Colorado River, brought together two experts from either end of the river to talk about what’s happened to the river over the years, and how to get more water flowing in the future.
Brad Udall is the director of Western Water Assessment, based out of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) offices in Boulder, Colo. Osvel Hinojosa works as director of the water and wetlands program from the Mexican environmental group Pronatura.
Jonathan Waterman: So while you’re both involved a lot with agencies that have to do with safeguarding water and the Colorado River throughout the basin, we’ve also chosen to talk with you because you live, essentially, at opposite ends of the spectrum — in the state of Colorado near the headwaters, and then in the Mexican delta, where the river runs dry. And these are ideal positions to show the range of river issues. So if you guys could introduce yourself and your work, especially your work related to the Colorado River.
Brad Udall: I work for the University of Colorado where I’m on the research faculty. I run a program here called the Western Water Assessment which is supported with NOAA funding. We utilize a team of 30 researchers to look at climate issues in the American West with the idea to help folks — decision-makers make better decisions with respect to climate. And when I say climate I mean what we can learn about past climate — for example, tree-ring studies — what we know might happen in the next six to 12 months, and what we might know into the future, say 100 years out, because of climate change. The 30 people that are associated with this program range from climate scientists to economists to policy folks, environmental scientists, you name it — we’ve got access to them, and we’re trying to produce the best science we can. In particular, my area of expertise is the Colorado River basin, and I’ve been party to a number of studies that look into the future of this river.
Osvel Hinojosa: I work for Pronatura in Mexicali, based mostly in the delta region and upper Gulf of California. And we have been working on the restoration of the Colorado delta for almost 10 years now, working with organizations from both sides of the border. We have been doing basic research to understand the issues and how can we restore the delta that is feasible, and then we have also been involved in active restoration and community work, monitoring, and more recently a lot on the water issues. We’ve created a water trust with some other organizations to purchase water and restore the flow in the Colorado River delta.
JW: Great, thank you. Brad, I’ll start with you again in the headwaters. What are the biggest challenges for water sustainability, for both humankind and natural habitat today in the Colorado River basin?
BU: When I think of sustainability issues with regard to the Colorado River, it really revolves around how much water is going to be in the river in the future, and are we using what we have now wisely. Like most Western states, roughly 75 percent of all the water here goes to agriculture. The remainder goes to municipal and other uses. The model projections for the future of the river show us anywhere from 10 to 20 percent reductions in flows mid-century, and obviously more possible by the year 2100. And if these come true, and there are many scientific reasons to believe that they will, it means we’re going to have to take a hard look at how we’re using water, and is there in fact any left to develop? Or maybe we’ve already overdeveloped what’s here. So it’s a challenge on almost any aspect of water management, from the critters needing water to live in, to humans, to agriculture, to even our new energy economy here in Colorado, which potentially, depending on how it evolves, might utilize significant amounts of water that might in fact not be here.
JW: And I’ll hand it to you, Osvel, in terms of water sustainability in the Colorado River basin, what do you think the biggest challenge is?
OH: Well, I agree with Brad in that sense, and a lot of the [problem] came from the past and extended to the future. I mean, clearly the river was overallocated, and in different locations was given away to different cities and municipalities in the U.S. and in Mexico, too. The environment was not considered. And so into the future, we’re facing this challenge: How can we figure out a way to meet those allocations that have already been given away, and then at the same time how can we recover that water to retain environmental functions? So it’s quite hard. At the same time, I guess that this challenge and the stress into the system has opened a lot of dialogue that used to be closed between water managers, between agencies between countries, and also we have environmental organizations’ water managers. And so the discussion is more open, to try to collaborate and find solutions.
JW:When was the last time the river flowed into the sea, through the delta?
OH: The last event when there was water flowing from the Colorado River into the Gulf was around 1998-1999. There were big flow releases from the dams that reached into the Gulf of California. After that, there were some small releases that almost reached the upper Gulf, but not quite. Then there was a big earthquake on April 4 this year, causing quite a bit of damage in the irrigation system in Mexicali. So most of the Mexican allocation of water was directed into the river. So for a few days, there was water flowing into the river into the Gulf of California.
