Our work at American Rivers is rooted in the belief that healthy rivers are for everyone, not just a privileged few. People of Color and Tribal Nations feel the impacts of pollution and other river threats disproportionately due to historical and contemporary policies and practices that maintain inequities. We observe Women’s History Month 2023 with a celebration of authors writing about environmental justice, Indigenous knowledge, life lessons from waters, plants, and animals, the power of imagination, and the future of conservation for people and the planet.  

National bestseller Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by MacArthur ‘Genius’ Grant Winner Robin Wall Kimmerer
Cover of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer

First, the national bestseller Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by MacArthur ‘Genius’ Grant Winner Robin Wall Kimmerer offers insights into scientific knowledge, Indigenous wisdom, and the teachings of plants.  

“Drawing on her life as an indigenous scientist, a mother, and a woman, Kimmerer shows how other living beings—asters and goldenrod, strawberries and squash, salamanders, algae, and sweetgrass—offer us gifts and lessons, even if we’ve forgotten how to hear their voices.” 

Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals
Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals

Next, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals is a beautiful mix of poetic sensibility, naturalist observation, and Black feminist insight. Like many of us who draw wisdom from the natural world when we spend time on our favorite rivers, Gumbs translates the submerged wisdom of marine mammals to reveal what they might teach us about humans as a part of nature’s ecosystems and approaches to caring for ourselves and all species on the planet.

Cover of 'From the Stars in the Sky to the Fish in the Sea' by Kai Cheng Thom
Cover of ‘From the Stars in the Sky to the Fish in the Sea’ by Kai Cheng Thom

Like Gumbs, Kai Cheng Thom’s children’s book From the Stars in the Sky to The Fish in The Sea takes a poetic approach to the many magical possibilities and lessons we can learn from nature’s uniqueness and infinite possibilities. Thom’s beautifully illustrated book invites readers to engage the imagination of their own inner child (I’ve always wanted to be a really big interesting insect!) and features a mother’s loving refrain: 

“whatever you dream of / i believe you can be / from the stars in the sky to the fish in the sea.”

Cover of Making Livable Worlds by Hilda Lloréns
Cover of Making Livable Worlds by Hilda Lloréns

Next, Making Livable Worlds: Afro-Puerto Rican Women Building Environmental Justice by Hilda Lloréns surveys the inspiring work of Afro-Puerto Rican women navigating the multiple ongoing crises that have followed Hurricanes Irma and María. Lloréns highlights the cultural knowledge and daily improvisations that enable frontline communities, and the environmental justice leaders working to sustain them, to survive and thrive.

Cover of The Intersectional Environmentalist by Leah Thomas
Cover of The Intersectional Environmentalist by Leah Thomas

Finally, author Leah Thomas offers both a guide and a call to action in The Intersectional Environmentalist: How to Dismantle Systems of Oppression to Protect People + Planet. Thomas offers an accessible overview, linking environmentalism, racism, and privilege. This book promotes awareness of the fundamental truth that we cannot save the planet without uplifting the voices of its people — especially those most often unheard.  

This year, American Rivers introduced a new tagline for the organization: Life Depends on Rivers. It could not be a more appropriate description of the threats rivers face and the importance of our work. Fortunately, rivers and human systems are dynamic in their ability to heal. Enabling rivers to heal is our best hope to address climate change, protect freshwater species, and equitably provide the benefits of healthy rivers and clean water to everyone. 

The Wild and Scenic Rivers Coalition set out to advocate in Washington DC for rivers the week of March 6th. Approximately 40 coalition members were able to divide and conquer, ultimately meeting with more than 80 congressional offices, promoting 16 different campaigns. American Rivers is a founding member and an active participant in the coalition. It was a full and successful week and as individuals embarked on their journeys home to varying states, the resounding message remains on Capitol Hill- For the rivers!

