The American West: Running Dry

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The Hoover Dam sits on the Nevada and Arizona state boarders and separates Lake Mead as it flows south into the Colorado River.  The huge hydroelectric turbines generate 4 billion kilowatts of power a year and supplies power to Las Vegas to Los Angeles.  (© Jeremy Gehler 2014)

The Hoover Dam sits on the Nevada and Arizona state borders and separates Lake Mead as it flows south into the Colorado River. The huge hydroelectric turbines generate 4 billion kilowatts of power a year and supplies power to Las Vegas to Los Angeles. (© Jeremy Gehler 2014)

The American West stretches toward the Pacific Ocean with rugged terrain and harsh climates.  States in this region can have a variety of climates throughout, from pine forests and hills, to flat, dry desert.  The landscape of the Southwest gives us some of the deepest looks into the area’s past by literally exposing the layers of decay our planet has undergone in it’s long lifetime.  Changes in climate pose a threat to the water supplies that feed states like Nevada, Arizona, and California from the Colorado River and could even put an end to the use of Hoover Dam.  Comparing what historic southwestern landmarks look like in person today to how they are seen in movies reveals a different picture, but one that demands respect.

The Hoover Dam project started in 1920 and was completed in 1935. Standing 726 feet above the Colorado River the popular tourist attraction is responsible for supplying electricity to Arizona, Nevada, and California.  However, if the area doesn’t see an increase in rainfall in years to come the dam may not be able to produce enough power to meet energy demands.

The Hoover Dam has seen many changes in its 79 years of life.  Lake Mead, which supplies the immense volume of water that the dam impounds, has dropped over 100 feet in water level since the dam opened.  (© Jeremy Gehler 2014)

The Hoover Dam has seen many changes since it was built 79 years ago. Lake Mead, which supplies the immense volume of water that the dam impounds, has dropped over 100 feet in water level since the dam opened. (© Jeremy Gehler 2014)

Water displaced by Hoover Dam created Lake Mead, the largest man-made lake in the world.  But Lake Mead’s water level has dropped more than 100 feet from a record high in 2010 and is effecting plant and animal life in the surrounding areas.

Following the Colorado River heading further into Arizona lies one of the most amazing examples of nature’s force: the Grand Canyon.  For millions of years wind and water have chipped away at the rocky landscape, sculpting the two-mile deep canyon and exposing the history of the Grand Canyon.  The walls of the canyon are comprised of many layers of rock that have formed under the pressure of water flow and compression. Because of the record low levels, rock samples from the bottom layers are revealed, which are more dense and smooth than samples found at higher levels.

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Grand Canyon visitors gaze upon the jagged edge walls that the powerful Colorado River has carved over the last several million years. The bottom layers of the canyon date up to 1,200 million years old and stretch up at least a mile where the rock is around 270 million years old. (© Jeremy Gehler 2014)

The Colorado River has seen the same drop in water level in the Grand Canyon as has occurred at Hoover Dam.  In fact some areas of the river that are popular with recreational boating have been closed.  The Hualapai tribe, natives to the Grand Canyon, are facing changes to their way of life due to lack of rainfall and are depending on tourism to fund their tribe of around 2,400 members.  Attractions like helicopter tours and the Skywalk located at the west rim of the Canyon benefits the tribe.  At Skywalk, visitors walk out over the canyon on a glass platform that allows you to look straight down 4,000 feet to the canyon floor below.

 

Eagle Rock appears to soar up towards the top of the Grand Canyon west and is on the Hualapai tribe reservation.  Hualapai means, "People of the pines" and the reservation reaches across 108 miles of the Grand Canyon.  The Hualapai believe they were created in the Canyon and respect it as sacred ground while hosting over 4 million tourists per year.  (© Jeremy Gehler 2014)

Eagle Rock appears to soar up towards the top of the Grand Canyon west and is on the Hualapai tribe reservation. Hualapai means, “People of the pines” and the reservation reaches across 108 miles of the Grand Canyon. The Hualapai believe they were created in the Canyon and respect it as sacred ground while hosting over 4 million tourists per year. (© Jeremy Gehler 2014)

The Grand Canyon has virtually no rails or guards protecting visitors from slipping off the edge.  Over 685 deaths have been recorded but not all are fall related.  Heat stroke, drowning, and a few suicide jumps make up a majority of the death toll, and the most of those that have fallen in were men being unsafe.  (© Jeremy Gehler 2014)

The Grand Canyon has virtually no rails or guards protecting visitors from slipping off the edge. Over 685 deaths have been recorded but not all are fall related. Heat stroke, drowning, and a few suicide jumps make up a majority of the death toll, and the most of those that have fallen in were men being unsafe. (© Jeremy Gehler 2014)

When comparing July totals, Arizona’s annual rainfall was down 3 inches from 2013 and isn’t providing enough accumulation to replenish the water supply sources in the southwest. Now more than ever we need to continue studying how we consume precious resources and how we can preserve and replenish these key elements to ensure survival.