I’m a River Guide and Water Lawyer. I’m Scared for the Grand Canyon.

“As a Grand Canyon river guide, I know something about facing sometimes harsh and dangerous conditions and finding beauty and meaning in the world.” – Guest Author, Jocelyn Gibbon

Author (captaining paddleboat) in Grand Canyon this May. Photo by Chris Hedge

Jocelyn Gibbon is an attorney, policy consultant, and river guide based in Flagstaff, Arizona. She works on Arizona and Colorado River water and sustainability issues through her business, Freshwater Policy Consulting, and guides part-time in the Grand Canyon for Canyon Explorations. She often collaborates with American Rivers as part of her work with the Water for Arizona Coalition. Views expressed in this blog are the authors.

Rafts heading downstream. Photo by Sam Jansen
Rafts heading downstream. Photo by Sam Jansen

As a Grand Canyon river guide, I know something about facing sometimes harsh and dangerous conditions and finding beauty and meaning in the world. As a water lawyer, I know how difficult it is to align our legal and social systems with physical reality and human values—and yet that we can choose to do so. Right now, as fires rage and this two-decades-long drought takes its toll on rivers and water supplies across the Colorado River Basin, I’m concerned about the choices we will make for the future of the Colorado River and Grand Canyon.

In May, the Bureau of Reclamation announced emergency “drought response” measures to keep the Colorado River system from collapsing over the next year. For the first time in history, the amount of water to be released from Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell, through the Grand Canyon to Lake Mead, was reduced part-way through the water year. Along with other measures announced by Reclamation, this was necessary to keep Lake Powell from further plummeting to calamitously low levels—to where there is not enough water in storage for the City of Page and Navajo community of Le Chee to access their drinking water supplies; to where Glen Canyon Dam can’t produce power; to where water has to be released through emergency outlet tubes never designed for sustained operation.

I am told that these measures were announced immediately to accomplish the needed reduction in dam releases—and hence river flows—without risking a period of actually drying up stretches of the Colorado River.

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The reductions come as a disappointment to me and my river guide friends—and our employers, the owners of whitewater rafting concessions that take people on weeks-long, wilderness-style expeditions through Grand Canyon. Already this spring has been windy, and with the boats heavily laden, it can stretch one’s physical limits to get downstream, navigating shifting currents and powerful whitewater. The lower and slower the water, the more time we spend pushing from point A to point B instead of exploring and enjoying the Canyon. Shallow, exposed, sharp rocks mean more time we may spend repairing boats rather than rowing them, and lower water also means less flexibility for campsites after long days on the water. The lower the water the more tired we all are, and our margins for safety and satisfaction narrow.

We river guides are always thinking about flows before a season and before a trip, and there’s been a lot of consternation lately about low flows—this year but in years to come as well. How sharp will the rapids and drops be? How will the paddleboat do in Horn Creek or Waltenberg? Do we need more days for trips billed as “Hikers Specials” if this continues, and will people sign up for trips that long? Will motorboats be able to keep running the river without smashing their props? This spring some guides have been choosing not to row wooden dories in the low water, because of the time and hassle that could go into repair if a dory cracks on a shallow rock. Friends recently returned from a trip with brutal wind and low water, where on the first day they barely made it six miles, pulling into camp with bloody hands and exhausted bodies. This was prior to the announced reductions.

The Bottom of Crystal Rapid, from the scout. Photo by Sam Jansen
The Bottom of Crystal Rapid, from the scout. Photo by Sam Jansen

But while we fret and grumble, guides also take great pride in being able to “take what we’re given,” and make the most of challenging conditions. Our job is to help people safely experience a challenging but wondrous place—so they can feel the magic, the fun, the laughter, and the awe, with everything that two weeks in the Canyon can bring into a life. We take satisfaction in finding and sharing the fun and beauty and joy even when the wind is menacing, the heat unearthly, the flows sluggish, or the whitewater gnarly.

Most of us recognize how privileged we are to spend so much time “below the rim” of the Grand Canyon, one of the great wonders of the world.