The following bills and campaigns were amplified during the week’s meetings:


                Wild Olympics Wilderness and Wild and Scenic Rivers Act


                River Democracy Act

                Smith River National Recreation Area Expansion Act S.162

                Oregon Recreation Enhancement Act S.440


                Northwest California Wilderness, Recreation, and Working Forests Act

                Central Heritage Protection Act

                San Gabriel Mountains Foothills and Rivers Protection Act


                Dolores River National Conservation Area and Special Management Area Act

                Crystal Wild and Scenic River (Emerging)

                Deep Creek Wild and Scenic River (Emerging)


                M.H. Dutch Salmon Greater Gila Wild and Scenic River Act


                Montana Headwaters Legacy Act


                S.4631 Deerfield River Wild and Scenic River Study Act


                H.R. 1063 Nulhegan and Paul Stream Wild and Scenic River Designation


                Little Wild and Scenic River (Emerging)


                Upper Verde Wild and Scenic River (Emerging)


                Nolichucky Wild and Scenic River (Emerging)

It’s a familiar scenario: Rising rivers are pinched off from the flood plains that could have spread, slowed, and stored the sudden abundance of water. Floodwaters break through levees and leave destruction and heartbreaking loss in their wake. Renewed frustration and fury enter the public dialogue about “wasted” water.  

I could be describing the recent events in California, where footage of fast-moving rivers carrying floodwaters out into the Pacific Ocean baffled some who have been preoccupied (and rightfully so) with drought and dire predictions about the fate of California’s water supply. But it’s also the story of the Mississippi River in the aftermath of the 1849 flood of New Orleans. And the 1927 flood in New Orleans. And California’s Central Valley floods of 1964, 1982, 1995, 1997, 2017, and, of course, this past month. Over the past 150 years of river management, floods have been framed as “wasted water,” falsely pitting the environment against the economy, ignoring the self-inflicted consequences of rivers constrained by levees, and overlooking the opportunities healthy rivers provide to support people and ecosystems. It is time (again) to take a more holistic approach, recognizing that the health of our rivers is central to our state’s future. Flowing rivers are working rivers, and they benefit us all. 

River managers use the term “environmental flows” to describe the water that’s allowed to stay in rivers to nurture the ecosystem, as opposed to water diverted or stored for farms, cities or hydropower. While I worked at the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, we dove in deep on environmental flows, calculating an environmental flow management strategy for every major tributary to the San Joaquin River, which nourishes the valley that bears its name. We modeled two environmental flow policies being considered by the state and how each affected a watershed’s hydropower production, flood control, and water supply. 

The first provides a percentage of natural flows, ranging from 30% to 50%.

The second focuses on restoring specific pieces of annual flow patterns that support ecologically valuable functions (e.g., seasonal floods or spring snowmelt). 

The big takeaway? Healthy, flowing rivers benefit people. We learned that environmental flows can enhance the state’s hydropower production, rather than create an additional constraint to competing water demands. We learned that water was available for storage when we focused on the relationship between flow quantity and ecological quality. We recognized that, above a certain point, more water was not necessarily better.  

But we also learned that, even if we committed to environmental flows tomorrow, we’ve pinched our rivers so tightly between a maze of levees that they don’t have space to carry even modest historical floods, let alone what we’re likely to see with climate change.

In 2015, Erin McCombs of American Rivers invited the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to join the North Carolina Aquatic Connectivity Team (ACT), a group focused on river connectivity and dam removal. This was an unusual move as regulators do not often get invited to participate in such groups — but the brilliant approach of the ACTs was to invite all voices to the table. My colleague and I hopped in a car and headed to North Carolina, unsure what – if anything – we could bring to the table. We were surprised when Erin urged us to consider how the regulatory/permitting process could be an obstacle to river restoration. I thought, “Clarifying the regulatory process in North Carolina was surely something we could do. How hard would that be?” As it turns out, it would take 7 years. But along the way, we would learn a lot and we now celebrate three dam removal handbooks completed in three years! But I’m jumping ahead.

I served my entire 35-year career as a regulator at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), working under federal statutes and regulations to protect, maintain and restore the environment. Serving under seven Presidents, the majority of my career was spent protecting rivers and streams under the Clean Water Act. The job was often contentious with countless hours spent across the table from folks with widely divergent, strongly held positions. Perhaps surprisingly, I came to value those widely diverging positions. Early in my career as a field inspector and enforcement officer, I learned that listening to all voices often resulted in win-win outcomes that were better for the environment and often had numerous, often unacknowledged economic or other co-benefits.