JW: I didn’t realize that, I thought most of those systems were patched.
OH: Well, there was significant damage in the canal system, over 80,000 acres of land. So Mexico was not able to deal with the water delivery, so they would just open Morales dam. And for four days, there was continuous water from the Morales dam into the Gulf.
JW: The Morales dam — the diversion dam — is the only one owned by Mexico that brings water west toward Mexicali rather than toward the delta. So either of you — are we still in a drought today? The drought that started nearly a decade ago. I’ll toss that to you, Brad.
BU: Absolutely, yes. It’s the biggest drought in the historic record since 1906 or so, when we started keeping records in the Colorado River basin, and it’s really significantly a more pronounced drought than the next-nearest drought. You can look at droughts in a lot of different ways, but one way to look at it is in 10-year period flows, and this period of 10-year flows is 3 percent more than the next nearest period, if you will. Which doesn’t sound like a lot, but when you’re talking about flows over 10 years, it’s a huge amount of water. I think Lake Mead, for example, would be almost 50 feet higher if we were in the next-nearest drought, just to give you an idea. And Mead has dropped approximately 100 feet during this 10-year period.
JW: Can you clarify for people who might be in the Rockies that have seen snowfalls that are approaching average over the last few years, why the drought continues?
BU: Sure, and you’re right, I’m looking at a graph right now of precipitation over the last 10 years. And there were three years that were really bad at the beginning of the 2000s, 2001-2003. Almost all the years since then have been about average in terms of precipitation. But runoff has been significantly less. And we believe that these significantly high temperatures that we’ve been experiencing, especially over the last 10 years because of man’s emissions of greenhouse gases, have reduced the runoff in the river. What our research shows is a couple different things: We can develop relationships between temperature and runoff, and precipitation and runoff, and it appears that this system is very sensitive to increased temperatures. And as temperatures go up, and this is the reason for these predictions for 2050, even if you have the same amount of precipitation as we currently have for snow and rain, you get significantly less runoff as the American west heats up due to climate change.
JW: That’s fascinating. So to recap that, even though skiers have been having a heyday the last three winters, at least in the Colorado Rockies, it doesn’t translate to water runoff because the temperatures are much warmer throughout the year.
BU: That’s correct. And there’s another little piece to the puzzle here, brand new science — red snow that shows up in Colorado in the springtime these days. And it appears that all this dust, which is originating out of Arizona and Utah, is impacting runoff in very interesting ways. We think it might be leading to an average decrease of 5 percent runoff every year.
JW: And that’s because of the evaporation?
BU: Yes, the dust sits on top of the snow, and as the snow begins to melt in the springtime, the dust doesn’t sink down through the snow pack; it sits on top and absorbs more solar energy. Some of it evaporates, and because the snow melts sooner, the plants begin to use water sooner. So it’s a combination of two different forms of what scientists call evapo-transpiration, both evaporation and transpiration of water used by plants.
JW: Well, you both know a lot about the river, not only as scientists and researchers and through your careers, but Brad I know you were a boatman, and you both were kicking around in the basin for many years. I floated through Cataract Canyon and the Canyonlands National Park, Utah, for a few days again, and saw as many other people see, what seems to be an intact river mid-summer. From your experiences, is there any place where people can go to still see sections of the river, or even its tributaries that are relatively intact? Or is it really all a masquerade, are we looking at a river that’s a glimmer of its former self?
BU: I think when you ask that question, in some sense you lead us to the other tributaries that aren’t dammed and otherwise, because the dams obviously change the natural sequence of flow. And in the case of being in Cataract, there aren’t too many dams about you but there’s enough to change the flow. You’re still at the end of July, you probably are seeing some runoff from the snowpack, maybe not a lot. But rivers like the Dolores that only have one dam, might be a good place to see the river in its natural state, though I think some people would disagree with me, because that dam on the Dolores does change the hydrogravity pretty seriously.
BU: Yes, the Yampa has no dams on it. That’s a classic case, much better than the Dolores.
