Soils in the La Sal Mountains near Moab, like other alpine areas across western United States, were already parched going into last winter’s below-average snow season. And when the spring thaw arrived, dry conditions led to reduced runoff and increased fire danger.
It’s a pattern climate scientists have long predicted will intensify in the region as carbon dioxide concentrations rise in the atmosphere, and some of its consequences played out on a localized scale last week as firefighters worked to contain the 9,000-acre Pack Creek Fire by tapping already-strained water resources to battle the blaze.
The right fork of Mill Creek, a popular hiking and swimming area just outside of Moab, ran dry for nearly three days last week after water managers diverted most of its flow to a reservoir, ostensibly to help fight the fire. Fish huddled in shallow pools before dying of exposure or were strewn along the river rocks with nowhere to go. Beaver dams and lodges were left dry and exposed.
“It was totally heartbreaking,” said Sara Melnicoff, executive director of Moab Solutions, a group that has conducted cleanup and ecological restoration work in the Mill Creek drainage for 18 years. “The disappointment and pain of thinking about the fish suffering in the heat, just dying.”
The creek is relied upon for irrigation water and feeds Ken’s Lake, a reservoir in northern San Juan County, where helicopters have been filling buckets to help fight the fire, which was 73% contained as of Friday.
The Bureau of Land Management authorized the Grand Water and Sewer Service Agency, which manages diversions to Ken’s Lake, to “temporarily drawdown Mill Creek to just below three cubic feet per second on Thursday, June 10 to support Pack Creek Fire suppression and public safety,” according to Rachel Wootton, the BLM Canyon County District’s public affairs specialist.
The Pack Creek Fire started from an unattended campfire on June 9 and destroyed several structures in Pack Creek Ranch, including the personal archive of well-known environmental activist Ken Sleight.
But the water agency appears to have failed to follow the BLM’s minimum flow guidelines. The U.S. Geological Survey’s Mill Creek gage shows that flows dropped to 0.86 cubic feet per second on the afternoon of June 12, causing the creek’s surface water to dry up completely.
“When the BLM Moab Field Office was made aware that the water levels were below three cubic feet per second,” Wootton said, “local leaders contacted the Grand Water and Sewer Service Agency. Since that time, the Grand Water and Sewer Service Agency has reestablished the water flow in Mill Creek to at least three cubic feet per second.”
Grand Water and Sewer Service Agency did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.
“Obviously, some streams, and a lot of them in the West, are ephemeral,” said Mary O’Brien, a Grand County-based botanist. “But [Mill Creek] is one where you always have year-round flow, so critters that depend on that are there.
“There’s so much going on in a stream,” she continued, “with macro-invertebrates and, of course, fish — a whole slew of aquatic organisms. It’s just so dramatic to have it dry up.”
Liz Thomas, a longtime Moab resident and civic activist, calculated that 4.6 million gallons of water were diverted to Ken’s Lake before minimum flows were restored in the creek, enough to fill thousands of helicopter buckets.
Thomas said the firefighting needs could have been met if the water agency had followed the BLM’s recommendations for a slightly reduced flow that would have kept the stream from drying up. There were five helicopters fighting the fire on June 12, and they were drawing water from multiple sources.
“I definitely support using whatever [water] it takes to control the wildfire,” she said, “... and if there’s a choice between fish and human life, fine,” she said. “But that wasn’t the choice.”
It’s not clear what lasting impacts the diversion will have on Mill Creek beyond the fish kill, but Melnicoff sees connections between the early fire season, climate change and the need to protect ecological health.
“There’s a lot of thought that public lands will sort of be a buffer against the worst impacts of the heating planet,” she said. “We need to try and keep the natural world as healthy as possible.”
Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.