Lower San Juan – Piute Farms Waterfall

Lower San Juan Piute Farms Waterfall, An Example of Superimposition Courtesy & Copyright Mark McKinstry, Photographer
Piute Farms Waterfall on the San Juan River, An Example of Superimposition
Courtesy & Copyright Mark McKinstry, Photographer

Piute Farms waterfall is a 25-ft high cascade that has formed along the San Juan River and spans its entire width. The location is a remote spot in an upstream arm of Lake Powell reservoir.

To reach the falls it takes a rough two-hour drive from Mexican Hat, or a 100-mile-boat ride from Bullfrog Marina in Lake Powell.

It formed when the tributary re-routed itself, cut through a thick layer of sediment, and began flowing over a bedrock cliff.

Scientists call this phenomenon superimposition.

Jack Schmidt, Janet Quinney Lawson Chair of Colorado River Studies in the Quinney College of Natural Resources at USU explains, “When reservoirs are created by the construction of dams, the sediment load of inflowing rivers is deposited in the most upstream part of the reservoir. In Lake Powell…the deposits in the…San Juan arm of the reservoir are as much as 80ft thick.”

“[If} reservoirs…drop…the inflowing rivers erode into the accumulated sediment. There is no guarantee the location of the new channel will be in the same place as…the original channel.”

The San Juan River’s original route was buried under the thick layer of sediment. The river’s response was to form a new channel one mile south of the original route and over the ridge.

Schmidt continues, “A [similar] thing…happened in Lake Mead reservoir where an unrunnable rapid formed near Pearce Ferry where the new Colorado River flows over a lip… [of] consolidated sediment. Although not a vertical waterfall, Pearce Ferry Rapid is sometimes more dangerous to boating than any rapid in the Grand Canyon!”

With future droughts, we can expect reservoirs to be at low levels for extended periods, and superimposition will continue to occur forming additional waterfalls and obstructions. Managers monitor the positive and negative effects of these changes.

One impact of the Piute Farms waterfall is a novel subpopulation of endangered razorback suckers which are now blocked from swimming upstream to spawn.

Endangered Razerbck Sucker Captured near Piute Farms Waterfall Courtesy & Copyright Mark McKinstry, Photographer
Endangered Razerbck Sucker
Captured near Piute Farms Waterfall
Courtesy & Copyright Mark McKinstry, Photographer

Zach Ahrens, Native Aquatics Biologist at Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and graduate student at USU says, “The razorback and other native fishes in the Colorado River basin have evolved over millions of years to play their roles in spite of the extremes of temperature and flow in their riverine environment. Given the uncertainty of future climate and water resources…it’s important to do what we can to ensure their continued survival.”

Before the waterfall formed, managers were not sure what percentage of razorback suckers travelled this far upstream.

Endangered Razerbck Sucker Captured near Piute Farms Waterfall Courtesy & Copyright Mark McKinstry, Photographer
Endangered Razerbck Sucker
Captured near Piute Farms Waterfall
Courtesy & Copyright Mark McKinstry, Photographer

Mark McKinstry, Biological Scientist from the Bureau of Reclamation, explains, “It took perseverance, technology, and dedication of a lot of different folks to find where…the Razorbacks are and understand the fish’s life history strategy.”

Peter MacKinnon with the Quinney College of Natural Resources at Utah State University and Biomark Inc. provided the technical expertise to set up a method to insert Razorback suckers with pit tags (similar to those used in cats and dogs) then track them with antennas placed below the falls.

With this tracking method, managers and researchers identified more than 1000 razorback suckers below the falls, apparently trying to ascend the waterfall. Approximately 2000-4000 suckers live in the San Juan River. It is estimated about 25% of the razorbacks are unable to spawn – because the waterfall blocks fish passage. This could influence the population of the endangered fish.

The Bureau of Reclamation consulted with experts on how to help razorback suckers get past the waterfall so they can move upstream and spawn. The most feasible suggestion seems to be, to build a naturalized fish passage around the side of the waterfall. Managers and volunteers would build a trap location on the upstream side of the passage where fish moving upstream could be captured; volunteers could then release the captured razorbacks and other native fish upstream where they choose to spawn.

Phaedra Budy, professor in the Watershed Sciences Department and Unit Leader for U.S. Geological Survey Cooperative Fish & Wildlife Research Unit said, “The Razorback sucker has intrinsic value to the San Juan River and beyond, is a critical member of the ecosystem, and deserves every effort for recovery.”

Managers and researchers hope their information gained and recovery efforts will give the endangered razorback suckers an increased chance for survival in its changing environment.

