How would you feel if the Grand Canyon ran dry?

Without being overly melodramatic, the reality is that unless some serious decisions are made, and fast, we could be facing the difficult reality of very little to no water being able to pass through Glen Canyon Dam, in essence creating a Grand Canyon without the guarantee of a flowing Colorado River.

The Grand Canyon | Photo by Sinjin Eberle

The situation on the Colorado River continues to get worse. For months, there has been abundant news about falling lake levels (Lake Powell is below 25% full, and Lake Mead is hovering below 30% full) and while some areas of the west had a terrific monsoon, other areas were left high and dry. Now consider a forecasted La Nina winter (could be the third in a row,) which generally features a warmer and dryer season and reduced snowpack throughout the West, including the Rockies; the confluence of a grim water year is staring at us in the face.

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Without being overly melodramatic, the reality is that unless some serious decisions are made, and fast, we could be facing the difficult reality of very little to no water being able to pass through Glen Canyon Dam, in essence creating a Grand Canyon without the guarantee of a flowing Colorado River. For anyone who has been on the river, whether on a raft trip or hiking to Phantom Ranch or trout fishing at Lee’s Ferry, this is a frightening vision. But what would someone who simply peers over the edge of the Canyon at the South Rim, enjoying the expanse and color and light of the distant rocks and buttes – does it matter to them that the small, silver ribbon in the distance is actually dry, rather than wet? Does it matter to people that the very thing that helped create, and certainly supports the web of life, culture, and connection of one of the grandest landscapes in the world, could be reduced to a mere trickle if we don’t take action – and soon? Are we ok with that scenario?

Could a rig like this even make it through the Canyon at severely reduced flows? | Photo by Sinjin Eberle
Could a rig like this even make it through the Canyon at severely reduced flows? | Photo by Sinjin Eberle

Let’s review what all this means in a practical sense. You may know that the Bureau of Reclamation, the Federal government agency that oversees/manages many of these big reservoirs and the Colorado River system overall, publishes a set of forecasts periodically to try to “project” what lake levels might be – usually up to two years into the future. These are called “24-month studies” and they take scores of different scenarios into account to forecast where the lake levels might be given varying amounts of runoff, soil moisture, snowpack, different temperature possibilities, and how much water is being used in different places across the entire basin. This all feeds into planning how much water needs to be stored, or how much can be released and when, for Lake Powell, Grand Canyon, and Lake Mead, among other federal facilities within the system. These predictions impact millions of people across the Southwest, and across the country when we start to consider that the vast majority of vegetables grown for our winter food supply rely on Colorado River water.

On average, about 8 million acre-feet of water (just one acre-foot is a football field of water, one foot deep, or just over 326,000 gallons) flows from Lake Powell to Grand Canyon in a normal year. But what happens if that number is drastically reduced, or water can’t safely flow through the dam at all? What happens then? Already this year, nearly a million-acre feet has both been sent downstream (from storage in Wyoming’s Flaming Gorge Reservoir) and held back in Lake Powell to slow the fall of the lake. Right now, there is only about 7 million acre-feet flowing into the Canyon in 2022. But levels are still declining, and we are getting closer to the point where Glen Canyon Dam cannot generate electricity, and potentially even worse, where water really can’t safely flow through the dam at all. What if those flows ultimately consisted of about 10% of what flows today – and all from seepage and springs dotting the length of the canyon itself?

Now back to the most recent 24-month study, where Reclamation projects through what they call the “minimum, most, and maximum probable” hydrology projections.  For the first time in the history of these projections, the minimum probable projection indicates that Lake Powell could decline to a level where no electricity can be generated (below elevation 3,490ft) by as early as December of 2023. But that says nothing about the efficiency of that power, since the lower the lake gets, the weaker the power generation capability is.

Nankoweep Straight on the Grand Canyon | Photo by Sinjin Eberle
What would this view look like if the Colorado River became Colorado Creek? | Nankoweep Straight on the Grand Canyon | Photo by Sinjin Eberle

Below that, water would need to be released through tubes that have never been tested for sustained use. Limited space exists where water can still flow through the dam, supplying water to Grand Canyon and Lake Mead, but not generating any power.  Overall, this space is only 120 feet, then the lake would be at “dead pool” (at elevation 3,370 ft.) which is in essence exactly how it sounds – a pool of water not flowing through the dam at all.)

So how much more water needs to be held back in order to keep Lake Powell on life support? John Fleck, Eric Kuhn, and Jack Schmidt contemplate that very question as they set forth the rationale for doing keeping Lake Powell functional in an article they authored last week. We know that the Federal government has emphatically said that they will protect “critical infrastructure” which means Glen Canyon Dam and both the hydropower and water supply systems that depend upon it. We also know that there are many rules that dictate how this whole system is managed. The Colorado River community is comprised of 7 states, as well as the Republic of Mexico and the Department of Interior, along with stakeholders that include municipalities, irrigators, hydropower customers, recreationalists, and environmentalists.  Each hold varying interests in different parts of the Basin, but all must find a way to participate as a whole within the Basin that sustains us all.  Critical to considering the Basin going forward also requires recognition of the 30 Federally recognized Tribal nations which have long been left out of the decision-making process around the river. Their rights and role as it relates to the river can no longer be overlooked.  Their opportunities to participate are gaining and they should be even more deeply included in decisions going forward. In short, nobody can go it alone, and everyone needs water security and predictability to plan for the future.

