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Throughout the history of the American West, water issues have shown their ability to both unite and divide communities. As an imbalance between water supplies and demands grows in the region, KUNC is committed to covering the stories that emerge.

Back-to-back dry years threaten Grand Canyon beach restoration

Sandbars in the Grand Canyon are vital for habitat and camping spots. Photo taken in the Grand Canyon in October 2021.
Melissa Sevigny
Sandbars in the Grand Canyon are vital for habitat and camping spots. Photo taken in the Grand Canyon in October 2021.

Ongoing warming 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 the region’s rapid warming and drying trend is also a threat to the environment in one of the world’s most recognizable wonders: the Grand Canyon. A longstanding program of artificial floods to save the canyon’s beaches from being eroded away 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,” said U.S. Geological Survey 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, Grams said.

“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 said.

Grams and a crew of scientists gathered at Lees Ferry on the Colorado River to launch their annual rafting trip. The team inflated boats and sorted through stacks of equipment piled high on the riverbank. Scientists Karen Koestner and Shannon Sartain are involved in the research.

“We are going to be mapping sandbars, and we’ll have crews looking at vegetation on sandbars, and essentially we’re monitoring change,” Koestner said.

“For me, this project started before I was born, so it’s kind of cool to be able to contribute to it,” Sartain said.

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, said fluvial geomorphologist 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 said.

Chapman said 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, “the sandbars themselves are the only durable, nonfragile environment that everyone can camp on; you don’t have to go bushwhacking to find a place to camp,” she said.

Some scientists want to save the program by switching the timing of the floods from fall to spring, when snowmelt bolsters Lake Powell’s level. That could help balance the need for floods with the demand for hydropower. The decision of whether or not to flood the canyon is made by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation with advice from representatives of tribal nations, water users, and environmental groups. Among them is Matt Rice of American Rivers.

“If we fail, the Grand Canyon could go dry,” Rice said. 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 said. “We have to use less water.”

Rice said 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.

This story is part of ongoing coverage of the Colorado River, produced by KNAU and distributed by KUNC.

Melissa grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert. She has a B.S. in Environmental Science from the University of Arizona and an M.FA. in Creative Writing and Environment from Iowa State University. Her first book, Mythical River, forthcoming from the University of Iowa Press, is about water issues in the Southwest. She has worked as a science communicator for NASA’s Phoenix Mars Scout Mission, the Water Resources Research Center, and the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. Melissa relocated to Flagstaff in 2015 to join KNAU’s team. She enjoys hiking, fishing and reading fantasy novels.
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