While not all managed as a true “wilderness” (to the extent such a thing exists), the thousands of square miles of canyon country through which we travel are among the most remote left in the lower 48. We boat through a ten-million-year-old river channel cut through billion-year-old rock—the history of the earth laid bare. There’s nothing like it to make you feel connected to it all; small, yet still significant.

Though dammed at both ends of the 278-mile-long canyon, the river still roils in the beautiful way of free-flowing water, its inhuman and unstopping dynamics speaking directly and musically to the human heart.

Sunset from camp. Photo by Sam Jansen
Sunset from camp. Photo by Sam Jansen

While the river channel is no longer subject to a muddy spring flood, summertime trickles, or the full force of upstream monsoon torrents, the Colorado River still supports a remarkable universe of interconnected life and ecosystems—riparian, aquatic, terrestrial, life forms from three of the continent’s four great deserts… full of intricate stories of ecological niches and interconnections that have evolved over eons.

We are privileged—to an extent unjustly—to spend so much time in a place revered by at least eleven tribes and indigenous nations for whom it has been home for centuries, and from whom European settlers took it by force.

Given that sense of supreme privilege, most of my guide friends have accepted the news of Lake Powell’s plummeting—and consequently uncertain flows in the Canyon—with a good deal of stoicism. The feeling is that we have been lucky—and if there’s no longer enough water for things to continue as they’ve been, we will adapt. With the drinking water of 40 million people on the line, who are we to be phased by the loss of river flows or our life-altering expeditions through the heart of the Earth?

I would more easily feel this way too, if the declining flows had been unavoidable—or were just for this year—or were part of a larger plan to make our use and treatment of the Colorado River or the Grand Canyon more sustainable, caring, or just.

But that is not the case. This year’s reductions from Glen Canyon are in response to an “emergency”—but an emergency that we have seen—or at least could have seen—coming for decades. It didn’t have to be. What’s more, these reductions reflect only a small, temporary stopgap. They don’t fix the massive problem we now face on the Colorado River.

Since 1922, the law governing the Colorado River was set up to apportion and use more water than the river actually provides. The Colorado River Compact allocated at least 15 million acre-feet of water, then a 1944 treaty allotted an additional 1.5 million acre-feet to Mexico. That’s at least 16.5 million acre-feet of water that various states, nations, and water users can legally take out of the river. This doesn’t even include the more than a million acre-feet that evaporate from desert reservoirs and canals or are otherwise lost from the system. To add insult to injury, the Compact doesn’t address the needs of all of the Basin’s tribal nations and flat-out ignores the needs of river ecosystems and wildlife.

Even when the Compact was being ratified there were indications that the river’s flows were less than what was being divided up. In reality, the average flow in recent years has been more like 12 or 13 million acre-feet. Climate scientists and hydrologists tell us that soon we may have to live with as few as 11, or even 9, million acre-feet of water in the system.

The author and paddle crew. Photo by Sam Jansen
The author and paddle crew. Photo by Sam Jansen

In the early years of the big dams, the Upper Basin (Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico) used far less water than allocated and a period of wet years filled up the reservoirs, providing a savings account.

Those days are gone. For about the last 20 years, actual usage throughout the Colorado River Basin has far exceeded the amount of water supplied by the river, and now with the rapid decline of Lakes Powell and Mead, we are seeing the inevitable impacts of this overuse.

What’s more, we have known this is happening, we just didn’t know it would happen so fast. The Basin states and Reclamation have taken steps in recent years to begin to address it, but these steps are proving insufficient, and reservoir levels are plummeting further and faster than imagined. Hence this spring’s emergency measures—measures known to be short-term and inadequate to fix the problem.

Let me be clear, I am very much in support of these measures and recognize their necessity. If flows through the Canyon were not reduced this summer, the situation going forward would be even worse.

But I’m angry that it has come to this, and I’m scared and sad about what may happen next. We are in need of a reckoning: we need to stop using more water than the river provides and blowing through our stored supplies at a terrifying rate. We have needed to do so for years now.

