The River That Created The Grand Canyon Is Going Dry

Grand Canyon and Colorado River 1

The Colorado River, which famously carved the Grand Canyon, is beautiful to behold and amazing to raft. Unfortunately, this crucial water source is also slowly going dry.

Average annual rainfall has been falling in the southwest for the last century, while climate change, dam construction, invasive species, and population booms in desert cities like Las Vegas have caused water levels to drop by half in some places.  

Twelve years ago, author and anthropologist Wade Davis and his friend Robert F. Kennedy Jr. rafted the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in part to consider the river’s troubled future and what we stand to lose.

They documented the trip in a gorgeous film called Grand Canyon Adventure: River At Risk.  

Davis respects the power of untamed nature, and believes that we can’t afford to lose the connection we have to wild place. 

Davis is an Explorer-in-Residence for National Geographic. He has come to the Grand Canyon to research a book he is writing about the Colorado River.

His plan is to float 250 miles down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, to learn the history and study the challenges facing a river that is both a natural wonder and an important source of freshwater.

Their trip starts when Davis and his daughter Tara board the train that will take them to the entrance to the Grand Canyon. There, they will meet their friends and begin their journey down the river.

They meet up with Davis's friend Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and his daughter, Kick. Kennedy founded river preservation group WaterKeepers, and Kick has since become an environmental activist as well.

Helping to guide the group down the river is park ranger and river guide Shana Watahomigie. Watahomigie is a member of the Havasupai tribe, the local indigenous people whose history in the area extends more than 800 years.

The group meets at the entrance to the Grand Canyon and stock their rafts for the four week trip down the river.

Rafting the Grand Canyon means camping the Grand Canyon. There are no hotels here.

And come the rapids. There are more than 150 stretches of fast flowing water on the Colorado, with many spaced less than a mile apart from each other.

Some of the tougher rapids have names like Hermit Rapids, Granite Rapids, and Lava Falls.

The group is floating a river changed by human interference. Along much of the river, the silt and mud that slowly carved out the Grand Canyon and gave the Colorado its name is now held upstream by dams. The water released from dams like the Glen Canyon is also 20 degrees colder than it would naturally be, making it difficult for native warm-water fish species to survive.

Flash floods and tributaries below the dams still bring some of the brown, silt-laden water into the river, yielding a colour similar to that of China's Yellow River.

The boat from which this photo is taken is carrying 350 pounds of camera equipment, including IMAX format cameras, according to the film's production notes. It will be the last time the Grand Canyon National Park permits a crew of this size to film here.

The bearded man handling the oars in this boat is a guide named Regan Dale. He has rafted the Grand Canyon more than 250 times.

The water for the Colorado River comes from the snowmelt in the Rocky Mountains, and from there is flows through 1000 miles of desert.

Davis brought photos taken by 19th Century American explorer John Wesley Powell on the trip, hoping to match the photos to the landscape Davis sees in front of him.

And as you slowly peel the old photo away...

The ecosystem has changed from how it looked in Powell's day. A sand bar on the opposite shore has disappeared. The team saw evidence of changes like this everywhere.

Equipment has improved tremendously since early explorers like Powell wrestled the Grand Canyon's rapids. But rocks and debris are still brutal on the boats.

Once repairs are made the team tackles Lava Falls rapids, thought to be the toughest set of rapids on the Colorado.

People have been rafting the Grand Canyon for so long that the river's system for rating the difficulty of rapids predates the modern system: difficulty of Grand Canyon rapids is rated on a scale of 1 to 10, rather than the usual 1 to 5. Lava Falls are short, but they are vicious and carry a rating of 8-10.

Lake Powell was formed by the flooding resulting from the construction of the Glen Canyon dam. It is a popular vacation spot for Arizonans, and is a source of water and electricity. It has also has lost half of its water. The top of the white stripe on the walls of Lake Powell marks where the water level once was.

Invasive species like the tamarisk tree now blanket the sandbars where Kennedy used to play as a child.

Reaching the end of the journey, the group parts ways, but Davis continues to explore some of the challenges facing the river and global freshwater supplies.

Below the Grand Canyon, the river is dying. Cheap but inefficient irrigation methods that waste water are one of the forces draining the river.

The Glen Canyon Dam, built at the entrance to the Grand Canyon, provides millions of people with cheap renewable electricity, but has negative environmental impacts — especially because scientists seriously miscalculated future annual rainfall levels for the Southwest United States.

The population explosion across the Southwest has also fuelled water consumption. Utah, Arizona, and Nevada all had population growth rates that were more than double (sometimes more than triple) the national average, according to the 2010 US Census.

Now, the Colorado does not even reach the sea, and by the time it crosses this bridge in Mexico it is little more than a creek. It will likely never flow to the ocean again, but we can work to preserve what is left.

Other wonders are also threatened by environmental change.

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