JW: So we have a few of those places left. Osvel, what is your favorite section of water in the Colorado River basin?
OH: I have to say, when you go in the upper basin, you feel it’s much more of a river than going into the lower basin or into the delta, and it’s fascinating to go there in the Dolores and Yampa and see the river behaving as a river. And as you walk down into the lower basin, I would say that the tributaries, it’s quite a good stretch. The Williams [is] quite a good patch. It’s below the Parker dam, and it’s used mostly for flood control, not for storage. So it still has pretty much a natural flow most of the year. So I would say in the lower basin the Williams River is the most natural stretch. But I have the say I enjoy parts in the Colorado Delta, like the Santa Clara. It’s very artificial in many ways; it’s basically maintained by agricultural return flows. But in the wetlands there, you feel the
JW: Tell me more — a lot of people who have seen that the river doesn’t flow through the delta have concluded that the delta is gone. So tell us more about the delta, and what’s alive there and why the Cienega [PDF] is a great hope.
OH: Yes, it’s a very interesting — there is no water flow in the river, but there are still very significant wetlands, and they are very important for wildlife. Every year in the winter, there are about 30,000 migratory water birds moving through the Colorado River in places like the Cienega, the Santa Clara, and the Rio Grande. And the funny thing is that these wetlands were basically maintained by agricultural return flows and seepage from canals. Just a small part of them are maintained by dedicated water, so that is one of the things that we’re trying to change. There are still about 60,000 to 80,000 acres of wetlands in the delta, mostly marshes and some shallow pools, and very important mudflats. But also there are still significant patches of cottonwood and willows, so again they don’t have this allocated water, but they still have very important environmental values.
JW: So to put that in context — I hear a large note of hope and logically a good reason for hope — how much of the delta is missing, compared to what we would have seen if we traveled there a century ago?
OH: Oh, probably about 80 percent is missing, and the remaining 20 percent is not the same quality as what it used to be. So yes, certainly it has been a very large loss. This area including the whole Mexicali valley, and you can extend that farther into Mexico, used to be the Colorado River delta. We’re talking about 500,000 acres of mixed wetlands, riparian forests, marshes, and into the estuary and upper Gulf of California, though now that has been mostly converted to agriculture. But there are still some patches in good shape.
JW: So are there sufficient resources being brought to bear on issues on the river, whether it’s habitat that you’re talking about Osvel, or even climate change issues, Brad?
BU: Good question, I think not in the realm of science. I think people would like to bring more resources to bear, there’s a $2 million dollar study underway that’s trying to look at future supply and demand on the system, and it’s a big enough system that $2 million isn’t nearly enough. By comparison, the Australians did a study on their effective analogue, the Murray-Darling basin, and they spent $10 million on that study to get the kind of information that we’re trying to get out of $2 million. I think there are a lot of people that are interested in this and a lot of concern about the future from many different perspectives, including water providers and users, but we haven’t figured out how to get the necessary resources directed at the river.
JW: On the eastern seaboard on this country, there’s a great deal of rain. There’s more than 40 inches of rainfall a year there, and in the west we have half that, and down where Osvel is, maybe 2 inches of rain a year. So I wonder if it’s not a complete misunderstanding of climate and the lack of water to begin with that people can’t bring for their resources to bear.
BU: It’s clearly partly that, Jon.
OH: I agree, there is not enough understanding, and I agree that there has not been enough resources to address the issue, from the science perspective, getting all the information that we need to make the best decisions, I don’t think we are there yet, and also for the policy work that is needed in order to bring together different perspectives in the basin, that needs a lot of resources and time and commitment from the different parties, and I don’t think we are there yet.
JW: Yeah, rather than the $2 million or $10 million that is being used in Australia, perhaps we need three times that much to begin a study so we can figure out where to begin. So that brings me to the question of how do we make people aware? Whether they’re users of the river here in the west, or whether they’re policy-makers in D.C. What can we do to call people’s attention to what I often think of as a potential train wreck?