Lisa Perras Gordon hiking along the Oconaluftee River
Lisa Perras Gordon hiking along the Oconaluftee River

For the past 14 years, I served as technical lead for addressing pollution from hydrologic alteration, such as dams, diversions, and surface and groundwater withdrawals for the Southeast. This was sometimes an area of great controversy, but over the years, removing dams to restore the natural infrastructure of rivers and streams emerged as a concept on which almost everyone agreed. Dam removal restores connectivity for fish and other aquatic life, enables threatened and endangered species to thrive, re-establishes thermal and sediment regimes, and restores dissolved oxygen and could accelerate long-delayed land building in the coastal zone. Dam removal could enhance local economic development, restore safe river recreation, and remove public safety hazards. Where appropriate, the EPA supported these restoration projects, published dam removal success stories, and provided EPA grants.

In 2016, I was offered an opportunity to pull together a team to develop national guidance on how dam removal is viewed under the Clean Water Act. It was an opportunity to clarify the ecological and water quality benefits of removal, as well as co-benefits to public safety, economic development, connectivity, river recreation, and more. Keeping in mind Erin’s request, we sought to clarify the permitting process. One obstacle was instantly clear – the process was different in every state – and in each of the 38 Army Corps of Engineers Districts. We could not fully clarify the process in a national document.

To clarify the process at the state level, we started with a group from the Georgia Aquatic Connectivity Team including state and federal regulators, natural resource agencies, the University of Georgia, utilities, dam owners, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), determined to capture the information needed for any project manager or dam owner interested in removal.  It was not as straightforward as we hoped – there is no one agency that is fully over all dams or the process of dam removal. Through productive conversations, we drafted language collaboratively and outlined regulatory processes without promising regulatory outcomes. In June 2020, the Georgia Dam Removal Handbook was published – a state and US Army Corps of Engineers-specific guide for dam removal. The document has been downloaded hundreds of times. One email we received in response stated, “…check out the contributors on this document. Can you believe all of these people worked together?”

The following year, American Rivers asked us to pull together a Regulatory Committee for the South Carolina ACT to create a state- and Corps-specific Handbook. This time, we were prepared to hear all of the voices and urged them to tell their story of dam removal – which was different than Georgia’s. We spent six months learning each other’s processes and in December 2021, published the South Carolina Dam Removal Handbook.

I decided to retire in October of 2022. I had a lot to wrap up, but it troubled me that I had never fulfilled my promise to Erin to clarify the regulatory process for dam removal in North Carolina. Erin gave me a hard nudge. We pulled together an experienced group of state and federal regulators, state and federal natural resource agencies, and NGOs with extensive experience in dam removal who agreed to work together in record time to create a Handbook. North Carolina is one of the most successful southern states for dam removals and we wanted to tell North Carolina’s story from the mountains to the sea. For the first time, we included the tribal perspective on dam removal thanks to the input and perspective from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Eleven days before retiring, we turned over the NC Dam Removal Handbook final draft to Erin. We completed three state- and Corps-specific dam removal handbooks for the Southeast ACTs in three years. I hope the publications, and the relationships formed along the way, will help to significantly remove regulatory barriers to the restoration of rivers and streams through dam removal in the Southeast. Thank you to all who contributed to this Handbook. And special thanks to American Rivers, The Nature Conservancy, and Southeast Aquatic Resources Partnership (SARP), for creating collaborative platforms through the ACTS bringing disparate voices together to have meaningful collaborations – and for not being afraid to invite a regulator to the table.

Click to download
Click to download
Click to download

This is a guest blog written by Lisa Perras Gordon, (retired) U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

With all the conversation going on around falling water levels in Lake Powell, one issue that has garnered less press is how small mouth bass are passing through Glen Canyon dam and into Grand Canyon. Certainly, there have been some stories, but not to the degree that maybe the issue deserves, given the severity of the concern for the sheer disruption it could cause in the aquatic ecosystem of Grand Canyon.

Small mouth bass is the most recent, and alarming, arrival among a number of non-native fish that have been identified in the Colorado River below Glen Canyon dam. There is evidence that green sunfish, carp, and a few other species exist in Grand Canyon, and all these fish are, in one way or another, a threat to the delicate balance that exists in the canyon for native fish, some of which are on the Endangered Species list. Humpback chub is the Grand Canyon fish that states and the federal government have spent the most effort and money to recover over the past few decades, and recent data shows that the canyon’s humpback chub population has staged quite a comeback.

