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Geology of the National Parks - Death Valley


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Furnace Creek: Focus on Water

Furnace Creek fan
Furnace Creek alluvial fan. Photo by Marli Miller

Desert oasis

Sitting on top of a remarkably symmetrical alluvial fan lies Furnace Creek, the hub of Death Valley National Park. You'll find the main visitor center here as well as the Furnace Creek Inn and resort complex. Furnace Creek is also at the center of a controversy over water in this parched environment.

Death Valley averages less than 2 inches of rainfall each year. Yet even here, in the hottest, driest spot in North America one can find oases of life. The Furnace Creek area is such an oasis—one of those rare spots in the desert where springs rise out of the rock, providing life-sustaining water for desert plants and animals. Surface water is at a premium here, so it's no wonder that wetlands are among the rarest habitat types in the valley. The scarce springs and surrounding lush oases support thriving plant communities and attract a wide variety of animals. They are one of the Mojave desert's most biologically diverse environments.

Furnace Creek Inn
Furnace Creek Inn, near the site of the original spring. Photo by M. Moreno, USGS.

Water attracts

The same water sources that provide lush habitats for plants and animals also attract people. Many of the springs, streams, and marshes within Death Valley National Park have already been developed to support human activities.

In the early 1900's people flocked to resorts built around natural springs thought to have curative and restorative properties. The spring at Furnace Creek was harnessed at that time to develop the Furnace Creek Ranch resort. As water was diverted for resort use, the marshes and wetlands around Furnace Creek began to wither and shrink.

Desert dilemma

Golf course at Furnace Creek
A lush golf course at Furnace Creek stands out in stark contrast to the dry surrounding landscape. Photo by M. Moreno, USGS.

Today, diverted spring water fills the swimming pool at Furnace Creek Ranch and is used for a variety of other human uses. Very little of the original lush oasis remains. Much of the water which is being used to support commercial, municipal, and residential growth in the area east of Death Valley National Park is being withdrawn by ground water pumping.

Several of the larger Death Valley springs derive their water from a regional aquifer which extends as far east as southern Nevada and Utah. Much of the water drawn aquifer was charged many thousands of years ago, during the Pleistocene ice ages, when climate was cooler and wetter. Today's drier climate does not provide enough precipitation to recharge the aquifer at the rate at which water is being withdrawn.

Many of the larger cities and towns within the boundary of the regional ground water flow system are experiencing some of the fastest growth rates of any place in the United States. Notable examples within a 100-mile radius of Death Valley National Park include Las Vegas and Pahrump, Nevada. In the case of Las Vegas, the local Chamber of Commerce estimates that 6,000 people are moving to the city every month. Between 1985 and 1995, the population of the Las Vegas Valley increased from 550,700 to 1,138,800.

Balancing the needs of people and the fragile desert environment is not an easy task.

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