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Little bugs, big data, and Colorado River adaptive management: Preliminary findings from the ongoing bug flow experiment at Glen Canyon Dam

September 1, 2022

The undammed Colorado River in Grand Canyon was characterized by spring snow-melt floods that sometimes exceeded 100,000 cubic feet per second (cfs). These were followed by occasional flash floods during summer monsoons, then by low flows from fall through early spring (Figure 1; Topping and others, 2003). This seasonally variable flow regime carried huge loads of sediment and was an important driver of natural processes that sustained the Colorado River ecosystem. For instance, high turbidity associated with this flow regime likely restricted algal growth to the river’s edge or shallow cobble habitats, similar to other desert rivers. Aquatic invertebrate assemblages were probably diverse and adapted to these variable conditions (Vinson, 2001; Haden and others, 2003). Native fishes were likely opportunistic feeders, consuming ants, seeds, and other terrestrial resources during times of flooding and switching to aquatic-derived resources like algae and aquatic invertebrates at other times (Minckley, 1991; Behn and Baxter, 2019). Regulation of the Colorado River by Glen Canyon Dam in 1963 eliminated the annual snowmelt floods, it sharply increased base flows by more than 50 percent, and dramatically increased within-day fluctuations in discharge for hydropower production (the ‘daily tides’ of the river, Figure 1 and 2; Topping and others, 2003). Glen Canyon Dam also changed other aspects of the river’s physical template, particularly temperature, sediment, and nutrient regimes. These changes to the physical template of the river led to fundamental changes in the natural processes that the sustain Colorado River ecosystem. For example, algae are common throughout the river during periods of clear water and represent the foundation of aquatic food webs (Stevens and others, 1997; Cross and others 2013). Many types of aquatic insects have disappeared or become rare, particularly sensitive groups such as mayflies, stoneflies, and caddisflies (Kennedy and others, 2016). Because aquatic insect assemblages in the Colorado River in Grand Canyon are neither diverse nor productive, food webs are simplified and inherently unstable, limiting populations of hungry fish (Cross and others 2013; Korman and others 2021).

Citation Information

Publication Year 2022
Title Little bugs, big data, and Colorado River adaptive management: Preliminary findings from the ongoing bug flow experiment at Glen Canyon Dam
Authors Theodore Kennedy, Anya Metcalfe, Bridget Deemer, Morgan Ford, Cheyenne Maxime Szydlo, Charles Yackulic, Jeffrey Muehlbauer
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Boatman's Quarterly Review
Index ID 70237260
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Southwest Biological Science Center