Small Mouth Bass | Photo by Eric Engbretson / USFWS
Small Mouth Bass | Photo by Eric Engbretson / USFWS

Green sunfish were discovered in Grand Canyon in 2015, and their presence in the canyon has generally been from being pulled through the hydropower generation tubes in Glen Canyon Dam, and to a lesser degree from being flushed into the canyon during flash floods that race down the Little Colorado River. Small mouth bass were introduced into Lake Powell in 1982 and thrive in the warm water layers near the top of the lake. Small mouth bass (and green sunfish) are both voracious feeders, and adults can grow to between 12-22 inches long. Humpback chub is also a reasonably sized fish, with adults getting up to about 20 inches in length. They can live to be up to about 30 years old in the wild and are uniquely adapted to surviving in their whitewater habitat.

Small mouth bass pose an urgent two-pronged threat that could put the decades of work (and investment) that has gone into recovering humpback chub populations in real jeopardy. First, small mouth bass would prey on the much younger humpback chub juveniles, creating a “generational” problem with mature humpback chub getting older over time with a lot fewer young chubs coming up behind them. The second problem, which sets small mouth bass apart from green sunfish, is that the small mouth bass’ “gape” or ability to open its mouth really wide, is considerably larger than the green sunfish, making it possible for the bass to eat even adult humpback chub. So, the threat of decimating the population of chub actually exists for both juveniles and adults.

A logical question then might be – “how are these fish getting into Grand Canyon when they have never been there before?” The answer points directly back to lake levels in Lake Powell. Take a look at the chart below…

With lake levels falling, warm water is more readily being pulled through the hydropower tubes (penstocks) along with small mouth bass. Photo courtesy GCMRC - data is preliminary.
With lake levels falling, warm water is more readily being pulled through the hydropower tubes (penstocks) along with small mouth bass. Photo courtesy GCMRC – data is preliminary.

What this chart shows is the temperature of the water from the lake’s surface to the depths, by year. Lake elevation is the vertical axis, with time on the horizontal axis from the year 2000 on the far left to 2023 on the far right. The big change is within the big red circle on the upper right – showing how the warmer temperature water has steadily declined past the black line that identifies the elevation of the “penstocks” or the tubes through the dam where water flows to produce hydropower. As the lake has fallen, small mouth bass have been pulled lower and lower in their comfy warm layer until they can pass through the hydropower tubes, through the dam, into Grand Canyon.

Additionally, since that water is so warm, once they get below the dam they have a new playground (and breeding ground) that is warm and full of food. And this is where the real concern is – both that small mouth bass can now reproduce in that warm water and have an abundant food source in both young brown and rainbow trout (in the usually cold waters just below the dam – a very productive trout fishing destination) and native fishes like humpback chub.

Concern has been raised over the past couple of years as lake levels have fallen, but it wasn’t until last spring that there was evidence that the fish had passed through the dam. But now they are there, and the National Park Service, Arizona Game & Fish, Bureau of Reclamation, and other stakeholders are all trying to figure out the best way to address this issue. Upon discovering that the fish were actually in the canyon, officials began poisoning the fish to try to tamp down the population, but that solution is not a long-term answer, and is highly troubling for tribal people who object to the taking of life.

Currently, the Bureau of Reclamation is conducting an assessment is exploring four different proposals for how to flow more cold water through the dam to hopefully discourage the small mouth bass from reproducing. In the meantime, there are other proposals for how to screen or block the fish from getting close enough to the dam to be pulled through the hydropower tubes. The public can comment until March 10 by submitting your comments to this email address.

It’s a complicated issue, and one that many people are trying to figure out the best path forward. Millions of dollars have been spent recovering humpback chub and other native fish in Grand Canyon. We must figure out ways to sustain the native fish population within the canyon and help keep that ecosystem in balance.

This is a guest blog written by American Rivers’ partner, Friends of the Cheat. Since 1994, Friends of the Cheat have been working to restore, preserve, promote the outstanding natural qualities of the Cheat River watershed in West Virginia.

The Albright Power Dam is significantly closer to removal, thanks to a $1 million boost from the 2022 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. The West Virginia dam is one of American Rivers’ 25 Dams to Watch in 2022—a list that highlights noteworthy dam removal projects across the United States. Once completed, this project will open 75 miles of the Cheat River and hundreds of miles of tributaries, offering tremendous benefits to the local communities and ecosystems.

Led by FRIENDS OF THE CHEAT and in partnership with the local community, American Rivers, Trout Unlimited, the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, and others, the dam removal could begin as early as 2024. Friends of the Cheat’s vision for the project is to create a free-flowing river, with public access for fishing, boating, birdwatching, swimming, picnicking, or any activity revolving around safe river recreation.

