The Colorado River is about to run wild through the Grand Canyon again — at least a couple of times a year.
For almost five decades, the Glen Canyon Dam on the mighty Colorado in northern Arizona has caused many of the beaches downriver to slowly erode. Many have disappeared altogether.
The Interior Department hopes to change that. Earlier this year, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar approved a series of simulated floods that will release huge amounts of water and sediment from the Glen Canyon Dam.
The floods, or "high flows," are part of an effort to restore the environment downstream — both for wildlife and for tourists.
'Vegetation On A Rampage'
On a recent sunny day on the Colorado River, five boats launched into a two-week Grand Canyon river trip. The tourists are paddling white-water rapids, hiking side canyons and camping at river's edge.
Red rock canyon walls provide occasional shade and relief from the desert's heat. As the rafters make their way through the first rapid, they congratulate each other with a paddlers' high-five, slapping their paddles overhead and smacking the water.
At some point in the evening, the group will reach camp downstream. But the vast sandy beaches ideal for camping are scarce these days.
The Glen Canyon Dam was built almost 50 years ago to store drinking water and harness hydropower for the nation's Western states. Before the dam, the silt-laden Colorado River flowed high through the Grand Canyon, creating sandy beaches along its shores.
Longtime river guide Brad Dimock has seen those beaches gradually disappear over the years. And where the water level has receded, plants have sprouted.
"The vegetation is on a rampage," Dimock says. "And it's taking over beaches at a pretty high rate of speed, to where it's kind of a war between us and the vegetation in some camps."
But the bigger conflict isn't between the river and rafters. It's between power companies and conservationists.
Nikolai Lash, spokesman for the conservation group Grand Canyon Trust, says that currently, power generation causes the river to ebb and flow dramatically based on electricity demand in the region.
"And this is done for generating as much hydropower revenue as possible," Lash says. "Unfortunately, it's counterproductive for the resources in Grand Canyon."
Balancing Power And Conservation
Given the varied demands on the river, the Interior Department appointed a federal advisory committee in 1997 to help improve the river environment. The Adaptive Management Work Group is made up of an ad hoc group of scientists, river guides, power companies and other stakeholders.
"It's like the Dr. Strangelove movie: 'How I quit worrying and learned to live with the dam,' " jokes geologist and work group member Matt Kaplinski.
"The premise of the program is to see how we can operate this dam and balance the needs of water storage and power delivery with environmental conservation downstream," Kaplinski says.
The best solution the committee has come up with is "high flows," or controlled floods. Dam managers wait until sediment accumulates upstream, and then release a large amount of water at once. The hope is that the powerful flows will push sediment downstream to rebuild beaches.
Electric companies say the last high flow, four years ago, cost them almost $4 million in lost hydropower revenue.
The companies don't want to see water allotted to them bypass their hydroelectric turbines. That water is a valuable commodity, and when states can't get electricity from the dam, they have to turn to coal, gas and other sources.
Leslie James, director of the Colorado River Energy Distributors Association, a coalition of electric companies, is concerned about how the new high flows will be conducted.
James says it's "almost impossible" to know in advance what the flows will cost the electric companies. The final cost, he says, will depend on the frequency, duration and timing of the flows.
But river guide Brad Dimock says allowing these high flows is the government's responsibility to the Grand Canyon.
"Once you come in and have your fingers on the controls of the dam, you are technically God," Dimock says. "I mean, you decide how that ecosystem is going to mature."
Assuming enough water and sediment accumulates upstream in the coming weeks, the controlled floods are scheduled to begin this fall.
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