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Restoring floods to “America’s Nile”

The 1,450-mile Colorado River is in bad shape. But there is a potential solution, at least in the Grand Canyon: regular floods. This post is part of a special National Geographic news series on global water issues.  By Jonathan Waterman The Colorado River, “America’s Nile,” is over allocated, plagued by drought, and increasingly sought after...

The 1,450-mile Colorado River is in bad shape. But there is a potential solution, at least in the Grand Canyon: regular floods.

This post is part of a special National Geographic news series on global water issues. 

By Jonathan Waterman

The Colorado River, “America’s Nile,” is over allocated, plagued by drought, and increasingly sought after by distant and expanding cities as if the river is an unending horn of plenty.

For instance, the Central Arizona Project in Phoenix annually diverts a tenth of the Colorado River more than 300 miles and claims, on its website, that the “river system will never ‘dry up.’”

Whiskey, as they’ve long said in the West, is for drinking, but water is for fighting over, and now apparently, propagandizing. Pundits ranging from Steven Solomon to T. Boone Pickens insist that water will be the world’s next oil. But carelessly spilling crude oil or fresh water has to be stopped.

In this video Jon Waterman discusses the Colorado River, as featured in his National Geographic book Running Dry.


Amid the conflicting demands of agriculture (using 78 percent of the Colorado River) and some of the fastest growing cities in the U.S. (Phoenix, Denver, Albuquerque, Las Vegas and L.A. depend upon this living resource), the river is neglected as a biologic wonder that carved out the Grand Canyon.

Yet even the 300-mile stretch of white water in the Grand Canyon is badly damaged. It looks stunning in photographs, but to any researcher who measures flow in cubic feet per second (cfs) or has taken the river’s temperature, the Canyon’s life blood is cancer-ridden.

Of course, the dam managers at U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the electricity brokers of Western Area Power Administration maintain that the river is perfectly under control, even healthy.

Meanwhile, the pipe dream of monkey wrenchers everywhere is to blow up the Glen Canyon Dam above the Grand Canyon; the more progressive nonprofits periodically use legal tools in hopes of decommissioning the dam. But we all know that the dam won’t come down anytime soon.

At present, the 710-foot-high Glen Canyon Dam squirts the river into the Grand Canyon with fluctuating flows through the hydroelectric turbines that create power, sold dearly during the daytime hours for untold thousands of air conditioners in distant Phoenix. These unnatural fluctuations destroy the beaches and backwaters vital to flora and fauna.

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Glen Canyon Dam Visitor Center: For the sake of green grass are we sacrificing the Grand Canyon?

Photo by Jonathan Waterman

Then there’s the clear and numbing reservoir water, taken from the super-cooled depths of Lake Powell. Even in triple-digit air temperatures those who fall out of their boats for 100 miles below the dam are more worried about hypothermia than drowning.

Holding on for your life during the day and then glimpsing eternity up in the star-lit skies provides refuge from the clamor and heat of urbanity.

As part of our national heritage, the protected Grand Canyon National Park is more valuable than all the gold in Fort Knox. But if one examines the cool rainbow trout swimming in the clear waters below the surface, the instability can be read as clearly as a plunging Wall Street ticker tape. The river was once defined by raging spring floods, then for months at a time, steady, albeit turbid flows. Now Reclamation, at the behest of Western Area Power, plays God by turning the tap up and down to sell electricity.

Science has shown that “fragmenting” the Colorado River with a dam above Grand Canyon has caused profound ecological damage. Native fish migration is blocked, the downstream water temperature has dropped more than 20 degrees, and one of the siltiest rivers of the world–blocked by dams–can no longer transport sediment to create the sand bar beaches and backwaters vital to flora and fauna.

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Invasive carp in Lake Powell.

Photo by Jonathan Waterman

Over night in March 1963, as Lake Powell began filling, Glen Canyon Dam refrigerated and cleared the Grand Canyon’s river of sediment. This flipped on a floodlight into an ecosystem that spent the last five million years adapting to the dark.

Throughout the canyon, the lack of sediment, erractic flows, and cold water have compromised native plants, invertebrates, mammals, and fish. The native and warm-water fish of the Grand Canyon–humpbacked chubs, bonytail chubs, razorback suckers, and Colorado pike minnows–developed unique senses to survive in muddy waters and don’t exist outside the Colorado River Basin. Now all four species are endangered, if not eliminated, by the effect of a large dam and the entrance of aggressive cold-water non natives: trout, bass, and carp.

To save the life blood of our grandest canyon, the dam must re-create regular floods. A scant three times over the last half century, Reclamation has acquiesced by allowing brief floods to restore habitat downstream.

But most researchers think of these infrequent dam bypasses as media ploys. Within months, the unnatural, hydroelectric-driven fluctuations–varying, for instance, from a daytime 4,000 cfs to a nighttime 12,000 cfs (enough water to fill an Olympic swimming pool in 7 seconds)–wash away the beach and backwater habitat newly created by Reclamation’s token flood.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service and the U.S. Geological Survey agree that steady flows, along with more frequent artificial floods, could be the solution. But it might cost up to U.S.$10 million to alter the flow of electricity. And most Colorado River Basin states are resigned to the status quo, afraid of losing their piece of water pie divvied out by the 1922 Colorado River Compact, or changing the old formula of water deliveries to the lower basin below the Grand Canyon.

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Grand Canyon campsite shot from in the river at low flow.

Photo by Jonathan Waterman

Whenever the aforementioned federal agencies advocate a biologic opinion for steady flow restoration, contradicting the political opinion of another federal agency, Reclamation, then the various seven member states–prompted by Western Area Power–jam their thumbs into the dam tubes bypassing the turbines. Secretary of the Interior Salazar, aka “Colorado Water Master,” is warned that he will jeopardize the complex Law of the River. And federal attorneys are now pulling overtime to stop the biologically oriented federal agencies from contradicting the politically oriented federal agency.

Other potential solutions exist. Scientists have proposed that restorative silt trapped in Lake Powell could be piped around the dam and into the Grand Canyon. And a temperature-control device could withdraw warmer reservoir water from the surface water above Glen Canyon Dam.

Lawsuits continue against the Bureau of Reclamation as erratic dam flows violate the Endangered Species and Grand Canyon Protection Acts. The bottom of the Earth’s most celebrated natural feature is now a territorial showdown between science and politics.

There is no single panacea for restoring Colorado River habitat or conserving water throughout the basin. But in the Canyon, more artificial floods followed by steady flows will cost a pittance compared to the well engineered Glen Canyon Dam.

The choices are clear as the cold trout stream flowing beneath the dam: continue trashing the Grand Canyon, or modify the flows and electricity sales to save it.

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This is the second of a series of Colorado River notes from Jonathan Waterman, author of Running Dry: A Journey from Source to Sea Down the Colorado River (National Geographic Books, May 2010). For more information on his Colorado River Project, visit his website and the Save the Colorado website. Read more blog posts by Jonathan Waterman.

The views expressed here are those of Jonathan Waterman and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society.

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Author Photo David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn