The first time I rolled into Moab it was a dark night. I saw nothing. I was an 18 year old avoiding college and I spent the evening as one would assume. And, despite that, I still woke up early, even before dawn.
It was a short drive to the trailhead in the early darkness. My host told me to be careful because I could walk off a cliff. In the blackness I negotiated some steep rocks and lay down next to flowing water that reflected the almost indiscernible beginnings of a sunrise.
As light filled the sky I made out the imposing shapes of the cliffs, but, I didn’t know what they were. They seemed impossibly tall. The sun then came on fast and all the texture of the rocks, plants, and a world, impossible to imagine, filled out in less than twenty minutes. I was beyond awed. For the next 17 years Mill Creek Canyon has served as a ballast and inspiration for my life and work.
The canyons, millions of years in the making, are forked, with a northern spring fed arm and a southern fork descending directly from the peaks of the La Sals. These canyons, along with the more southerly Pack Creek drainage, define the Moab Valley watershed.
From pre-history up until the uranium boom, ranching and farming dominated as Moab’s primary livelihood. Throughout Moab’s agricultural heyday water was routed and diverted using traditional means. The Manifest Destiny style tactics of the Bureau of Reclamation hadn’t yet taken hold. It wasn’t until the early 1980s that a large reservoir project became reality.
Ken’s Lake (namesake of then president of the water conservancy district, Ken McDougald) was one part of a proposed larger project. The other parts being a dam just below the Mill Creek confluence (which would have flooded 1.5 miles of both arms), and the concrete channelization of Mill Creek. Luckily the latter two were abandoned.
Mill Creek flows mostly through federal land managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). In order to construct the Sheley Diversion, a tunnel mined through solid rock leading from Mill Creek to the reservoir, the water district would need a right of way from the BLM. This triggered an environmental assessment and the consultation of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR).
A point of contention arose between the water district and the DWR concerning how much water would be left in Mill Creek to maintain riparian and aquatic life. The DWR asserted a professional opinion that 3.2 cfs was necessary as a minimum “survival flow”. The water district wanted to leave only 2.1 cfs, the minimum ever recorded flow. A deal was struck at 3 cfs. It is worth noting that the average flow at the diversion point at the time was over 11 cfs. The new diversion would dewater Mill Creek by roughly 75 percent.
Fast forward 33 years. It’s 2013, and we’re in the 15th year of a drought with the current year breaking historical records for low water all over the upper Colorado River Basin. Climate change has shifted from a sketchy conspiracy theory to an unavoidably harsh reality. Ken’s Lake is a puddle. In a letter to the Grand County Council the water district acknowledges climate change, and indicates that we will have to “adapt”. How do they propose to adapt? By taking more water out of the creek.
The water district proposes to renegotiate their agreement with the BLM by taking the creek down to 1.5 cfs (below its lowest recorded natural flows, and well below the DWR’s survival flow) for a third of the year. Remember, this arm of Mill Creek has already been dewatered by 75 percent since the early 80s. This type of adaptation is like taking a swan dive into an empty pool. Of course, it’s not adaptation, it’s business as usual; it’s Manifest Destiny, and it’s beautiful until you hit the concrete.
The water district, to its credit, has instituted several conservation tactics. It has also taken a step back to reevaluate the initial proposal. It is my hope that water conservation, improved irrigation equipment and techniques, and a more balanced, community oriented view will prevail.
Mill Creek is not some podunk backwater that nobody cares about. Nor is it simply a water source for growing hay. These canyons have been very meaningful to people for thousands of years as lush riparian oases in a sea of twisted sandstone. Mill Creek is likely one of the most treasured desert riparian zones in the collective ownership of the citizens of the United States. I hope that the BLM understands this and maintains the protection it deserves.