So can our reckoning, when done in a crisis, be done in a way that actually improves the integrity, sustainability, and justice of the system? I am nervous about the potential manifestation of the “Shock Doctrine”—where massive crises are used as an excuse to change systems in ways that otherwise never would have been socially, culturally, or even legally acceptable.

Last fall, an anticipated high-flow through the Canyon was not implemented. These flows are called for as part of the adaptive management practices developed to redistribute diminishing sand and sediment in the post-dam river channel—in turn protecting cultural sites, habitat, and recreational access. The fall flow was decided against, not because there wasn’t the water to do it— it wouldn’t have changed the total amount of water released over the course of the year—but because of costs and concern about reservoir levels dropping to lower levels even temporarily. Here already, we allowed a deviation from what would ordinarily have been undertaken to support Canyon resources and values because of the water supply “crisis”—though doing so did not (contrary to what many assume) help address the Basin’s overall water supply deficit.

The Granite Gorge of the Grand Canyon. Photo by Sam Jansen
The Granite Gorge of the Grand Canyon. Photo by Sam Jansen

I believe that what’s needed to protect our water supplies going forward is fundamentally consistent with what we need to protect the Canyon and the extraordinary ecosystem the Colorado River creates. We must stop using more water than actually flows down the river.

We must all use less water throughout the Basin. This means massive change—but it’s doable, and what’s more, we really have no other choice. It’s long past time.

This reckoning may also mean more years of low annual flows through the Canyon, as we seek to stabilize the system and stop the plummet. Sadly, we may not be able to solve our problems while continuing to release the same amount of water from the Upper Basin to the Lower, through the Canyon.

But if we want to continue to have water to support the millions who rely on it, if we hope to take care of the Grand Canyon and its river, if we want to even have a choice about what flows look like in the future, we need to stabilize this system. We can’t continue to deny the reality of simple numbers, and we can’t rely on year after year of hurried emergency measures to get us by. That’s not planning, that’s triage.

Crises are opportunities. In the coming months and years, we can fix a mess of our own making and bring increased rationality, stability, perhaps even justice and accountability toward our planet and our people, to our water use in the Southwest.

Let’s take this opportunity, and not use our “crisis” as an excuse to ignore what matters or degrade the health of the Grand Canyon—one of the most beautiful, humbling, and awe-inspiring places on our planet—a place that gives us inspiration to be better people, with broader vision and grander dreams.

18 responses to “I’m a River Guide and Water Lawyer. I’m Scared for the Grand Canyon.

  1. Excellent article summarizing where we are and how we got here. As other have pointed out, these circumstances were as predictable as, well, climate change. Human societies (as opposed to the human specie) seem tragically incapable of adapting to changing circumstances and, therefore, are prone to management by crisis and, inevitably, collapse.
    I will be sad to see the flow regime that, since the early1960’s, has fostered the growth and development of the Grant Canyon River Running Culture, become a thing of the past. It’s been a good run. But it is an unnatural regime that has fostered the decline of native species, the growth of invasive species (including homo sapiens) and the loss of riparian habitat in the Grand Canyon ecosystem. I welcome the return of Glen Canyon, as well as the return of a more seasonally natural flow regime. I have confidence that, as River people, we will adapt.

