By Jack Stauss
Where there was once a river
When the spillways to Glen Canyon Dam were closed in 1963, we drowned one of the most amazing stretches of river anywhere in the world. For 40 years, Glen Canyon was considered “lost” beneath the crystal blue, freezing cold impounded waters of reservoir Powell. The Colorado River backed way up into Cataract Canyon. When Mike DeHoff first went down Cataract in 1993, he finished the Big Drops and their raft spilled out on the lake. Directly below Big Drop 3, he encountered houseboaters and jet skiers.
Over the next 27 years, the world and river would change in ways that he nor anyone could have foreseen. Drought, a booming population, and a changing climate have taken their toll on a stretched desert river system, and the lake levels have dropped to historic lows. During Mike’s hundreds of trips down Cataract, he has witnessed the change and started asking a question: are we going to see rapids below the Big Drops come back? Can and will the river restore itself?
How to Answer a Question
It is a question many of us have been asking. In my office at the Glen Canyon Institute, we push for research and advocacy around exactly this issue. And now, as the reality of climate change is coming into view, this thesis of a returning river is becoming a quantifiable project. To help answer his question, Mike started the Returning Rapids Project. It began humbly enough – simply watching the water level drop. Then, they started matching historical photographs to what they were seeing change on the banks, and now in recent years, watching riffles and rapids begin to take shape at the mouths of canyons once downed. In the last couple of years, his project has taken off, with people coming from all over the basin to study the region.
This fall, we joined a research trip he put together. The trip was a cross-disciplinary adventure down Meander and Cataract Canyons, to get down to the river below the Big Drops where we would be met by even more researchers coming up from the reservoir in bigger vessels.
Our group had geologists, ecologists, fluvial geomorphologists (those that study sediment), environmental advocates, and journalists; as well as Mike, Meg, Peter, and Jamie who live in Moab and guide the river. This crew was the perfect blend of passion for the river and the tools to understand how river systems change over time. What will happen to it after a big event like a reservoir?
We spent the first three days of our trip running the river down to the high water mark. This was especially special for me because I had not run this section of river, and on the second night I found myself somewhere I had long wanted to see. We pontooned down the winding Meander Canyon, blissful in the sun, chatting about work and the river. Then, around the golden hour, we came around a bend and I saw a giant castle of redrock perched above a giant sandy beach. Mike turned to me, “Jack! There it is! The Confluence!” And away to the west, I saw the branch of the Green where it came in and met the Colorado. The rivers became one in this confusing moment, then churned together and continued downstream. We camped at the confluence – I slept out in my bag on the sand under a clear sky, watching the stars move and listening to the water of these two powerful rivers sluice together.
In the morning, I hopped aboard Jack Schmidt’s boat, a small yellow craft that we took down the rapids. Jack is a geologist from Utah State University, and a famous figure in Colorado River research. I was lucky to ride in the bow as he navigated the rapids. Above each of the Big Drops, we came in and scouted. Mike would address the group from behind his mask and with a gentle patience, he explained the run, using his hand to mime the paths our boats would take through the boulder-filled whitewater. This was his home, and Jack and I were visitors. As we cruised through Big Drop 3 we both let out a great cheer.
The doing of the science thing
After the Big Drops, we were in the restoration zone. There were now several river miles, and at least four decent and long rapids, as well a four side canyons of interest. Mike’s story of motorboats here still boggles my mind. There were miles of flowing water yet to float. We stayed the night and took some observations at Imperial Canyon. But our basecamp for work would be Gypsum Canyon where we would meet the upriver crew from the USGS and Grand Canyon Research and Monitoring Center. My job, along with the other advocates and journalists was to document and help the scientists in whatever way we could.
We ran down the Imperial Rapid into the Chute and onward to Water Hole, one of the canyons of interest. We climbed out of our boats and walked up Water Hole to a large grotto above the river. The geologists were all in awe. They said what they were looking at in the sediment banks left by the reservoir was like seeing geology happen in real-time, as opposed to the norm – millions of years. They took some measurements in the walls of deposit which we were all calling “The Dominy Formation” after the Bureau of Reclamation director who built Glen Canyon Dam. I hiked back down through the Dominy and as I was at the river’s edge, observing coyote willow and baby cottonwoods that were coming to life, I looked over my shoulder and locked eyes with a bighorn ram. Things were living in this area that we once thought lost.
Over the next day and a half, I helped carry equipment from our camp at Gypsum Rapid, a couple of miles back upstream to Water Hole, and took lots of photos and videos. Mike jumped around between groups of researchers, helping wherever he could, and showing them points of interest he had established over the years. He excitedly showed me a new benchmark they were putting in. These copper heads would be forever permanent additions to the river bank, helping us understand what the new river corridor would look like, what elevation it was and will be.
To see the excitement from each of us; environmentalists, scientists, and river runners alike was electrifying. It was the unifying collaboration we need to solve difficult problems. We all knew that this trip was only just the beginning, and we were all thankful to Mike for bringing us in to help him answer his decades old question.
There was once a reservoir
I’ve spent years studying the river, and bigger questions pertaining to human’s place among nature. What role do we play in a healthy environmental future? The question and philosophy is complex, and there is no better place to see that complexity of the anthropocene than down below the Big Drops. But the answer to one question is not complex. What happens when we let a river flow? It will come back to life.
Jack Stauss moved to Salt Lake City in 2008 in pursuit of big mountains and wide open spaces. He has spent the last several years both enjoying and advocating for public lands and free flowing rivers. While he’s not typing on his keyboard, he will be backcountry skiing in the Wasatch or exploring Utah’s wild deserts. Read some of his environmental musings at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at @jackstauss on Instagram