Hey, what's that Sound? Is it the "Perfect Flood"?
Watch the Video, "Potash Road, Moab, Utah"
On the west bank, Potash Road skirts the Moab Pile, which occupies most of the floodplain along the outside radius of the river bend. When we stopped downstream of the pile and looked across, we saw charred evidence of the October 22, 2008 Matheson Wetlands fire. The high water table there has encouraged new growth in that unique and vital wetland habitat, but years will pass before nature erases the scar.
The Matheson Wetlands occupy a floodplain along the inside radius of this unique Colorado River bend. Its uniqueness as a riparian environment stems from the lack of canyon walls on either side of the bend. From the east, Spanish Valley descends gradually, until it meets the wetlands within the ancient flood plain. Despite a setback from the fire, The Nature Conservancy's ecologists are midway through a plan to bring back a natural flow of water throughout the Matheson Wetlands.
Water use planning in the Four Corner states, Nevada and Southern California depends on the stability and ultimate removal of the radioactive landfill, known as the Moab Pile. The fragile position of the Moab Pile is what most concerns downstream water planners in Phoenix, Las Vegas and Los Angeles. They know that documented paleofloods of enormous size periodically scour the flood plain of the Colorado in that location. At least two megafloods occurred in the past several thousand years. In such a flood, the broken megaliths that line the canyon upstream of the pile could be set loose, battering the vulnerable pile and washing it into the Colorado River channel. If it happened that recently, it could happen again.
In a “Perfect Flood” scenario, there would be heavy snowfall during a cold winter in the Colorado Plateau watershed. With an entire winter’s snowpack still in place, dust storms of enormous size could arise from the over-grazed Navajo Indian Reservation, to the South. Contemporary dust storms create weather vortices that are orders of magnitude larger than the largest firestorms. As the storms move across Southeastern Utah, land long overgrazed by ranchers and more recently overrun by off-road vehicles ads to the problem. If a series of such storms carried sufficient airborne soil, followed by rain, a blanket of dust could melt the Colorado Plateau snowpack in short order. At its peak, the subsequent flood could engulf the Moab Pile and wash its toxic and radioactive material downstream towards Lake Powell.
Currently, there is an active effort to relocate the Moab Pile to the new Moab Mountain, location at Crescent Junction, Utah. According to current Department of Energy (DOE) estimates, the removal project will take until 2022-2025. Depending on materials and conditions found in the core of the pile, those estimates are subject to change. As of this writing, the most optimistic estimates are for a thirteen-year project. Meanwhile, engineers and planners have done little to protect the pile from the potential of a Perfect Flood, as described above. The only observable difference at the site is the widening of a dry watercourse adjacent to the upstream side of the pile. The widening and deepening of that arroyo is all that stands between the river and the safety of the Lower Colorado Basin water supply and its seventeen million users.
If a Perfect Flood were to hit the pile before its complete removal, life in the West would never be the same. Communities and individuals whose water sources are upstream of the pile would be safe. Those living downstream of the potential washout could find Colorado River water unfit for home, industrial or agricultural consumption. If our water supply experienced a dramatic spike in chemicals, heavy metals and radioactive waste, we would immediately seek a different water source.
If seventeen million residents had to find new water supplies or perish, the Southwestern U.S. would face depopulation far greater than the Anasazi Disappearance, around 1200 CE. Financially, the Perfect Flood would make the estimated $150 billion cost of Hurricane Katrina look diminutive, by comparison. From Moab, Utah, to its dry and neglected delta, at the Sea of Cortez, Mexico, the Colorado River would become a river of death.
Email James McGillis
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