BU: What it really takes is an extreme event. And I really hate to say this, but it’s true. It takes a [Hurricane] Katrina, or it takes an enormous drought. We may be getting close to that in terms of where Lake Mead is and where it’s headed. It’s 90 percent of the water supply for Las Vegas, and if Lake Mead drops another 25 feet the entity that runs the river, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, is going to have to implement shortages to some of the users in the lower basin, the first time ever that will occur. So I’m a firm believer in crisis as being a good driver in change and awareness.
JW: If it’s not too late, I guess.
BU: Yeah, if it’s not too late. There are a lot of people who are trying to do the educational component on this river, and there’s a subset of people who absolutely pay attention and know the risk, and then there are a whole bunch more of American people in the West who are totally oblivious to where their water comes from.
JW: Alright Osvel, your take on that crisis model?
OH: Well yes, crisis absolutely is a driver — and it’s already working. For the first time, Mexico perceived that there could be a shortage. Since 1944, with the International Water Treaty, the U.S. has always delivered the amount of water they have to deliver to Mexico. But now, in the future, there is this very real risk that the U.S. could deliver less water. So it has certainly called attention to officials in Mexico City, who now are more attentive to the situation and more willing to have a dialogue with U.S. counterparts and taking into consideration the point of view the managers, the water users from the Colorado Delta-Mexicali region.
JW: So our audience can understand restoring whole flows to the delta, could you talk about that briefly, how much money it would take and what it would take to see the type of restoration that could bring us back — not to a completely restored delta — but a delta that at least has some natural function left to it.
OH: Right, well that’s one of the bases of the restoration work we’re doing for the delta, not just the planting of native trees, but restoring flows. And that has two components: one is that the base flow, which we think does not need to be a large amount — we’re talking something between 16,000 to 18,00 acre feet a year, we’re still refining that number. And we’re considering that we can get that water from purchasing water
rights from the Mexicali valley. So that’s one of the ideas. The other component is a post-flow. So if we only have a base flow, the riparian system does not work as it should. It needs this flowing every certain amount of year, even if they are only for two or three months, but in a larger flow, maybe 700 cfs [cubic feet per second]. For that, that aspect needs to have international collaboration, because it needs release from the dams that go all the way to the delta. And that’s part of what’s happening now with international negotiations between the United States and Mexico, trying to figure out if we can make that happen.
In terms of how much it will require, in terms of the base flow, it’s a very good question because water prices are changing and we’re still not sure about the total amount of water. We’re talking about several million dollars, at least.
JW: And is that just Mexico’s share?
OH: Yes, and that’s for the base flow, and we’re thinking of getting the water from the Mexicali valley.
BU: If I can, let me just get that in context. 100,000 acre-feet is less than 1 percent of the annual flow of the river. It’s something that we should be able to figure out how to do. Many people north of the border think this is solely a Mexican problem — that they have their water down there and we have our water up here. I tend to look at it more inclusively and think that this is a joint problem between the two nations, and we should jointly figure out how to solve it. And some people will think this is blasphemous of me, but I think the U.S. should supply some of this water.
River water is sent east under the Rockies through 12 tunnels to the booming front range.
Jonathan Waterman Photo
JW: We talk about water grabs even from the headwaters that the U.S. has to deal with and the upper and lower basin have to deal with; we have performed a water grab essentially, on one of the most important features of the river. And I think as Brad says, it behooves us to look for a solution to bring water back to the delta.
BU: It’s really a tiny amount of water that is needed, and it seems to me through savvy water management, we could come up with this water.
JW: Well, if you guys could choose between limiting greenhouse gasses, curbing population growth in the basin, readdressing issues of allocation, or farm water — remanaging the use of agricultural water — which would you take as the most important cure for the water’s predicted demise?
BU: All of the above!
OH: Yes, all of the above absolutely. I don’t think we can solve the river issues picking just one issue. It’s really a function of different things. Certainly managing and looking differently at the management of agricultural water would probably yield results sooner, so I guess it’s like a first step you can go to and have more water available to work in a direction. But if you don’t tackle the issue of population in the basin and the over-allocation problem and the system-wide management and the issue of climate change, then we will be in the same spot in a few years. So I guess all of the above.
