Glen Canyon Dam outlet tubes opened this week to a maximum of 42,300 cubic feet of water per second in a “high-flow experimental release” the federal government hopes will rebuild sandbars, beaches and backwaters along the Colorado River.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar triggered the release at noon on Monday, Nov. 19. The flood of water will move thousands of tons of sand down the river to provide vital wildlife habitat, enhance the aquatic food base, protect archaeological sites, and create new camping sites in the Grand Canyon, according to a news release from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
The idea is to simulate natural flood conditions that suspend and redeposit sand stored in the river channel. Federal officials say the flooding will provide key habitat for the endangered humpback chub along with other benefits, including increased recreation opportunities.
Salazar said in the news release the effort will show “that the goals of water storage, delivery and hydropower production are compatible with improving and protecting the resources of the Colorado River.”
However, Moab resident John Weisheit, who represents Colorado Riverkeeper and Living Rivers, called it “a huge joke.”
He believes sediment released into the river will simply wash down to Lake Mead.
“Eventually Lake Mead fills up with sediment and it becomes useless,” Weisheit said. “Press releases give an appearance to the general public that everything’s being fixed. But one year after the experiment we are back to where we were before.”
To be effective in the Grand Canyon, the process would have to be repeated year after year, Weisheit said, adding, “Eventually this is not going to work.”
The Glen Canyon Dam water release will have no effect on the Colorado River near Moab, Weisheit added.
He said Cataract Canyon is the section of Colorado River that remains closest to what Gen. John Wesley Powell saw during his 1869 expedition down the Green and Colorado rivers. That’s because there are still a lot of tributary streams that replenish sand that is lost, Weisheit said.
Meanwhile, George Wendt, president and CEO of OARS Outdoor Adventure River Specialists, applauded the Department of Interior’s high-flow project, which was slated to last five days and gradually taper off in terms of water released. He said in a news release the move will “improve the canyon experience for boaters supporting a $26 billion recreation economy that depends on the Colorado River.”
This was the first big release of water from Glen Canyon Dam since 2008, and the fourth overall.
Bureau of Reclamation spokeswoman Lisa Iams said during an interview that new long-term plans for managing the Colorado River allow twice-annual high-flow events. Those could be held in the fall and spring if sediment has deposited to create the right conditions for release, she said.