Category Archives: Water

The Upper Peninsula

Recently we visited Michigan.

Grand Marais and Lake Superior

Michigan is two realms, downstate and the U.P. as the locals call it, where we visited.  They call themselves yuppers, for U.P., the Upper Peninsula.  It’s the North Country, well north of Toronto, heavily wooded and bordered by Lake Michigan and Lake Superior.  My wife has an old friend who is from Grand Marais, a tiny town on the south shore of Lake Superior. It is 40 miles to the nearest supermarket or hospital.

Patty grew up there, and like most natives, had to leave to make a living.  After a career, she went back home.  I can understand why.  The U.P. is a magical place, and Grand Marais, with its 400 people, is one source of the magic.  The land, the lake, the history, and the yuppers combine to make a spot unlike any other.

Historically a fishing and logging town, it is now a retirement and tourist community.  The campground, with its tents and RV’s, has as many people in summer as the rest of town.  There is a K-12 school with 28 students, a few stores, restaurants, and motels; small houses with no fences, some new houses seeming out of place, and that’s about it.

The people talk funny.  Lots of Finns and Swedes settled there, and that Nordic accent prevails.  No one says yes, it’s yah.  The word the becomes da, and the vowels are round.  They are friendly, open, welcoming people with no pretensions.  I fell in love with them.

The land is second growth timber, still supporting a logging industry.  The trees are a mix of hardwoods and conifers.  The larger trees are about 24-30 inches in diameter.  Walk into the woods, and there are old stumps around four feet across.

The Old Coast Guard Station, now the National Lakeshore Ranger Station

 

 

 

We did some wandering at the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, just west of town.  The Park Headquarters is in the old Coast Guard Station in town.  The lakeshore has a waterfall, views of the lake and its lighthouses, the sandstone bluffs giving the park its name, and the log slide.  It is the first National Lakeshore.

 

Lake Superior Log Slide

The log slide was used to slide logs into the lake from sand dunes about 175 feet above the lake.  There is a trail with wooden steps leading down to the waterfall and the lakeshore.  We watched the young people frolicking in the water and running/sliding down the log slide.  The beach is rounded cobbles up to about softball size.  Just away from the beach is sand with people looking for agates that formed from water trickling through ancient basalt lava flows.

Another day we went blueberry picking in a logging clear cut.  Lots of blueberry plants were hiding in  west the bracken.  We kept an eye out for bears attracted to the blueberries. The berries went into pancakes and muffins.  Driving off the pavement is a bit dodgy due to the sand.  We had to back down one hill.

Another notable thing was the silence.  I live in the city, with a constant background of noise.  Grand Marais was quiet.  I am sure the town is even quieter in winter with three or four feet of snow on the ground on the rare day with no wind.

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

 

The logging and fishing history is important, but the shipwrecks are a thing of legend.  The south shore of Lake Superior is a lee shore.  A lee shore is when the shore is leeward (downwind) of a sailing vessel.  In the days of sail, Lake Superior schooners were often blown onto the south shore by the fierce north and westerly winds.  It is difficult to sail upwind in a big blow, and the lake is famous for its storms.

Lake Superior Schooner

You probably know Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”.  Ships under power weren’t immune to the storms.  Standing on the shore of that immense lake, I could feel the draw of that big lake, and began to appreciate both the beauty and the danger.  Today, the shipping is well offshore.

I never felt I could fall in love with flat country, but I do love the U.P.

 

Water

Colorado River Basin

I spent thirty years in the water business.  I was one of the troops, not a manager or staff person.  I did, however, do what I could to keep up with developments in the water and wastewater business.  With the Clean Water Act and the Environmental Protection Agency, rivers no longer catch fire, and our fresh water. Supply is in much better shape than, say, the 1950’s. 

I worked at the Greeley, Colorado wastewater plant for three years.  The water we sent to the river met EPA standards until the Cache La Poudre flooded and washed out the pipe carrying water from one side of the river to the other for final treatment.  Lots of raw sewage went into the river for about a week until an emergency pipeline was laid on the highway bridge next to the plant.   

An old adage in the wastewater business goes, “The solution to pollution is dilution”.  That saying is mostly obsolete, but during that flood there was plenty of water for dilution.  We had to wear hip waders to get around the north side of the plant, flooded with almost three feet of water.   

The Denver Water System

Here is a big part of the water story in the American West.  There is either too much water or not enough.  Here on the Colorado Front Range a water crisis is slowly developing.  The available water is starting to run out.  Half of Denver Water’s water supply comes under the Continental Divide from the Colorado River.  There is little more water available from the river for the Denver Metro population except from spring runoff, when there is more water than can be stored.  Most years.   

Other years, the snowpack is down, spring runoff is low, reservoirs drop, and worry starts.  Water supply fluctuates, but demand only increases.  Oh, wait, during a big drought recently,  the Denver Water Board shifted its priority from dam building and water diversion to conservation.  It worked, and continues to work, not just with Denver.  Another water source is also coming into use.   

Water law says if you use water from your nearby stream, you must return what you didn’t use to the stream.  Water users downstream get lots of their water from return flows from irrigation or wastewater plant outflows.  Water law also states that water you divert from another basin does not have to be returned.  You can use it to extinction.  So what once went downstream is being captured in new reservoirs downstream made from old gravel pits and used for water exchanges, where downstream users trade their upstream water rights for return flow water from Denver.  The potato and corn fields don’t seem to mind.   

The other thing happening is taking that foreign water, treating it, and pumping it upstream for reuse.  At this point it is mostly for irrigation of parks, golf courses, and the like, but it is also being treated to drinking water standards.  Yes, you might be drinking water that once was sewage.  Not to worry, think about Omaha, St. Louis, Memphis, and New Orleans.  What are they drinking? 

Eventually this will all end.  The water will run out.  At some point, tap fees for new housing or industry will soar and development will go elsewhere.  The growth cannot continue indefinitely.  The same thing will occur in the entire Colorado River Basin.  Despite every effort to conserve or store more water, it is going to run out.  The new growth will then go to Cincinnati and Birmingham, all those wet places back East..  They have lots of water.