Re-opening Glen Canyon's floodgates

Six years after an experimental flood, enviros want more

  • Humpback chub

    Colorado Division of Wildlife
 

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - The Colorado River was once a warm, muddy red river with flows that would seem of furious proportions today. But Glen Canyon Dam, built in 1963, acts as a giant strainer, starving the river of the sediment crucial to its native ecosystem and allowing only cold, clear water down the river. Beginning in the early 1980s, environmentalists raised the alarm that river flows managed primarily for power production - torrential in the mornings when power customers turned on their lights, and ratcheted down to a trickle at night - were affecting natural resources downstream in Grand Canyon National Park.

In 1992, environmental groups led by the Flagstaff-based Grand Canyon Trust pushed through Congress the Grand Canyon Protection Act, which ordered the Interior Secretary to operate the dam to "protect, mitigate adverse impacts to, and improve" the natural and cultural resources downstream. Four years later, scientists conducted a highly publicized, one-week spike flood of more than 40,000 cubic-feet per second * roughly five times the typical flows.

The goal was to restore the river's native ecosystem by replenishing silt-starved beaches and creating habitat for the Colorado's native fish, especially a rapidly declining population of endangered humpback chub. The small, bottom-feeding fish have lived exclusively in the Colorado in Grand Canyon for 2 million years, and have come to represent the Colorado's imperiled wild history (HCN, 4/15/96: Stirring things up on the Colorado River). The 1996 flood was publicized throughout the nation as a return, however brief, to near-natural conditions in the Colorado.

In the six years since, however, conditions have deteriorated. Slowly, sand deposited high on the river's banks has washed away, and numbers of humpback chub have continued to plummet.

"That river's become a death zone for native fish," says the Grand Canyon Trust's Nikolai Ramsey.

Now, with lessons learned from that effort and new data from ongoing monitoring projects, the collaborative group that advises Interior Secretary Gale Norton on the operation of Glen Canyon Dam is calling for another flood - this time with a better shot at restoring the Colorado's beaches and boosting its native fish.

Resetting the clock

In the pre-dam Canyon, flows ranged from a languid 1,000 cubic-feet per second in winter to silt-laden, chocolate-colored torrents of 100,000 cfs or more in the spring. Pre-dam water temperatures varied just as widely, from near freezing into the 80s during the summer. Today, flows are much less variable, typically ranging from 5,000 cfs up to the 20s. Water pours from the dam at a steady 48 degrees. Scientists liken the river's static conditions now to a ponderosa pine forest deprived of its natural fire cycle.

"You need these floods in a river system to keep setting the clock," says Matt Kaplinski, a Northern Arizona University geologist who studies the river's beaches. "(The dam took) out a disturbance event from the whole system."

Without periodic high flows to knock them back, non-native tamarisk trees have gained a foothold on the riverbanks. Native fish have suffered because of the unnaturally clear, cold water, while introduced game fish populations - trout, catfish, minnows and carp - have thrived. Hundreds of thousands of rainbow trout introduced by the Arizona Game and Fish Department in the 1990s are overwhelming the system's resources and may be outcompeting - even preying on - native fish like the humpback chub. Numbers of the native chub, once in the millions, are estimated to be less than 2,000.

The 1996 flood was an attempt to bring the river closer to its natural state by mimicking pre-dam high flows and sediment patterns. But Steve Gloss, a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey's Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center (GCMRC), who helped author the new flood plan, concedes that the 1996 flood came up short. Essentially, it moved sediment from beach to beach rather than from the river channel onto the beaches.

According to the new flood proposal, flows through Glen Canyon Dam will be kept low through the winter so that, as monsoonal rains wash sediment into the Colorado from two tributaries just below the dam, the silt will be retained in the main river channel. Next January, a two-day peak flood will wash the accumulated sediment out of the river's channel and onto its banks.

The additional sand will protect archaeological resources that are threatened by erosion, as well as improve beach conditions for boaters and other recreationists. More importantly, scientists hope the sediment will create eddies, recreating the wilder kind of river to which the humpback chub are adapted. Three months of fluctuating flows following the January peak have been designed to further help chub by disrupting the shoreline habitat favored by juvenile trout.

Power play

The Glen Canyon Dam Adaptive Management Work Group (AMWG) is a 25-member consortium (including the Bureau of Reclamation, tribal government groups, power and recreation industries, environmental groups and scientists) that makes recommendations to the Interior secretary about dam operations. At the group's April meeting, 24 of the members agreed to another flood. It was opposed only by the representative from Colorado's Water Conservation Board.

That plan, which now awaits Interior Secretary Norton's approval, involved a compromise on the proposed timing of the spike flow. The Grand Canyon Trust, with support from the Flagstaff-based group Southwest Rivers, pushed for a flood immediately following sediment input from summer monsoons. But that would have usurped a deal Bruce Babbitt made with the power industry back in 1996, limiting flood flows to times when they could be justified for dam safety reasons. That's typically January through July, when lake levels sometimes get so high that it makes sense to spill water in excess of the roughly 30,000 cfs limit for power generation.