BU: It’s easy to tag climate change as the big boogeyman of the 21st century. If you do that, I think you overlook an enormous amount of stresses that the world and the American Southwest are facing. And I think you put your hand on all of them when you posed that question, and they’re all really important. This century is going to be unlike any other, and it’s not just climate change. Climate change is an additional stressor to all these other ones. And yes, there is a lot going on right now that we need to pay attention to.
JW: To wrap this up, can either of you make suggestion as to what readers at Grist.org can do in terms of their own daily lives for issues of water sustainability, whether it be in Oklahoma or Seattle or here in the drying southwest?
OH: Well, the first thing is to just get informed. Get informed about your water sources and your basin, and the environmental component of the water we use, and how it affects the environment in your basin and the issues. And probably there are organizations already working on those issues. So getting informed is certainly the first thing you need to do to participate better.
BU: I think that’s absolutely true. Too many people think that their water comes “out of the tap”, and the truth is that it comes out of a river somewhere, or a groundwater basin somewhere. Understanding the impacts of the local use on the source of water is pretty important. That falls under getting informed. On a very local sort of home-issue, over the last five years I’ve begun to keep track of the water usage in my house, just looking at the bill, and also my electricity use. And it’s really interesting to see what you can do in terms of conservation with just a little bit of effort, it doesn’t take much. My electrical use is down about 30 percent, just by doing savvy things around my house, and your water use can be pretty similar if you’re savvy about it. People frequently over-water outside, and they take long showers that they don’t need to, and there are tons of ways to save water.
JW: I do the same thing at my home, and I like to look toward water products. The food that I eat and where it comes from is overlooked by a huge portion of consumers, and the things we do as consumers of water; things like beef or cotton or all the dairy productions, all which come from the Colorado River Basin consume an enormous amount of water, whether it’s through giving this water to agriculture, or the water we’re using for alfalfa throughout the basin.
The 1,450-mile Colorado River is in bad shape. But there is a potential solution, at least in the Grand Canyon: regular floods. The Colorado River, "America's Nile," is over allocated, plagued by drought, and increasingly sought after by distant and expanding cities as if the river is an unending horn of plenty.
For instance, the Central Arizona Project in Phoenix annually diverts a tenth of the Colorado River more than 300 miles and claims, on its website, that the "river system will never 'dry up.'"
Whiskey, as they've long said in the West, is for drinking, but water is for fighting over, and now apparently, propagandizing. Pundits ranging from Steven Solomon to T. Boone Pickens insist that water will be the world's next oil. But carelessly spilling crude oil or fresh water has to be stopped.
In this video Jon Waterman discusses the Colorado River, as featured in his National Geographic book Running Dry.
Amid the conflicting demands of agriculture (using 78 percent of the Colorado River) and some of the fastest growing cities in the U.S. (Phoenix, Denver, Albuquerque, Las Vegas and L.A. depend upon this living resource), the river is neglected as a biologic wonder that carved out the Grand Canyon.
Yet even the 300-mile stretch of white water in the Grand Canyon is badly damaged. It looks stunning in photographs, but to any researcher who measures flow in cubic feet per second (cfs) or has taken the river's temperature, the Canyon's life blood is cancer-ridden.
Meanwhile, the pipe dream of monkey wrenchers everywhere is to blow up the Glen Canyon Dam above the Grand Canyon; the more progressive nonprofits periodically use legal tools in hopes of decommissioning the dam. But we all know that the dam won't come down anytime soon.
At present, the 710-foot-high Glen Canyon Dam squirts the river into the Grand Canyon with fluctuating flows through the hydroelectric turbines that create power, sold dearly during the daytime hours for untold thousands of air conditioners in distant Phoenix. These unnatural fluctuations destroy the beaches and backwaters vital to flora and fauna.
Then there's the clear and numbing reservoir water, taken from the super-cooled depths of Lake Powell. Even in triple-digit air temperatures those who fall out of their boats for 100 miles below the dam are more worried about hypothermia than drowning.
Holding on for your life during the day and then glimpsing eternity up in the star-lit skies provides refuge from the clamor and heat of urbanity.
