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The Grand Canyon Has Always Faced Water Problems, This Year The Problems Are Different

Judy Fahys/Inside Climate News

 The Colorado River is grappling with shortages this year. But it was a very different story nearly thirty years ago. High flows coming through a dam just upstream of the Grand Canyon were ripping it apart. 

Inside Climate News reporter Judy Fahys rode down the canyon then as part of a floating press tour. She recently revisited the canyon and found the park is still facing water challenges; they’re just different ones now. 

Riding a rubber raft down the boisterous Colorado River rapids made the floating press conference fun.

But fast-moving water from Glen Canyon Dam was actually the problem back then. Water shooting through the turbines was wrecking the river environment.

“What we’re trying to do is to figure out how the operations of the dam impact this,” said Dave Wegner. 

Wegner led scientific studies of the dam’s impacts for the US Bureau of Reclamation back in 1990. Longtime NPR reporter Howard Berkes was on the trip, too.

Wegner said, “Are there thresholds in dam operations where we tend to accelerate erosion of these various beaches?” 

A stick planted on the river’s edge during lunchtime showed how radically the river rose and fell-- 2 feet in an hour, up to 13 in a day.

“It’s underwater,” he said. “The stick is underwater.”

Wegner was illustrating what happened every time dam operators released extra water through the hydroelectric turbines. 

“We’re releasing more water at Glen Canyon Dam in response to electrical demand in the power grid,” he said. 

The water blasts chewed up the sandy beaches that rafters use. They upended wildlife habitat and aquatic life. The frigid fluctuations put endangered species at risk, like the humpback chub, a fish that likes warm water. 


New laws and policies followed the floating press conference in 1990. Humpback chub are on the rebound. Camping beaches are rebuilding. Scientific research prompted federal agencies to operate the dam with the environment in mind.


“We can see what effect those changes over a couple of decades have been having and how the ecosystem is responding,” said Scott VanderKooi. 

VanderKooi of the US Geological Survey oversees Grand Canyon science now. He said studying the Colorado River’s most iconic reach is still important after two decades of drought and climate change.

“There's a sense of urgency there in trying to understand what is happening and how quickly and how much things will change,” he said. 

The reason for continuing research became clear this spring. Springs didn’t gush as they used to. Cactuses were shriveling.

“Yeah. You know, you're dealing with a drought when you're seeing desert plants falling over from lack of water,” said Helen Fairley. 

Fairley, a USGS researcher, was documenting changes in beaches and vegetation this spring across from the Deer Creek waterfall. She’s been doing fieldwork in the Grand Canyon for decades, and she found it odd how bighorn sheep were flocking to the riverbanks in spring.

“Generally, they don't come down until late summer fall when the water sources up high dry out…,” she said. 

A bighorn had glared down at our camp from a rocky ridge one night as if we’d elbowed her hungry family away from the dinner buffet. 

“...Well, this year, apparently they don't have water up high,” she said. 

Water became a preoccupation, too. It was hotter and drier than usual. The group’s 5-gallon water jugs ran out surprisingly fast. They spent lots of time planning how to refill them. Sometimes they pumped river water.

About 40 million people rely on Colorado River water. A megadrought has sapped flows for over two decades. Climate change is speeding up evaporation.

The river is more than just a water supply for the region’s cities and farms. Researcher Helen Fairley said people should remember it supports ecosystems, too. Future policy ought to reflect that. 

“Hopefully, there's ways to do it smartly and strategically that won't create additional environmental devastation in the process,” she said. 

Lake Powell, just upstream of the canyon, was full thirty years ago. Now, it’s two-thirds empty. And what the people who rely on the Colorado River are realizing is that too much water is an easier problem to solve than too little.



The story was produced from recordings made by retired NPR Reporter Howard Berkes. It is part of ongoing coverage of water in the West, in collaboration with InsideClimate News and public radio station KUNC.