Upstream of the Albright Dam is continuing to get healthier because of community efforts | Beth Warnick, Friends of the Cheat

American Rivers has been a lead partner on the efforts to remove the dam since 2018, providing critical guidance and mentorship to Friends of the Cheat’s staff. Serving on the project implementation team, American Rivers is helping partners find creative solutions to move the project forward.

Removing the dam will have positive impacts on the local ecosystem and community. Nearly 40 fish species will once again be able to migrate up and downstream to secure habitat and food. Also, for the first time in 70 years, local community members will be able to recreate in this section of the Cheat River.

A History of Pollution, Followed by Restoration

The Cheat River had a long history of poor water quality due to warm water returns from the nearby power plant, acid mine drainage from legacy coal mining, and sedimentation from intensive logging. In 1995, American Rivers named the Cheat as one of the nation’s top 10 most endangered rivers. Because of this pollution, angling, and other recreation opportunities dropped drastically, as the river couldn’t sustain fish populations and other animal species.

Since then, Friends of the Cheat has been working to restore the river. The Albright Power Dam was originally built to feed the cooling towers of the coal-fired Albright Power Station, which was decommissioned in 2012. The decommissioning created a new opportunity for Friends of the Cheat to work toward the dam’s removal to further improve conditions for the ecosystem, recreation, and the community. 

Opening Up the Cheat for Fish and Wildlife

“I’m excited to see a wild river flowing unobstructed, especially for walleye and other fish populations to grow and return to their native habitats,” Madison Ball, Friends of the Cheat conservation program director.

Healthy river ecosystems have a variety of prey and predator fish species, each with their own specific roles and habitat preferences, and they provide great recreational fishing opportunities.

The lower Cheat River has recently seen the return of pollution-sensitive species, such as walleye and smallmouth bass. The upper Cheat has a robust smallmouth bass fishery, but walleye have not been re-established here after pollution eliminated them from this part of the river. 

Eastern Hellbender | A crucial species that will benefit from the Albright Dam’s removal | Chad Landress

Now that the river is no longer impaired, removing the Albright Power Dam will reconnect these reaches, allowing walleye to move upstream and increasing angling opportunities. In addition to having access to major tributaries, connection back to Cheat Lake will be important for walleye and other species’ long-term success. 

Other aquatic wildlife will benefit from the dam removal. Eastern hellbender, an indicator species, and the largest of U.S. salamander species will have more habitat to help their struggling populations. And freshwater mussels, which help filter water, are also expected to thrive with a free-flowing river.

Removing a Safety Hazard, Improving the Local Economy

“Low head dams like the Albright Power Station Dam are most dangerous to recreationalists,” Jim Snyder, Cheat River whitewater enthusiast.

The water around Albright Power Dam can be deceiving. The water pooling behind it may appear calm, but as it spills over the dam it can create currents that drown people, even those wearing life jackets. The age of the structure and recent trends towards increased rain and more common flooding events across the region are all cause for concern if it is not removed.

The low head Albright Dam can be dangerous during high-flow events | Beth Warnick/Friends of the Cheat

There is also no established portage route around the Albright Power Dam, greatly limiting recreation opportunities in the area. Removing the dam will help people access this area safely, benefiting them and the economy with a new stretch of river open for paddlers and fishing opportunities.

Federal funding for the project came from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Fish Passage Program. Partners at the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation also supported the project with a $460,000 in grant and matching funds through the Central Appalachia Habitat Stewardship Program.

Dam removal practitioners across the country are continuing to break down river barriers— 65 dams were removed across the country in 2022, reconnecting more than 430 upstream river miles across 20 states.  

We look forward to a year in which dams are reported to be removed in all 50 states! In the meantime, we celebrate the return of river health and resilience for these projects completed in 2022.  

You might be wondering— has Pennsylvania been unseated as the leader in dam removals? Not yet! BUT! It was not the top state in 2022— Ohio is coming for you, Pennsylvania! 

The top states for dam removals in 2022 were:  

  • Ohio (11 removals) 
  • Pennsylvania (10 removals) 
  • Virginia (6 removals) 

Across the country, dam removal practitioners have removed at least 2,025 dams since 1912. We are just getting started, everyone. Obsolete and dilapidated dams abound across the nation. We believe at least 30,000 dams (out of more than 400,000) can be removed to revitalize streams and bring rivers back to life. After all, life depends on rivers. My life, your life, your children’s lives, even your dog’s. We are counting on our community of dam removal enthusiasts, supporters, and even those who did not realize dams could impair streams to join with us.  