Fleck, Kuhn, and Schmidt argue that now might be the time for Reclamation to impose a restricted flow through the dam of only 5.5MAF – ~ 30% less than “normal” flows and still another 13% less water than is flowing into Grand Canyon today. And last week, the Bureau of Reclamation proposedMoving forward with administrative actions needed to authorize a reduction of Glen Canyon Dam releases below seven million acre-feet per year, if needed, to protect critical infrastructure at Glen Canyon Dam.” This proposal would attempt to keep at least some water flowing through the hydropower turbines (and further lower the levels at Lake Mead) but would keep electricity flowing in both. But what impact would this have on the Grand Canyon ecosystem, including the four species of native fish, the coldwater fishery above Lee’s Ferry, and the amazing diversity of plant, animal, and bird life throughout the Canyon? What would happen to the vibrant and sought-after rafting industry, which between both private and commercial trips, ferry’s more than 26,000 people per year through one of the most amazing, humbling, and majestic landscapes on earth? And maybe most importantly, where does this leave the cultural and spiritual considerations that water flowing through the Canyon has for the various Tribal communities that consider the Colorado River and Grand Canyon sacred places – essential to their way of life?

Grand Canyon cliffs at sunrise | Photo by Sinjin Eberle
Grand Canyon cliffs at sunrise | Photo by Sinjin Eberle

Can everyone come together with a solution to at least hold the river and the two reservoirs it feeds to a level that would at least triage the situation? If not, what then? While hypothetical, we need to recognize that a nearly dry or severely depleted Grand Canyon in a few short years is more plausible than ever. For anyone who has ever done a river trip leaving at Lee’s Ferry, you know that the Paria River comes in just a mile or so below the put-in, but that is a highly unpredictable river – often either pretty small or nearly dry much of the year, or a raging torrent during the monsoon season. The next “reliable” water coming into the Canyon is at the Little Colorado River, 75 miles from the dam – and 75 miles is a long way when there is so much riding on the health and sustainability of this ecosystem. Some water from seepage around the dam does occur, but with lowering lake levels, does that seepage get reduced as well? So many unknowns are staring us all in the face.

The upshot is that this is a scary time in the Colorado River system, with many options to consider – rules and laws, and treaties to follow (or change) and lots of people depending on getting it right. And increasingly important in all this, is that getting it right means getting it right together – the possibility of litigation or other legal action would define the worst-case scenario, as any opportunity for compromise and collaboration and finding solutions together instantly stops the minute the first lawsuit is filed.

The 22-year drought and its associated aridification of soils and plants, the exposure of more than 40 million people to water shortage, the whole country being impacted by the potential of reduced food production, and in the middle of all this, one of the seven wonders of the world and the ecosystem, and people, who are deeply connected to this place. Where do we go from here?

8 responses to “How would you feel if the Grand Canyon ran dry?

  1. Contrary to needless insinuations in the title and text:
    (1) There will still be some water in the river in the Canyon – at least
    seasonally from flows from tributaries well below Glen Canyon Dam
    such as Paria, Little Colorado and Bright Angel.
    (2) Like me, most Canyon tourists go not to raft on the river water but to
    simply behold the Canyon spectacle – or (like me) to hike into and in it.
    Commenter Dave has summarized the issue: somehow getting a most cost-effective and long-run sustainable course. Such course will likely include removal or modification of Glen Canyon Dam so that it no longer obstructs flows.
    Sounds simple, but that course severely hits the existing order – including the premises that we must continue at all costs to flout John Wesley Powell’s insights as to availability of Colorado Basin water for massive agriculture (let alone also for hydro-power) – whether. for Upper Basin alfalfa so that cattle can provide meat-based human diets, or for unsustainable levels of Lower Basin desert agriculture.

  2. We need to protect the Grand Canyon. It is definitely one iof the five wonders of the world and a legacy that future generations should be able to see and enjoy..

  3. I applaud Sinjin and others for fighting the good fight. Forgive the cynicism, but history says there won’t be meaningful action until the canyon runs dry. We (and I mean all stakeholders) have had decades to avoid this situation, and yet here we are. It’s no longer about left versus right, big cattle versus conservationists, one state’s water needs versus another’s – when the canyon runs dry, everybody loses. And when the stakeholders feel serious pain, they will take serious action. It’s a shame it has to come to that, but that’s the course we’re on. Hopefully, it won’t be too late.

  4. OMG I did a two week raft trip down the Colorado, and it is still one of the highlights of my life.
    I’m 80 years old and grew up near the mouth of the Eel River in Northern California
    Ever since my early years, my family was concerned with water
    In my lifetime, I have seen water waste and pollution of our rivers
    I have traveled by auto for 30 years across North America. What I have seen done to our land and rivers is unbelievable
    I could write a book, but more important is what is happening now!
    Everywhere in California, Arizona, Nevada, Oregon,and Washington, we are building and buildings!
    Housing and commercial buildings in California require a pedestal for charging electric cars and now, all electric houses. No problem obtaining electricity from glutinous companies!
    BUT, what about water and septic? Why aren’t government “the planners” concerned? In my estimation, every building should collect gray water, including houses.
    Require some type of storage for gray water to be used for landscape and other outside use
    Does anyone realize how much good water is wasted running a faucet for hot water? And no one thinks about septic?
    All of us, need to think “outside the box” on innovative ideas on water, including desalination plants.

  5. Stop growing grass lawns, improve efficiency of irrigation of farms. Use gray water on golf courses and medians

  6. Feelings are not a good solid decision foundation!
    Unbelievable for a lead off article it sets the tone for discussions in the wrong light!
    This is a serious river use decision that needs to be all about expected flows, water rights and future use to be what it has to be to be fair and equitable!!

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