Posted on October 20, 2022
The drought in the Southwest has bottomed out major reservoirs on the Colorado River and raised alarms among cities and farms that rely on the water. But it’s also a threat to the environment in one of the world’s most recognizable wonders: the Grand Canyon. As KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny reports, a longstanding program of artificial floods to save the canyon’s beaches now faces an uncertain future.
In the autumn of 2012, a flood swept through the Grand Canyon. Not one provided by nature, but by the engineers who cranked open the bypass tubes at the base of Glen Canyon Dam. It was the start of a program heralded by many as a triumph. Fall floods happened again in 2013, 2014, 2016, 2018.
“And then,” says hydrologist Paul Grams, “we hit these drought conditions.”
The program is in trouble. Lake Powell is three quarters empty and just 40 feet above the level where hydropower production stops. It’s risky now to release floods.
“So we have a condition now, where it’s been four years since the last high flow and the sandbars have eroded a lot,” Grams explains.
Grams and a crew of scientists gather at Lees Ferry on the Colorado River to launch their annual rafting trip. Boats inflate and crew members sort through stacks of equipment piled high on the riverbank. Karen Koestner and Shannon Sartain are two of the scientists involved.
“We are going to be mapping sandbars, and we’ll have crews looking at vegetation on sandbars, and essentially we’re monitoring change,” Koestner explains.
Sartain adds, “For me, this project started before I was born, so it’s kind of cool to be able to contribute to it.”
Thirty years of data from river trips like this one show how beaches disappeared after the dam was built, then started to repair themselves with the help of artificial floods.
Now, they’re vanishing again, says sandbar scientist Katie Chapman. “You’ll be floating downstream and sometimes you’ll see just active sand coming off… and then sometimes you get these big, we call them “shark bites” where this huge concave zone out of a sandbar will just collapse all at once,” she says.
Chapman says the beaches are vital: they create backwaters for native fish and habitat for plants and animals. And for more than 20,000 river runners in the Grand Canyon every year, Chapman says, “The sandbars themselves are the only durable, nonfragile environment that everyone can camp on; you don’t have to go bushwacking to find a place to camp.”
Some scientists want to save the program by switching floods to spring, when snowmelt bolsters Lake Powell’s level. That could help balance the need for floods with the demand for hydropower.
The decision is made by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation with advice from representatives of tribal nations, water users, and environmental groups, among them, Matt Rice of American Rivers.
“If we fail, the Grand Canyon could go dry,” Rice says. If Lake Powell drops to “dead pool,” no water can pass through the dam. That’s not expected to happen within the next five years, but Rice points out in a climate changed world, the drought may never end.
“Ultimately I think we have one tool,” Rice says. “We have to use less water.”
Rice says his goal is to make sure the pain of water shortage doesn’t fall unfairly on the environment. “I think about the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon every morning when I wake up and every night when I go to bed. I have to be optimistic…. If this place isn’t worthy of saving, then what in the world is?”
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation declined to give an interview for this story, but told KNAU in an email, the agency is in the process of determining whether to release a fall flood this year.