This is Shauna Leavitt and I’m Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Photos: Courtesy & Copyright © Mark McKinstry
Audio: Courtesy Western Soundscape Archive, University of Utah, Sound provided by The National Park Service, licensed under CCA-ND
Text: Shauna Leavitt, USGS Utah Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, Quinney College of Natural Resources, Utah State University

Sources & Additional Reading

Waterfall Still Blocks San Juan River, River Runners for Wilderness(RRFW), https://rrfw.org/riverwire/waterfall-still-blocks-san-juan-river

https://www.americansouthwest.net/utah/monument_valley/piute_farms.html

Razorback Sucker(Page 68), Utah’s Endandengered Fish, 2018 Utah Fishing Guidebook, Utah Division of Wildlife Services, https://wildlife.utah.gov/guidebooks/2018_pdfs/2018_fishing.pdf

Fish Ecology Lab, Utah State University, 
https://www.usu.edu/fel/

The River

The River: River Rapids Per Josh Boling See: https://pixabay.com/photos/river-rapids-gulch-water-stream-1209025/
River Rapids
Per Josh Boling
See:
https://pixabay.com/photos/river-rapids-gulch-water-stream-1209025/
“There isn’t a mathematical formula to describe how water moves here. It’s just impossible to predict,” he told me. I was visiting Utah State University’s Water Research Lab; and a grad student had just unleashed an impressive torrent of water into a 4-foot-square, 20-foot long, hollow plexiglass column for my viewing pleasure. He was trying to demonstrate for me the physics of the Venturi Effect. The Venturi Effect in hydrology is the reduction of water pressure after water is forced through a constriction. There’s a formula for it. Likewise, there is a formula for the increase in water’s velocity upon entering said constriction according to the principle of mass continuity—which basically states that, because water is incompressible, it inevitably moves faster as it’s continually forced through tight spaces. I understood all that, but I was more interested in the frothy madness happening in the middle of the column—the wild torrent threatening the bolts and seals of the plexiglass; the phenomenon, I was told, for which there is no formula, no predictability.

There were three of us in the boat, friends who had met guiding rivers back east nearly a decade before. We had brought an 11-foot bucket-raft against one of the gnarlier western rivers at high spring runoff—a dinghy taking on a white whale. You can always hear the whitewater before you finally see it, especially the big rapids. We had come upon it faster than anticipated. Limestone outcroppings constricted the river into a bottleneck here where it makes a dog-leg to the left; and, at 20,000 cubic-feet-per-second, the river curls back onto itself at the crest of a frothing wave. There is no formula for it; no predictability. “What do I do?” the one in back steering shouted at me. “I don’t know!” I shouted back. We tilted down into the trough of the wave.

A river is never the same twice. Fluvial geomorphology says so. Fluvial geomorphology is the study of the ways in which a river moves, changes, and interacts with its channel and the landscape around it. People who study this sort of thing talk about the character of a river and how it changes with the smallest variability. A misplaced cobble of the riverbed causes a riffle where there once wasn’t one previously; an eddy develops, changes directional flow; the river is never the same again. I have always been fascinated by this. The fluid mechanics at work in a river must be respected and understood, even if they can’t always be predicted.

We rode the wave to its frothy crest where we were thrown like rag dolls, luckily, to the center of the boat rather than overboard. At the apex of the wave, we were stuck like glue to the water as it boiled in all directions—inward, outward, upstream, and back down. “Paddle hard!” one of us shouted as we scrambled back into position, jamming our paddles into the teeth of the wave. We spun this way and that and almost back down the wave before the river released us. We shouted in triumph for the sheer thrill of experience, and because we had all managed to stay in the boat. Something I wouldn’t have predicted.

If you could freeze time and analyze the cross-sections of a whitewater wave, you might come up with a formula to explain water’s frozen movements; but the formula would never be the same twice. The river says so.

I’m Josh Boling, and I’m Wild About Utah!

Credits:
Image: Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling
Sound: Courtesy Friend Weller, Utah Public Radio
Text: Josh Boling, 2019, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Sources & Additional Reading

Utah Water Research Laboratory, Utah State University, https://uwrl.usu.edu/

The Bear River Range and River

Bear River Courtesy USDA Forest Service usda-forest_service_bear_river-250x188
Bear River
Courtesy USDA Forest Service
usda-forest_service_bear_river-250×188
Cache Valley Utah and the Bear River range that border its eastern edge are anomalies. Especially considering the abundance of water coursing through its canyons and valley bottom. Following a prolonged drought in the Salt Lake Valley in the 1850’s, it was the abundant wetland plants in cache valley’s center that first enticed Mormon pioneers to settle here. Fed by numerous streams discharging from the Bear River range and the mighty Bear River, these waters were trapped by the fine sediments of Lake Bonneville. The result was lush green forage, even in dry years. The native tribes and mountain men knew it well, and followed the wildlife which flourished here long before the arrival of pioneers.

I’ve quenched my thirst from the countless springs found in our eastern canyons and basins, always a reminder of our good fortune. One might ask, what set of circumstances allow Cache Valley to be so well watered? What follows are my hypotheses. A combination of geology, and climate.

The Bear River range, a subset of the Wasatch, is close to 20 miles wide, and averages well over 8,000 feet in elevation, topping just shy of 10,000 feet at Naomi Peak. Its height and width allow it to capture an abundant snowpack in normal years. The regional climate may be partially responsible as well. Extreme cold temperatures compared to surrounding mountains, the second coldest measured in the 48 states, atop Logan Canyon, enhance precipitation.

