Stirring things up on the Colorado River

  • Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt did the honors at Glen Canyon Dam

    Larry Warren
  As a media event, the Grand Canyon spring flood of "96 was a roaring success. On cue from the Today Show, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt turned a wheel, pushed a button, pulled a lever and opened the first of four jet tubes to send Lake Powell water downstream into the Grand Canyon.


Whether the flood will live up to its billing as a grand realignment of America's way of dealing with the downstream effects of dams is another matter. Scientists, politicians and interest groups will be debating that for months after the scientific data are in.


Still, on March 26 and throughout the next week, the Bureau of Reclamation committed what agency veterans might consider blasphemy: It opened the valves and spilled stored water from Lake Powell, bypassing the turbines which make Glen Canyon Dam a virtual cash register. It created the very kind of flood dams are built to prevent.


The purpose was two-fold: to restore the Grand Canyon's disappearing beaches, and to scour out backwater areas critical to wildlife habitat, especially that of the all but extinct humpback chub.


"I was up here when this dam was built in the "50s, and at the time it didn't occur to anybody the relation between the dam and what would happen downstream," Babbitt recalled during a pre-flood float trip with reporters through what remains of Glen Canyon downstream from the dam. "Now what we're doing is understanding everything relates, and if we're going to find equilibrium on this landscape we're going to have to see the entire watershed as a unit and manage it as an ecosystem."


The ecosystem has been out of whack for 30 years now. The dam environmentalists love to hate traps 90 percent of the Colorado River's sediment flow in Lake Powell. The river, which used to run warm and muddy, now runs clear and cold. And gully-washing spring floods have been replaced by controlled flows timed only to meet power needs in Sunbelt meccas such as Phoenix, Las Vegas and Los Angeles.


"What's happened is the dam converted one of our pristine national treasures into a flush toilet," says Larry Lake, whose Western River Expeditions is the largest boat-trip operator through the Grand Canyon.


Over the past 10 years, river guides have been shocked by the rapid erosion and disappearance of beaches. Downstream flows have eroded what beaches existed, and with only clear water running downstream, they haven't been able to rebuild. The idea of the intentional flood was to stir sand lying in the Colorado River channel, suspend it in the rising water, and let it settle out as the water was slowly drawn back down.


Some river guides were skeptical, but most applauded any effort to rebuild beaches. "Within four or five years it's conceivable we're going to have a very difficult time providing river trips," Lake says.


With all four jet tubes open, the great flood of "96 measured 45,000 cubic feet per second. That's a huge increase from normal power operations which usually top out at 12,000 cfs, but it's still sparse compared to the pre-dam gully-washers which could hit 200,000-300,000 cfs for weeks at a time.


"It's a trickle compared to what Mother Nature could provide," Reclamation scientist Dave Wegner says. "But to the Grand Canyon, it's essential that we find a better way to operate the dam."


More than 150 scientists floated downstream ahead of the flood to set up monitoring equipment, including a real-time connection to the Internet to provide a play-by-play for scientists worldwide. Many of the principles learned from this flood experiment could apply elsewhere. Babbitt wonders, for instance, if Pacific Northwest salmon streams could benefit from intentional floods.


There may be other, unintended, side effects. Fishing guides and scientists are concerned the trout fishery which has blossomed just below the dam (due to the clear, cold water which has extirpated most native fish) may be wiped out.


"High flows may push the trout out of the fishing area," said Wegner, adding that the insects the trout eat could be disrupted as well. And one Park Service official who did not want to be quoted by name admitted the first few miles below the dam won't see the benefits of flooding, but instead will become a "sacrifice area."


But, the river runners who love to berate Glen Canyon Dam were lined up along the shore at Lee's Ferry, waiting for the flood flow to hit. It's not often these days when true high water comes roaring down the Colorado.


For more information contact: Dave Wegner, Glen Canyon Environmental Studies, P.O. Box 22459, Flagstaff, AZ 86002 (520/556-7363).


- Larry Warren





Larry Warren is reports on the environment for KUTV News in Salt Lake City, Utah.





High Country News Classifieds
  • WATER RIGHTS/ADJUDICATION BUREAU CHIEF
    Job Overview: Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that Montana's land and water resources provide benefits for present and future...
  • CLIMATE CHANGE COORDINATOR
    The Greater Yellowstone Coalition is seeking a Climate Change Coordinator to play a lead role in shaping our programs to make the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Position Announcement POSITION TITLE: Executive Director ORGANIZATION: Friends of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument REPORTING TO: Board of Directors EMPLOYMENT TYPE: Part-time - Full-time, based...
  • HEALTHY CITIES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Healthy Cities Program Director leads and manages the Healthy Cities Program for the Arizona Chapter and is responsible for developing and implementing innovative, high...
  • CONSERVATION PROGRAM MANAGER
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Conservation Programs Manager Job Opening Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Associate Director Job Posting Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through science,...
  • UNIQUE, ENERGY-EFFICIENT HOME ON ACREAGE NEAR MOSCOW, IDAHO
    Custom-built energy-efficient 3000 sqft two-story 3BR home, 900 sqft 1 BR accessory cottage above 2-car garage and large shop. Large horse barn. $1,200,000. See online...
  • OUTDOOR ADVENTURE BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Missoula Outdoor Learning Adventures (MOLA) - established and profitable outdoor adventure & education business in Missoula, Montana. Summer camp, raft & climb guide, teen travel,...
  • OJO SARCO FARM/HOME
    A wonderful country setting for a farm/work 1350s.f. frame home plus 1000 studio/workshop. 5 acres w fruit trees, an irrigation well, pasture and a small...
  • STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Join Skagit Land Trust (the Trust), a not-for-profit conservation organization based in Mount Vernon, Washington, and help protect land for people and wildlife. Skagit Land...
  • 2022 SEASONAL SCIENCE EDUCATOR
    The Mount St. Helens Institute Science Educator supports our science education and rental programs including day and overnight programs for youth ages 6-18, their families...
  • POLICY DIRECTOR
    Heart of the Rockies Initiative is seeking a Policy Director to lead and define policy efforts to advance our mission to keep working lands and...
  • CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER
    Self-Help Enterprises seeks an experienced and strategic CFO
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST - LAND PROTECTION FOCUS
    View full job description and how to apply at
  • RIVER EDUCATOR & GUIDE
    River Educator & Guide River Educator & Guide (Trip Leader) Non-exempt, Seasonal Position: Full-time OR part-time (early April through October; may be flexible with start/end...
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • FOOD SYSTEMS ENVIRONMENTAL FELLOWSHIP
    If you were to design a sustainable society from the ground up, it would look nothing like the contemporary United States. But what would it...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is seeking an Executive Director who will lead RiGHT toward a future of continued high conservation impact, organizational...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Help protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Work hard, meet good people, make the world a better place!...
  • NEW BOOK:
    True Wildlife Tales From Boy to Man. Finding my voice to save wildlife in the Apache spirit. 365+ vivid colorful pictures. Buy on Amazon/John Wachholz