  2. Excellent article
    Of course in 1988, I was concerned about the flow of the river.
    One morning our rafts might be 20 or more yards from the river, and the next morning water and rafts lapping at our feet. I thought it similar to flood damage/erosion and silt filling low spots,
    I grew up near the mouth of the Eel River and at age 70, I saw my beloved river absolutely dry due to contamination of marijuana growers and population growth. Taking water from a healthy river to keep another river healthy to provide water for a larger population (example: Russian River taking Eel River water)
    Water has always been “gold” to the native Americans and settlers. Our history is filled with water wars. River boats have been used on most of our western states .I have spent years living on the Columbia, rivers of the 6 rivers national forest, Sacramento and Colorado. Government entities have awarded water rights and construction sites to the highest bidders. When I was north of Mammoth Mountain, on highway 395, I saw signs that said “Los Angeles County”. Now figure that one out? But if you look for the headwaters of the Owen River, you will understand why! The past 60 years I have sought out the history of rivers near where I lived and it was unbelievable who had the water rights to the water.
    My brother has constantly asked, Congress people why don’t we have desalinization plants, as so many Countries in the world have? They cost to much is the most often answer.
    Yes, people need drinking water! In California, all new house construction must build a place to charge electric cars!
    Well, after having a trailer park for over 20 years, I know how to get electricity, but drinking water and septic discharge is a big problem. Not only did I have to jump through hoops to make sure our water met all standards, but what about sewage.
    I brought in someone to check all the trailers for leaks Unbelievable how many toilets or faucets were dripping. Of course, the towns and cities do not do this.
    The last thing I will mention is reclaiming water. It is amazing how much gray water we could save from showers, bath tubs and washing and dish washing machine,
    I recommend that all new construction of any building have a tank to save the gray water, which could be run into landscaping or washing cars.
    The settlers saved every bit of water , and I grew up with my grandmother taking out the dishpan of sudsy water to throw on her roses and certain vegetable plants
    I’m grateful for your well written article on the Colorado River and I cherish the memories of my two week raft trip.
    I agree with everything you mentioned in your article, but all our rivers need help because of over use and pollution
    When you visit Grand Coulee Dam, the film states “Man has tamed the Mighty Columbia River. I wish Lewis and Clark would return to see what greed has done to the mighty Columbia!

  3. Great article Joslyn – thanks for writing and for the work that you do!

    We were just at Lake Powell and Lake Mead filming for a TV series on rivers and it was shocking to see the low lake levels and to know that we are witnessing the decline water supply for 40 million people and watching the foundation of the economy of the southwest disappear before our eyes. And as a river guide in the canyon for many years I also feel the the potential loss/ changes to one of the most incredible spiritual and life changing experiences one can have on a river. This is something that’s hard to convey the importance of if you haven’t experienced it. And we also get to recognize the incredible significance of this magical place to the 11 plus Native American Tribes that recognize the Canyon and Colorado River as one of the most sacred sites on earth in addition to being the Tribes native homelands.

    I also agree that this is an opportunity for sustainability. Why do we use drinking water to flush our toilets? Why do we have laws in place that drive water rights owners to use the water regardless if they need it or not with the scarcity mind-set of “use it or loose it”? Why do we need to farm some of the most water intensive crops in some of the driest parts of the country?

    If necessity is the mother of all invention then hopefully we are likely to see shifts in infrastructure like moving to solar and wind-powered energy for some things rather than hydropower and possible grey water use for things like flushing toilets and moving to less water intensive crops and at some point water laws that are up to modern day conditions. And in doing so, perhaps preserving the incredible experience of being able to float through one of the seven wonders of the world and the opportunity to immerse one’s self in one of the most magical places on earth.

  4. This is beautifully written, Jocelyn, and so true. It is what I’ve been talking about for years with my folks on the river. John Wesley Powell saw this back in the 1880s and 1890s. “You are piling up a heritage of conflict and litigation, for there is not enough water to supply the land.” That was without 40 million people relying on this water (and so many more who eat the river water’s agricultural products shipped across the country and across the world). That was without climate change crashing an already stressed system. Unfortunately, we are a people who tend towards crisis management rather than forethought. I am not sure what the solutions are, but I agree that at some point we will be forced into a solution. Whether we like that solution will not be the issue. I pray that moving water from the Mississippi will not be one solution (and I know it is being proposed). This water crisis is happening everywhere; it’s just worse in the Southwest. For now, I teach. I talk about water use, climate change, water politics, industrial agriculture, rivers and water use elsewhere, and all the other associated strands of this Gordian knot with my fellow travelers in the hopes that perhaps a few eyes will be opened. Thanks again for a clear-eyed, compassionate, and honest piece.

  5. Can you imagine the further degradation of the Colorado if Utah actually builds the Lake Powell Pipeline to support the rampant growth of Southern Utah. St. George–all of Washington Co., actually–is absolutely booming and is expected to develop out to half a million in a decade or two. Certainly, the Virgin River system and local springs cannot deliver enough water to support that size population. And yet we build and build. That is why the WCWCD is still planning to construct the Lake Powell Pipeline. With sustained climate warming, this would seem to spell doom for the Colorado.