In the meantime, the hard workers below illustrate just a sampling of the great work done in 2022 to remove dams across the U.S. 

Waltons Mill Dam Before | Photo by Maranda Nemeth
Waltons Mill Dam After | Photo by Maranda Nemeth

Walton’s Mill Dam Removal, Temple Stream, Maine— The Atlantic Salmon Federation and partners collaborated with local residents on the decision to remove Walton’s Mill Dam. The plan included rebuilding the adjacent community park and replacing several upstream undersized road stream crossings. The watershed-wide effort will restore more than 54 miles of productive cold-water habitat for wild Atlantic salmon and other native fish. The project is part of a broader effort over the past several decades to restore endangered Atlantic salmon and other sea-run fish to the Kennebec River, an effort ignited by the successful removal of Edwards Dam in 1999. 

Removal of Barren River Lock and Dam No. 1, Barren River, Kentucky | Photo by Mike Wilkinson

Barren River Lock and Dam No. 1, Barren River, Kentucky— This project was part of a broader effort to remove dams along the Green and Barren rivers in Kentucky. A dam was originally built at this site in 1841 and expanded in 1933 for commercial use. It ceased operation in 1965 after Green River Lock and Dam 4 failed and navigation on the Barren River was no longer possible. Since then, the structure sat unused and deteriorated, creating a pooled condition in the river with lower oxygen levels, more sediment, and higher temperatures— conditions that are detrimental to aquatic life and the overall health of the river. The dam was also a barrier to boat traffic and a potential public safety hazard. All of these issues were addressed when the dam was removed by a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service construction team. 

Burrells Place Dam, Unnamed tributary to Pigpen Branch, South Carolina—  Located in the headwaters of the Chattooga National Wild and Scenic River, the U.S. Forest Service, Naturaland Trust, South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed this earthen dam in the Andrew Pickens Ranger District of Sumter National Forest. This project reconnected habitat for one of the last remaining populations of native Southern Appalachian brook trout. This project is part of a broader effort to remove obsolete dams on U.S. Forest Service land. Wilson Creek Dam in George Washington and Jefferson National Forest in Virginia were also removed in 2022. 

One More Thing!! 

The largest river and salmon restoration project in history will begin this year on the Klamath River in Oregon and California, with the removal of four dams. This effort on the Klamath is the result of decades of leadership and advocacy from the Karuk, Yurok, Klamath and other tribes, and will restore salmon runs, improve water quality, and revitalize cultural connections and food sovereignty. 

For now, check out our map and database on dam removals across the country here, and our summary of 2022 projects here

You’ll be hearing more from us in 2023 on dam removal, so stay tuned! 

With the substantial amount of snow that has fallen across the Colorado River basin over the past couple of months, I have been asked many questions about the state of the drought, and whether all this precipitation will reverse the severe declines in both Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Will all this snow “save” the Colorado River basin from further declines and cutbacks? Can we all just go back to normal now and not worry about conservation so much?

Spoiler alert – Not likely.

Certainly, all this snow will help quench the basin’s immediate thirst.  It may also serve to have much of the basin delay confronting what has been shaping up to be a real emergency, with real consequences for everyone who relies on the Colorado River – but not for long. If we experience another low snowpack year which has been predicted, the situation from the top of the basin to Mexico will be pretty dire – and if this recent snow funnel turns off, it still could be. But for now, it appears that, while the current snow conditions will certainly not save the day, they might help side-step having to immediately endure worst-case scenarios beginning as early as this spring, which hopefully can provide the states and Federal government some space to come together and bring the rest of the Colorado River community along in support of workable solutions for the basin by the end of the summer.

Through my role with American Rivers, I am honored to be one of the two Environmental Representatives on the Glen Canyon Dam Adaptive Management Program (GCD-AMP) Technical Work Group (TWG) which is intimately involved with much of the science conducted in the Grand Canyon and Lake Powell. As part of that role, how Glen Canyon Dam operates and is managed is of central consideration, and the impacts of decisions around how water flows through the dam are of critical importance to the ecological, recreational, and cultural values of the Grand Canyon and the overall natural heritage it provides.