Geologically this mountain range is composed primarily of limestone and dolostone, both are excellent formations for absorbing water, which reappears as springs forming the headwaters of its numerous streams. As snow melts, water seeps through the broken limestone, referred to as Karst topography, until it hits an impervious layer of shale or mudstone, where it collects and eventually punches through a fractured seam of rock, to surface as a spring.

All are tributaries of the Bear River, plummeting from the north slope of the Uintah’s, a unique river system with its headwaters and mouth close to the same latitude. It provides nearly 2/3rds of the service water flowing into the Great Salt Lake. This is the longest river in North America which doesn’t end up in an ocean. With a changing climate proposed, further impoundment and diversions of these waters, the future of our unique hydrology is under constant threat. I wish us great wisdom in how we chose to manage this vital resource.

This Is Jack Green, and Yes, I’m wild about Utah.

Credits:

Pictures: Bear River Courtesy USDA Forest Service
Sound: Courtesy Kevin Colver
Text: Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading:

Lopez, Tom, Bear River Range, IDAHO: A Climbing Guide, https://www.idahoaclimbingguide.com/bookupdates/bear-river-range/

The Bear River’s History and Contributions

The Bear River's History and Contributions: Bear River Basin Courtesy Utah Division of Water Rights bear.river_.basis_.waterrights.utah_.gov_.250x354.jpg
Bear River Basin
Courtesy Utah Division of Water Rights
bear.river_.basis_.waterrights.utah_.gov_.250×354.jpg
The Bear River meanders almost 500 miles from its headwaters in Utah’s Uinta Mountains to its mouth at the Great Salt Lake, making it the longest river in North America which does not empty into an ocean. Instead, the Bear River serves as the main source of fresh water for the Great Salt Lake, a vast terminal lake in the Great Basin with no outlet except evaporation. This hasn’t always been the case, though. The Bear River once flowed north, serving as a tributary of the Snake River, and ultimately reached the Pacific Ocean via the Columbia River. That is until about 140,000 years ago when the earth erupted in present-day southeast Idaho and spilled lava across the Bear River’s path.

The Bear River's History and Contributions: Canoeing on the Bear River, Cutler Reservoir Courtesy & Copyright Bryan Dixon, Photographer
Canoeing on the Bear River, Cutler Reservoir
Courtesy & Copyright Bryan Dixon, Photographer
Now obstructed by expansive lava fields hardening into immense walls of basalt rock, the Bear dog-legged to the south and became—for the first time—a source of fresh water for the ancient inland sea that would eventually become the Great Salt Lake. The river was tenacious, though, and spent its time not only feeding fresh water to ancestors of the Great Salt Lake but also chiseling away at the basalt columns that obstructed its way toward the sea. The river was finally rewarded for its efforts millennia after having been cut off from the Snake and Columbia River Basins, and once again became a tributary of the Snake River. This fate would not last, however. Roughly 35,000 years ago, violent geology would have its way again. More lava flows around present-day Soda Springs, Idaho, bent the Bear River back toward the Great Basin where it still empties today.

The Bear River's History and Contributions: the Bear River between Benson and Cutler reservoir in Cache Valley. Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling, Photographer
the Bear River between Benson and Cutler reservoir in Cache Valley.
Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling, Photographer

the Bear River between Benson and Cutler reservoir in Cache Valley. Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling, Photographer
the Bear River between Benson and Cutler reservoir in Cache Valley.
Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling, Photographer
And this has been a boon for the millions of residents—Homo sapiens and otherwise—of the Wasatch Front here in Utah. Let’s consider for a moment what life in central and northern Utah would be like if not for the Bear River. For starters, the Great Salt Lake would lose 60% of its annual inflow, drastically reducing its volume. I wonder if Brigham Young and his Saints would have even considered settling in the Salt Lake Valley after enduring the many lake-bed-dust storms courtesy of the Great Salt Lake that are becoming a growing concern today. We would certainly be deprived of the world-class migratory bird and wetland habitat supported by the Bear River at the famous Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. Last fall, Ogden’s Standard Examiner newspaper reported that, quote, “the river had disappeared into a vast mudflat that used to be Bear River Bay.” Experts cited irrigation, municipal, and habitat uses in addition to a host of environmental and climate factors as causes of the Bear River becoming “tapped out” before it reached the Great Salt Lake. A snowpack that has doubled last year’s total according to the Salt Lake Tribune has the Bear River Basin’s snowpack brimming at nearly 300% its average this time of year. This promises to turn things around for the Bear River and the many species which depend upon it.

A complex and interdependent collection of variables impact the Bear River and its hydrologic fate—not least of which are humans, ecology, climate, and the occasional volcanic eruption.

I’m Josh Boling, and I’m Wild About Utah!

Credits:
Images:
    Bear River Diagram Courtesy Utah Division of Water Rights
    Courtesy & Copyright Bryan Dixon
    Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling
Sound:
Text: Josh Boling, 2019, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Sources & Additional Reading

Greene, Jack, The Bear River, Wild About Utah, May 24, 2018, https://wildaboututah.org/bear-river/

Beck, Russ, America’s Caveat River, Wild About Utah, Nov 16, 2016, https://wildaboututah.org/americas-caveat-river/