Throwing Goodwater after Bad
Sunday, August 25, 2019
Badwater all starts as Goodwater.
Badwater Basin is the name of the lowest location in the United States, within Death Valley National Park. It is a saltpan valley 282 feet below sea level. If it wasn’t surrounded by mountains, it would flood Underwater.
It looks like a sea of ice in the hot sun.
White, crusty, and flat, one expects to see a Zamboni emerge from the mountains to smooth away the seams to smooth the surface for skaters.
But of course it doesn’t, and there are no skaters, because the flat white crust is solid salt — hot, dry, pretzel-rub salt. The flat salt results from rivers, mountains, and sunshine.
The beginning of Badwater is fresh Goodwater: mountain Streamwater bounding off rocks and trickling over waterfalls with hardly a mudsplot or clayroll. Fresh! with just a tad of bad. Goodwater carries a minute quantity of salts, broken and dissolved out of rocks and stirred with thin air. As long as the water flows, the small salts waltz downstream with it.
Down the mountains, into the valleys, the Streamwater salts and splashes into rivers all the way to the ocean. The small-fry salt from the rivers builds up in the ocean: over billions of years, all those salt shakes have accumulated, making the oceans briny.
But the ephemeral rivers that flow into Badwater Basin have no way out, no way uphill to the ocean. So the barely brackish brew streams through to the basin, and stays there. The mountains keep the Badwater bouillon in.
But where is the Badwater? The basin floor is solid salt. There isn’t much water there at all.
The missing swishing is the fault of sunshine and those mountains. Not only do the mountains keep out the ocean, they keep out the rain. The sun evaporates Oceanwater to make Rainwater. West of Death Valley, rainclouds blow over the land but immediately run into coastal mountains, and the rain never makes it to Badwater, keeping the Rainwater out as well as the Oceanwater. With a decent amount of rain, the river flow would be persistent and Badwater would be a dead-end lake, a catchall for river salts, an unpotable pool.
Instead, the desert sun dispenses with the water, good and bad. Relentless sunlight, with little rain, beats on the rivers, the basin, the salt. The sunshine rate there is enough to dry up twelve feet of Lakewater per year. But rainfall in Death Valley is only two inches per year. This huge mismatch carries salts in, trickle by trickle, over thousands of years, and leaves them at the bottom as the rivers and lake dry up. The result is a glistening white basin of solid NoWater salt that stretches for miles.
The Catskill Mountains in New York get a lot of good rain water. Dad captured a few hundred gallons in a swimming pool he dug to heal Mom.
Mom, like President Franklin Roosevelt, suffered from the aftereffects of polio. And Roosevelt often looked to spa waters for healing therapy. So perhaps a pool would do Mom some good.
Dad got his biggest shovel and dug a hole, lined it with timbers and plastic, then the rain filled it with Dadwater.
It rains for days at a time in the Catskills, chilly rain, shady rain, rain that drips out of icy clouds. The Poolwater was haven for frogs, hypothermia for humans. Not a drop evaporated. No therapy ensued.
A few years later, Badwater itself inspired a bit of therapy. Driving to California, Death Valley loomed large in our path. The car had no air conditioning and a fat engine and would struggle up the hot mountains, and Mom’s limp legs would swell like sponges in the heat, unless we drove through the middle of the night, when the temperature dropped to 92.
Dad handed Mom a bag of ice. She set it on her ankles as an elixir, and braced for Needles, California, the sharp little town of prickly heat near Badwater.
I went right to sleep, windows wide open, eyes wide shut, cup of ice clutched in hand, and woke up in Barstow, California, with a blaze of Badwater sun behind, Pacific Oceanwater ahead, and a puddle of soothing Gladwater waltzing down Mom’s feet.
Follow @jmoseshall on Facebook. Joy Moses-Hall teaches physics and astronomy at Pitt Community College. She has a PhD in oceanography and is the author of the novel Wretched Refuge.