Seeking Moab’s missing groundwater

January 29, 2016

Groundwater is an important resource for Utah’s Grand and San Juan counties, and provides nearly 100 percent of the drinking water for the city of Moab. Surface water in the Moab area is fully allocated, and with the population growing, it is important to find how much groundwater is available. So University of Utah geology and geophysics professor Kip Solomon and graduate student Nora Nelson are working with U.S. Geological Survey researchers to find “missing” groundwater in Spanish Valley, south of Moab. Spanish Valley’s groundwater resources last were evaluated in 1970. However, more recent sampling of groundwater at the valley’s downstream end failed to find much of the groundwater that was included in the 1970 evaluation. While groundwater is by far the largest reservoir of usable fresh water on Earth, replenishment rates are highly variable and difficult to measure, which complicates management decisions that seek to use groundwater in a sustainable manner.

Kip Solomon, office 801-581-7231, cell 801-718-6921,

Lead in Flint’s water

January 22, 2016

Residents of Flint, Michigan are dealing with the consequences of lead in their drinking water, brought about by a switch in the city’s water supply that sent corrosive water through pipes that contained lead. What is it about the water in the Flint River that caused such widespread contamination? Do other cities, including communities in Utah, face a similar hazard? Geology and geophysics professor Bill Johnson is available to comment on how contaminants enter and move through surface water, groundwater, and drinking water systems. He is available via phone or email.
William Johnson cell: 801-664-8289 | Email:


January 14, 2016

Using a new method to sample “hard water” deposits or coatings on buried river gravel from Wyoming’s Wind River Basin, Erik Oerter found that the interior of North America had much wetter, cooler summers during a small ice age 70,000 to 55,000 years ago, with summers 4 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than today, and winters also colder. At the time, glacial ice covered an area from the Great Lakes to the Northeast. A persistent, clockwise-rotating, high-pressure area sat over the ice sheet, pushing moist air from the Gulf of Mexico into the North American interior. Oerter defines that area rather vaguely, given the data come only from Wyoming. He says wetter summer conditions didn’t necessarily occur in Utah because it sits on the other side of the Rockies from the Wyoming study site. Oerter did the research for his doctoral dissertation at University of California, Berkeley. He now is a geology postdoctoral fellow in the U’s Global Change and Sustainability Center. His study was published Jan. 11. Oerter and colleagues determined dates, precipitation and temperature data using existing methods to analyze ratios of carbon, oxygen and uranium isotopes in the gravel coatings for the past 120,000 years. But they used new techniques with laser and ion beams to sample minute bits – one-2,500th of an inch in size – of the gravel coatings, providing a record of climate conditions on a more detailed scale of thousands of years, compared with tens of thousands previously. The coatings on the gravel are known as pedothems, soil carbonates or calcium carbonate. “They are basically hard water deposits similar to the ones on your bathroom faucet,” Oerter says.
Erik Oerter, cell: 303-990-1499,

Follow the water on Mars – to Life?

October 2, 2015

While scientists previously identified ice on Mars, NASA on Monday announced evidence of salty water flowing intermittently on the Red Planet. U geology and geophysics professor Marjorie Chan for years has studied landscapes and geological records on Earth that serve as analogs for those on Mars. More than a decade ago, she studied rocks in southern Utah known as Moqui marbles – round “concretions” that form underground when minerals precipitate from flowing groundwater. She predicted similar rocks would be found on Mars. And NASA’s Opportunity rover indeed found such rocks, which were nicknamed “Martian blueberries.” In the last six years, Chan has led Mars researchers on field trips to Utah sites that may help them understand similar sediments on Mars. With growing evidence of past and present water on Mars, Chan believes the possibility is higher than ever that microbial life may exist today on Mars or be preserved in soils there. Chan is available Oct. 5-9 to discuss water and the possibility of microbial life on Mars.Office 801-581-6551/ Email:

Throwing cold water on volcanic fear-mongering

August 14, 2015

Rarely does a month pass without some obscure Internet site promoting false rumors that the Yellowstone supervolcano is about to blow. For example, such scare-mongering sites have pointed to earthquake swarms as evidence of imminent disaster—even though quake swarms are common at Yellowstone. Geophysicist Bob Smith, a research and emeritus professor and a leading expert on Yellowstone, pegs the annual odds of a Yellowstone supervolcano eruption at 1-in-700,000. He’s glad to answer media questions about the slumbering supervolcano and lesser eruptions in Yellowstone’s history, especially to throw cold water on hype about the likelihood of a cataclysmic eruption. Smith has studied Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks and their seismic and volcanic hazards for almost six decades. He keeps getting awards for his research, most recently the 2015 Paul G. Silver Award for Outstanding Scientific Service from the American Geophysical Union—the world’s largest Earth science organization.
Phone: 801-557-2239 | Email:

Shrinking Salt Flats?

August 7, 2015

Bonneville Speed Week organizers cancelled the event this year because of the poor condition of the famous salt flats, and racers are worried about the impact of continued potash mining. Scientist Brenda Bowen is leading an effort to identify all of the processes that shape the thickness and condition of the salt crust at the Bonneville Salt Flats. She can talk about the impact of mining, weather, ground water and other factors. Bowen is an associate professor of geology and geophysics and director of the Global Change and Sustainability Center at the U.
Phone: 801-585-5326 | Email:

Conflict minerals, companies and Congo

June 5, 2015

On June 1, companies across the U.S. will provide reports to the Securities and Exchange Commission documenting whether the products they manufacture contain minerals mined in Congo. It’s only the second time in history companies will file the disclosures. The issue of conflict minerals is gaining steam worldwide. In recent weeks, the European Union Parliament passed draft regulations related to cracking down on companies that use minerals in their products mined from Congo as a way to work toward improving human rights conditions in the war-torn region. An emerging voice in the conflict mineral debate is that of U’s S.J. Quinney College of Law professor Jeff Schwartz, who is scheduled to publish an article in the Harvard Business Law Review this fall. The article examines the inaugural data submitted by companies to the SEC—and whether the disclosures helped with supply chain transparency. Schwartz is available to discuss his research and current happenings related to the worldwide discussions about conflict minerals.
Phone: 801-581-3773 | Email: