Ever since I began engaged on Colorado River points, I’ve wished to journey by way of the enduring panorama of the Grand Canyon by boat. I used to be skeptical of my probabilities given the extremely coveted and restricted variety of permits, however this spring I used to be fortunate sufficient to be invited on a non-public journey. For 21 days, we traveled by way of this distant stretch the place the canyon partitions tower as much as 4,000 ft above the river in some locations. We celebrated on the downstream aspect of massive rapids and scrambled up forgotten aspect canyons. We spied nice blue herons and merganser geese on the river’s edge. We noticed only a few different individuals.
Any river runner will let you know that the prime time of yr for boating within the west is late spring, when rivers swell with runoff from melting snowpack. Spring runoff additionally performs a essential function supporting a wholesome riparian ecosystem. Sandwiched between Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams, this part of the Colorado River is extremely regulated by water sharing agreements between Higher and Decrease Basin states and regional hydropower wants. Whereas operational pointers make the Grand Canyon boatable year-round, additionally they erase the pure seasonality of the river’s movement, disrupting the ecological processes essential to the well being of birds, fish, and different riparian dependent wildlife
Daily 8,000-14,000 cubic ft per second (cfs) flows by way of Glen Canyon Dam’s hydropower generators, that means that boaters usually expertise a constant movement all through the journey no matter launch date. Nonetheless, due to deliberate dam upkeep, we had a distinct expertise—one with flows that mimicked pure seasonality on a dampened scale. For the primary 5 days, operators ratcheted the releases all the way down to 4,000 cfs in an effort to full wanted upkeep on the concrete apron beneath. Ecologically this simulated the low flows that happen in winter months—when sediment and vitamins accumulate within the river backside setting, and benthic exercise slows down. Equally, our journey began out with a slower, lazier feeling. The rapids had been bonier, however with much less water within the channel, the present was slower, and we spent our first 5 days easing into the Grand Canyon at a relaxed tempo.
Capitalizing on the necessity to guarantee complete month-to-month movement to the Decrease Basin was not diminished by the upkeep low flows, scientists labored prematurely, with dam operators to design a subsequent excessive movement launch that might obtain ecological profit. For the next 5 days, releases regularly ramped as much as 20,000 cfs. These floodwaters had been like a refresh button for the ecosystem—scouring the river backside to scrub substrates and launch vitamins, stimulating insect manufacturing, and rewetting and burying seeds that might germinate native vegetation in floodplain. These processes stimulate meals net manufacturing essential for birds, fish, and different riparian-dependent wildlife. For us, it was sport time—the river was up, rapids had been larger, and we had been shifting sooner. After 5 days of excessive water and pleasure, we returned the conventional 8,000-14,000 cfs movement for the rest of our journey.
Environmentally pushed excessive movement releases from Glen Canyon Dam have occurred solely eight instances within the final 25 years. This yr was the primary spring excessive movement launch since 2008. Excessive movement releases occurring within the fall transfer sediment to rebuild seashores, whereas spring ones stimulate organic processes and meals net development. The dam’s working plan permits as much as 25,000 cfs to be launched beneath regular operations, however this experimental spring launch was restricted to twenty,000 cfs to take care of most hydropower era—a reminder that environmental issues are usually not high precedence in Colorado River water administration.
The standard narrative that environmental water wants are at odds with individuals and agricultural wants has closely influenced Colorado River coverage and administration up to now. Within the coming years, Colorado River water managers have the chance to raise environmental issues alongside leisure, city, and municipal wants as they re-negotiate the Interim Pointers, which outline federal coverage for operations on the Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams, in addition to scarcity sharing guidelines. The prevailing Interim Pointers expire in 2026, and persons are already discussing what the subsequent model will appear to be. The College of Utah’s Way forward for the Colorado River Challenge not too long ago completed an analysis of different administration methods for the river in anticipation of the upcoming renegotiations. They concluded that whereas altering dam operations is not going to clear up the continued problem of water demand exceeding water provided by the Colorado River, they could possibly be re-designed to yield extra environmental advantages. The latest excessive movement releases from Glen Canyon Dam are an ideal instance of how operations may be tailored to learn the setting with out sacrificing provide to water customers downstream.
It was each particular and thrilling to expertise such a wide range of Colorado River flows on my journey. It additionally gave me a glimpse into the potential modifications we’d see in future river operations. Our work to guard water provides for birds and folks is essential because the Colorado River Basin turns into hotter and drier. Within the coming years we should proceed to seek for artistic options that yield advantages for water customers and the river itself, and reinforce the concept environmental, agricultural, and folks water wants would not have to be at odds as future Colorado River operations are negotiated.