  6. 85% of the water in Utah goes to agriculture and industry. On the Wasatch Back, hay farmers water 24/7. Putting three feet of water on each cutting. Much of the hay is for export. It is not the people or the lawns. It is the farmers in the upper basin that have the best water rights. While I realize that Wasatch Backwater goes into the Great Salt Lake, much of the Colorado upper basin is hay farms. Beside The Green , The Yampa, etc, All growing grass. Sure, the river is over-allocated, but ultimately, It’s about money.

    1. Really well stated! And plenty of the the Wasatch back and front water is coming from the Colorado river drainage- not all GSL. The Central Utah Water conservation district diverted both the Strawberry River and the Uintah River (would be green river drainages) onto the Wasatch. There are a million straws like strawberry and Uintah all along the Colorado river drainage areas. The straws are the reason the river is drying up and the lions share of straws happen in Utah.

    2. Exactly!!! The yampa river in NW Colorado has been sucked dry several times in the past few years by the farmers irrigating fields of hay. There are no other crops that are grown in the yampa valley. No food for humans is grown here at all. Just hay to feed to cows and the ranchers use every drop of water in the river to do it. I see fields near steamboat late in the fall where the hay is dead and brown and nothing is even growing. But the fields are flooded with feet of water for some reason. They waste water even when the hay isn’t growing. The ranchers wasting water is the real problem. There would be plenty of drinking water for everyone in the west if we just stop irrigating hay fields.

      1. The watermaster will rotate allocations, and if your time comes around and you don’t use the water, they give it to someone else. It is a zero-sum game.

  7. Love this piece- thanks for writing it! As a 20 year seasoned Cataract Canyon guide, my Initial response was – welcome to my world my downstream sister. But after reading your whole bit, I really appreciate it as much more than simply misery loves company. Fine work! I agree about crisis management. We need now to get the word out about how we practically tackle this enormous problem thoughtfully. Although we are in crisis, we need solutions that are void of the triage part. I don’t want to place blame but in the interest of time- which we have little of- we need to be Frank and honest. Utah is the problem. Utah uses 3 times the amount of water per person than any other state in both Basins. Utah subsidies water so conserving water is un-incentivized. Because of our cheap water, we have attracted alafalfa farms the world over. 80% of Utahs water goes toward agriculture, the lions share of it goes toward alfalfa farming that gets exported nationally and internationally. The factory farms in Utah have put most of the family farms out of biz by buying up water rights and farm lands. The quickest stop gap measure we can do, the lowest hanging fruit, is to end the subsidies on water in Utah. You can check my facts here
    Thanks for writing this. Keep writing and talking about it. Know that I am writing and talking up here in Utah.

  8. Your impassioned plea falls upon utterly deaf ears in the wider world. The drinkers of water in LA simply don’t give a damn about river runners. They don’t, nor will they ever.

    I’ve had my fun. First river trip in ‘83, yeah really big water. Holding the record at ten solo floats down the Grand now, I’m satisfied to move on if I have to. Thing is, commercial operations may get eviscerated by upcoming screaming low water, pretty much forcing an end to it. Fun while it lasted eh? I’ll be investing in a titanium kayak.

    But cheer up. A banner snowpack in the Rockies and it will be fat city on the rio. Or, maybe they ship in some agua from the mighty Miss. “They” won’t let it die. Can’t afford to.

    You and I are but grains of sand, in an ever shifting dune. Enjoy that free ride. I sure do.

  9. The flows from snowmelt the last two years have come in at 5MAF, why are you quoting numbers as high as 11MAF for future flows? Where is the reference in peer reviewed literature for these fantasies?

    The reason for the low flows is climate change. Temperatures are increasing due to greenhouse gas emissions. Why don’t the guides estimate the greenhouse gas emissions produced by the river trips including travel to and from their and their guests home base? Rather than complain why not address your own contribution to these problems and come up with solutions in your own tourism industry?

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