As part of our national heritage, the protected Grand Canyon National Park is more valuable than all the gold in Fort Knox. But if one examines the cool rainbow trout swimming in the clear waters below the surface, the instability can be read as clearly as a plunging Wall Street ticker tape. The river was once defined by raging spring floods, then for months at a time, steady, albeit turbid flows. Now Reclamation, at the behest of Western Area Power, plays God by turning the tap up and down to sell electricity.
Science has shown that "fragmenting" the Colorado River with a dam above Grand Canyon has caused profound ecological damage. Native fish migration is blocked, the downstream water temperature has dropped more than 20 degrees, and one of the siltiest rivers of the world--blocked by dams--can no longer transport sediment to create the sand bar beaches and backwaters vital to flora and fauna.
Over night in March 1963, as Lake Powell began filling, Glen Canyon Dam refrigerated and cleared the Grand Canyon's river of sediment. This flipped on a floodlight into an ecosystem that spent the last five million years adapting to the dark.
Throughout the canyon, the lack of sediment, erractic flows, and cold water have compromised native plants, invertebrates, mammals, and fish. The native and warm-water fish of the Grand Canyon--humpbacked chubs, bonytail chubs, razorback suckers, and Colorado pike minnows--developed unique senses to survive in muddy waters and don't exist outside the Colorado River Basin. Now all four species are endangered, if not eliminated, by the effect of a large dam and the entrance of aggressive cold-water non natives: trout, bass, and carp.
To save the life blood of our grandest canyon, the dam must re-create regular floods. A scant three times over the last half century, Reclamation has acquiesced by allowing brief floods to restore habitat downstream.
But most researchers think of these infrequent dam bypasses as media ploys. Within months, the unnatural, hydroelectric-driven fluctuations--varying, for instance, from a daytime 4,000 cfs to a nighttime 12,000 cfs (enough water to fill an Olympic swimming pool in 7 seconds)--wash away the beach and backwater habitat newly created by Reclamation's token flood.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service and the U.S. Geological Surveyagree that steady flows, along with more frequent artificial floods, could be the solution. But it might cost up to U.S.$10 million to alter the flow of electricity. And most Colorado River Basin states are resigned to the status quo, afraid of losing their piece of water pie divvied out by the 1922 Colorado River Compact, or changing the old formula of water deliveries to the lower basin below the Grand Canyon.
Whenever the aforementioned federal agencies advocate a biologic opinion for steady flow restoration, contradicting the political opinion of another federal agency, Reclamation, then the various seven member states--prompted by Western Area Power--jam their thumbs into the dam tubes bypassing the turbines. Secretary of the Interior Salazar, aka "Colorado Water Master," is warned that he will jeopardize the complex Law of the River. And federal attorneys are now pulling overtime to stop the biologically oriented federal agencies from contradicting the politically oriented federal agency.
Other potential solutions exist. Scientists have proposed that restorative silt trapped in Lake Powell could be piped around the dam and into the Grand Canyon. And a temperature-control device could withdraw warmer reservoir water from the surface water above Glen Canyon Dam.
Lawsuits continue against the Bureau of Reclamation as erratic dam flows violate the Endangered Species and Grand Canyon Protection Acts. The bottom of the Earth's most celebrated natural feature is now a territorial showdown between science and politics.
There is no single panacea for restoring Colorado River habitat or conserving water throughout the basin. But in the Canyon, more artificial floods followed by steady flows will cost a pittance compared to the well engineered Glen Canyon Dam.
The choices are clear as the cold trout stream flowing beneath the dam: continue trashing the Grand Canyon, or modify the flows and electricity sales to save it.
This is the second of a series of Colorado River notes from Jonathan Waterman, author of Running Dry: A Journey from Source to Sea Down the Colorado River (National Geographic Books, May 2010). For more information on his Colorado River Project, visit Save the Colorado website.
Photograph: Pete McBride on the parched Colorado River delta, by Jonathan Waterman
During a recent discussion of water at the Aspen Institute's Environment Forum In Colorado, former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt told a packed house: "The American Southwest is not one of those regions where there is water scarcity. It's hard to believe, given all the hyping in the national and local and regional press."