Last week, at a meeting in Phoenix, we got detailed readouts around the hydrologic conditions in the Upper Basin of the Colorado River (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico make up the Upper Basin) and so far, the data looks positive for this current water year.

Recent snowfall has driven most of the Upper Colorado River basin over 100% snowpack year to date. The average across the basin is well above normal. Graphic credit US Bureau of Reclamation

All those purple and blue blobs are great news and something to cheer about. These numbers all play into how the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR), the Federal agency that oversees and manages the federal infrastructure for the Colorado River system, forecasts likely water supply scenarios in different areas of the basin. But for the time being, let’s stick with Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell.

Most recent 24-month study projects that Lake Powell will stay above Minimum Power Pool according to current conditions. Graphic credit US Bureau of Reclamation

The chart above may look confusing but bear with me. The vertical axis is the elevation of the water stored behind Glen Canyon Dam in Lake Powell. The horizontal axis is time, looking ahead across the next two years. Modeling experts at BOR run dozens of simulations based on 30-year average hydrology, current snowpack conditions, soil moisture, projected meteorology, and water use estimates to identify potential probabilities around how much water may be coming through the system, including how much water may reasonably be expected to flow into Lake Powell in a given year. Then, understanding these “inflows” projections in combination with other resource considerations, the BOR projects the volume and timing of water to be released out of Lake Powell, through the Grand Canyon, and into Lake Mead on an annual basis.

If you look carefully at the chart above, you will see three dotted lines undulating from left to right. Those three lines are the “Minimum, Maximum, and Most” probable storage scenarios for Lake Powell based on different inflow and other inputs (Maximum being the top, a blue line which reflects where 90% of the scenarios will land at or below in storage elevation, meaning the maximum probable amount of water to be stored at Lake Powell for the relevant year; Minimum being the bottom, red line which reflects where 10% of the scenarios will land or fall below in storage elevation, meaning the minimum probable amount of water to be stored at Lake Powell for the relevant year; and, Most being the middle, green line, which reflects that 50% of the scenarios are likely to be at or below in Lake Powell storage elevations for the year.  Each of these projections is based on CURRENT conditions and is subject to change as we learn more about actual, as opposed to modeled, conditions in the basin.

As you can see, the line trends down from now until about mid-April 2023, then makes a sharp curve upwards. This represents spring runoff – it is current, frozen snow (very low runoff in the rivers) transitioning into spring (lots of snowpack melting and the rivers flowing vigorously.) Then as we get into summer and fall, things more or less flatten out as the snowpack depletes and levels in Lake Powell stabilize.

The most important line on the chart above (at least for this blog) is the bottom line (Minimum Probable,) and, in particular, the April 2024 timeframe, the lowest point on the chart. Below that lowest point is a grey dashed line marked “Minimum Power Pool – 3,490ft.” This represents the elevation where Lake Powell can no longer produce any hydropower electricity because the water has fallen too low to turn the turbines.

As recently as last December, there was a real probability that Lake Powell could fall below Minimum Power Pool (the elevation where hydropower could no longer be generated) as early as December 2023. Graphic credit US Bureau of Reclamation

Just a couple of months ago, it looked like Lake Powell may fall below that Minimum Power Pool elevation sometime around the April 2024 timeframe, and if this winter’s snowpack was dismal, the threat to the minimum power pool could be much higher much sooner. Last fall, BOR Commissioner Touton instructed that the Basin must come up with an additional 2- and 4-million-acre feet of Colorado River water to avoid critical threats to infrastructure and the system between now and the time new long-term operating criteria can be finalized (est. 2026). This directive, along with several other factors, also inspired BOR to consider partially modifying the current operating criteria through a process called a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS).

A SEIS is, in essence, a comprehensive study around some options that could guide operations at the Glen Canyon Dam and other facilities to forestall threats to the health, safety, and continuing functionality of the system until more comprehensive management plans can be assessed and considered.  Short-term adjustments to system operations will likely consider, among other things, the release of less water (and potentially MUCH less water) from Lake Powell in the current and next years with the assumption that storage at Lake Powell could continue to decline. That study is in process, but we all need to continue to press the urgency of this situation and find every way possible to reduce the consumption of Colorado River water, from every user across the entire basin. Just because the snowpack looks good today, doesn’t reduce the immediate need to find a way to live within the means that the river can provide starting now.

