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Parks look for ways to alleviate Glen Canyon Dam’s dramatic downstream impacts

June 24, 2022

Introduction Regardless of the location, time of day, or season, the grandeur of Grand Canyon National Park and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area inspires awe. Visitors can reflect on the sunlit colors of the towering canyon walls or witness the vibrant, golden display of Fremont cottonwood leaves each fall. For millions of years, the Colorado River has sculpted canyon country; for thousands of years, it has been a lifeline for humans, wildlife, and plants. But despite its wild appearance, the river does not flow freely; it is regulated by the upstream Glen Canyon Dam, which profoundly affects the surrounding natural environment and visitor experiences. The National Park Service and its partners in the Glen Canyon Dam Adaptive Management Program are working on a 20-year experimental project to restore some of the natural systems that were damaged or lost because of the dam. The program is administered by the Bureau of Reclamation. The project covers 296 miles of the Colorado River, from Glen Canyon Dam at Lake Powell Reservoir through the Grand Canyon to Pearce Ferry at Lake Mead Reservoir. Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey lead the program’s experiments, some of which have already proved fruitful. A Changed Ecosystem Since its completion in 1963, the dam has changed downstream habitats along the river, adversely affecting some of them. Before the dam was built, sparsely vegetated sandbars along the Colorado River were more prevalent. River rafters and other backcountry adventurers valued these sandy beaches as campsites and break spots. Dam operations changed the river flow regime, decreasing the size and duration of large floods while also increasing the level of low flows. This caused native clonal plant species like arrowweed and non-native species such as tamarisk to encroach on sandbars, decreasing the size of campsite areas and degrading their condition. Previously commonplace, cottonwood and willow gallery forests that are ideal for bird habitat are now essentially nonexistent. This is because the regulated flows don’t allow for marsh back channels, which relied on periodic large floods. The dam has also affected archeological sites. Many of these sites are in pre-dam river sediment deposits, which provide a protective barrier against erosion. The dammed river now carries up to 95 percent less sediment, which means there is less sand available to cover the fragile sites. Sites are commonly in sand dunes along the river corridor, where wind re-supplies the dunes with sand blown from adjacent sandbars. Encroaching vegetation on the sandbars limits movement of what little sand is now available to cover and protect these sites. In 2018, the National Park Service, U.S. Geological Survey, and some of their partners began experimental vegetation treatments along the Colorado River below Glen Canyon Dam. This was in accordance with the 2016 Glen Canyon Dam Long-Term Experimental and Management Plan. Their purpose was to determine effective ways to mitigate the dam’s adverse impacts. The treatments have had some notable successes in improving the condition of campsites, archeological sites, and the riparian plant ecosystem.

Publication Year 2022
Title Parks look for ways to alleviate Glen Canyon Dam’s dramatic downstream impacts
Authors Lonnie Pilkington, Joel B. Sankey, Dan Boughter, Taryn Preston, Cam C. Prophet
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Park Science
Index ID 70232291
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Southwest Biological Science Center