The audience and his copanelists--Sandra Postel, director of the Global Water Policy Project and freshwater fellow for the National Geographic Society, and Pat Mulroy, general manager of Southern Nevada Water Authority (overseeing Las Vegas water)--were taken aback by these statements.
Throughout the Southwest, and particularly in a region that I know, the Colorado River Basin, the so called "water buffalos" (those who line their pockets with virtual water) commonly talk about this river as though it has not run dry. If only because the water continues to irrigate 2,000,000 acres of agriculture, run 336 miles into Phoenix and Tucson, 224 miles to Los Angeles, or under the Rockies toward Denver through no less than 12 tunnels. So water-related business certainly isn't scarce. That includes Kentucky Blue Grass lawns, water-consumptive cotton, and a mega dairyshed of cows eating Colorado River grown hay to produce countless gallons of milk.
Since my well pumps water out of the headwaters of this river, and my children will inherit whatever water remains, I have spent the last three years investigating the river's shrinking pains. Supported by the National Geographic Expedition Council and New Belgium Brewing (which relies on Colorado River water to make beer), I paddled the 1,450-mile river from source to sea. After that five-month journey, I have been interviewing officials, visiting dams, and repeatedly flying over the river and its many diversions in small planes. My goal is to better understand what the U.S. Secretary of Energy, Dr. Stephen Chu, described as a crisis in the West that will match the rising of oceans on the coasts. (Read more about Jonathan Waterman.)
During my investigative journey in the headwaters, a rancher who believes (like many other Coloradoans) that he owns the river, tried to have me arrested for trespassing in my tiny raft. That section of the river in fact is sometimes drained to steam size by diversions to distant Denver.
In the Grand Canyon, I accompanied researchers who showed me how Glen Canyon Dam's trapping of sediment and chilling of the river have vastly altered the ecosystem throughout our most scenic national park. Four native fish there are endangered.
In Las Vegas I interviewed Mulroy and saw the largest reservoir in the nation, Lake Mead, sunken to an alarming low tide. So low, in fact, that the Southern Nevada Water Authority is drilling a pipeline under the lake so that it can continue to take its share until the river-fed reservoir runs dry.
I saw a river being both depleted and salted thick by farms (78 percent of the river goes to agriculture). Few farmers are implementing sustainable water irrigation or crops more suited to the desert. At the Aspen conference, Postel described conservation measures as a silver lining: "There's so much more that can be done with existing water."
As I continued south on my run of the Colorado, I met citizens suing the Bureau of Reclamation for water polluted by e-coli and fertilizers, the Kwapa (or People of the River) Native Americans who have been disenfranchised by the lack of water, and an invasive and toxic plant called giant cane (arundo donax) that is growing over and literally consuming the last 200 miles of river-cum-farm ditch.
Fifty miles from the sea, 1.5 miles south of the Mexican border, I saw a river evaporate into a scum of phosphates and discarded water bottles. This dirty water sent me home with feet so badly infected that I couldn't walk for a week. And a delta once renowned for its wildlife and wetlands is now all but part of the surrounding and parched Sonoran Desert. According to Mexican scientists whom I met with, the river has not flowed to the sea since 1998. If the Endangered Species Act had any teeth in Mexico, we might have a chance to save the giant sea bass (totoaba), clams, the Sea of Cortez shrimp fishery that depends upon freshwater returns, and dozens of bird species.
So let this stand as an open invitation to the former Secretary of the Interior and all water buffalos who insist upon telling us that there is no scarcity of water here or in the Mexican Delta. Leave the sprinklered green lawns outside the Aspen conferences, come with me, and I'll show you a Colorado River running dry from its headwaters to the sea. It is polluted and compromised by industry and agriculture. It is overallocated, drought stricken, and soon to suffer greatly from population growth. If other leaders in our administration continue the whitewash, the scarcity of knowledge and lack of conservation measures will cripple a western civilization built upon water. "You can either do it in crisis mode," Pat Mulroy said at this conference, "or you can start educating now."