The concession for a January flood won the support of the Western Area Power Administration, which markets power from the dam. Clayton Palmer, manager of resource and environmental planning for WAPA's Colorado River office, says that even though power production will be cut back through December while sediment is sequestered in the river channel, the two-day spike flood in January will have a minimal impact on revenues. Furthermore, the high, fluctuating flows for the three months following the spike can be timed to coincide with power demand - resulting in a slight profit boost.

To some environmentalists, the compromise goes too far. Southwest Rivers' executive director Pam Hyde split with the Grand Canyon Trust after it agreed to the plan. She says it's nothing more than a "baby step" toward restoring the Grand Canyon's resources, and "politically contaminated" by the desires of the power industry. Other groups, including the Moab, Utah-based activist group Living Rivers, say nothing less than decommissioning the dam will do. On June 17, members of the group, dressed as humpback chub and driving a dump truck filled with a ton of silt, crashed the Bureau of Reclamation's 100th anniversary celebration at Hoover Dam to publicize the impact of dams on river ecosystems.

And even as the proposal awaits Secretary Norton's decision - expected by mid-July - the Grand Canyon Trust itself says that although the flood plan is a good start, much more is needed to restore the equilibrium of the native ecosystem. That may include spilling water from the top of the dam, where it's warmer, and piping sediment into the river from behind the dam. And making that happen may take more than just cooperation within the working group.

"The Interior secretary has a legal obligation to do all that she can using dam operations and other activities to improve the resources in the park," says the Trust's Nikolai Ramsey. "It may take a lawsuit to get where we need to go."

Anne Minard is a freelance writer based in Flagstaff, Arizona.

YOU CAN CONTACT ...

  • Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center, 928/556-7094, www.gcmrc.gov;
  • Grand Canyon Trust, 928/774-7488, www.grandcanyontrust.org;
  • Living Rivers, 435/259-1063, www.livingrivers.org.

Copyright © 2002 HCN and Anne Minard

    High Country News Classifieds
    • GRAND CANYON DIRECTOR
      The Grand Canyon director, with the Grand Canyon manager, conservation director, and other staff, envisions, prioritizes, and implements strategies for the Grand Canyon Trust's work...
    • ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
      Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a part-time Administrative Assistant to support the organization's general operations. This includes phone and email communications, office correspondence and...
    • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
      Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
    • ONE WILL: THREE WIVES
      by Edith Tarbescu. "One Will: Three Wives" is packed with a large array of interesting suspects, all of whom could be a murderer ... a...
    • PROGRAM DIRECTOR, SALAZAR CENTER FOR NORTH AMERICAN CONSERVATION
      The Program Director will oversee the programmatic initiatives of The Salazar Center, working closely with the Center's Director and staff to engage the world's leading...
    • WILDEARTH GUARDIANS - WILD PLACES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
      Salary Range: $70,000-$80,000. Location: Denver, CO, Portland, OR, Seattle, WA, Missoula, MT or potentially elsewhere for the right person. Application Review: on a rolling basis....
    • RIVER EDUCATOR/GUIDE + TRIP LEADER
      Position Description: Full-time seasonal positions (mid-March through October) Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10 year old nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of...
    • BOOKKEEPER/ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
      Position Description: Part-time, year-round bookkeeping and administration position (12 - 16 hours/week) $16 - $18/hour DOE Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10...
    • LAND STEWARD
      San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks a full-time Land Steward to manage and oversee its conservation easement monitoring and stewardship program for 42,437 acres in...
    • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
      Ventana Wilderness Alliance is seeking an experienced forward-facing public land conservation leader to serve as its Executive Director. The mission of the Ventana Wilderness Alliance...
    • COMMUNICATIONS AND DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
      The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
    • GRANT WRITER
      "We all love this place we call Montana. We believe that land and water and air are not ours to despoil, but ours to steward...
    • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
      The Development Director is responsible for organizing and launching a coherent set of development activities to build support for the Natural History Institute's programs and...
    • WILDLIFE PROJECT COORDINATOR
      Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more...
    • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
      The Cinnabar Foundation helps protect and conserve water, wildlife and wild lands in Montana and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem by supporting organizations and people who...
    • TRUSTEE AND PHILANTHROPY RELATIONS MANGER,
      Come experience Work You Can Believe In! The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is seeking a Trustee and Philanthropy Relations Manager. This position is critical to...
    • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AT FRIENDS OF CEDAR MESA
      -The Land, History, and People of the Bears Ears Region- The Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa region is one of the most beautiful, complex, diverse,...
    • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST
      Position will remain open until January 31, 2021 Join Our Team! The New Mexico Land Conservancy (NMLC) is a non-profit land trust organization dedicated to...
    • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
      Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
    • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
      Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...