Now, some caveats to all this optimism. First, it could stop snowing, like it did last year, and this trend of piles of happy snow could go away. Second, the basin overall is in a serious water deficit across nearly all reservoirs in the Upper Basin.  BOR has had to release a lot of water over the past two years under emergency and drought contingency actions, including the implementation of a Drought Response Operations Agreement to try to keep Lake Powell from falling even farther and even faster. Lastly, runoff matters, and the combination of how soon spring arrives and how warm it gets, combined with how moist the soil is as that snow begins to melt will dictate how much water makes its journey down the river. With the solid monsoon seasons over the past two summers, the soil moisture is much better than it was a couple of years ago.  But dry soils absorb water as the snow melts, and if the soils are too dry, runoff water never makes it to the rivers in the first place. In fact, many believe that relying on the 30-year average hydrology conditions in the basin as part of the modeling foundation leads to potentially overly optimistic results in storage conditions. 

So, there is cause for optimism, and cause for skepticism, but at least at this point in early 2023, things are looking as good as they likely could to provide a little room to keep working toward collaborative solutions than in years past. Keep those snow dances coming!

When I’m asked what it means to be a woman in science, I immediately pause and look at the question from a more fundamental level: what does it mean to be a person in science? 

For my entire childhood and adolescence, I only had one image of a scientist: a man in a lab coat with a microscope, hunched over a world reduced to energy and particles. I suppose this shouldn’t be surprising: my dad was a chemist and spent his entire career working in labs, trying to make people’s lives better by looking for new ways to treat cancer. My mother is also a scientist: a biochemist who was routinely assigned the task of writing up other men’s research, rather than being invited to participate in the fundamental work of discovery herself. 

This is not an inspiring picture. 

Ann participating as a guide and instructor in a graduate student field class in the Grand Canyon. This program guides scientists from diverse backgrounds and disciplines down the Colorado River, teaching them about collaboration and field science. Ann has volunteered as a guide for that class since 2008.

It wasn’t until I had graduated college (with an English degree) that I caught a glimpse of a different path. At 21, I experienced a lot of firsts: my first camping trip. My first rafting trip. My first multi-day rafting trip. On a six-day rafting trip on the Middle Fork Salmon River in Idaho, I felt a visceral connection to the world that I had never experienced before. I felt that I belonged, that I had value. My mind was blown and my world would never be the same again. 

I knew I wanted to understand and protect rivers. By talking with countless people who generously shared their knowledge, I learned about field science: learning about the environment through direct, outdoor experience. Combing field science with my love for rivers has led me to a day-to-day life filled with curiosity about the places I’m trying to protect or the people who live in them, and the wonder of discovery when I learn something new. Being a scientist also means choosing a life of humility: approaching my work every day with only one certainty: I don’t know everything. Acknowledging that truth liberates me to recognize and set aside my preconceptions and biases, opening myself to new ideas.  

I’ve been fortunate to work with and be mentored by brilliant, funny female scientists. Dr. Sarah Null at Utah State University was my gateway scientist through her research about removing Hetch Hetchy and restoring the Tuolumne River. Dr. Rachel Johnson is a role model of an applied field researcher who guides federal policy on river management for salmon recovery, and also mentors and collaborates with a diverse community. I am inspired by people like Dr. Kathy Sullivan, the first person to walk in space and reach the deepest known spot in the ocean.  And I admire women like those featured in the documentary “Picture A Scientist”, who courageously speak up against the pervasive abuse and marginalization woman experience as they try to make the world a better place by nurturing their own curiosity and passion for discovery. 

Misa Terrell and Ann Willis during their last field trip to monitor a conservation project on a creek in the lower Klamath Watershed.

My hope for the future of women in science is simple: that more women pursue field science, and that the existing science community works hard to make that space diverse, equitable, inclusive, and just. I also hope that we make women who pursue field science more visible, normalizing their presence in a space that’s historically been male-dominated, to illustrate a more diverse picture of who scientists are. I hope that women who pursue river science feel inspired to use it as a platform to advocate for the places we love and that have become integral to our identities. Finally, I hope that through their river science, women also learn to embrace the gift of their individuality by emulating rivers. In the words of Maya Angelou, “A woman in harmony with her spirit is like a river flowing. She goes where she will without pretense and arrives at her destination prepared to be herself and only herself.”