The grandeur of the Grand Canyon is difficult to put to words. One of the Seven Wonders of the World, sometimes called America’s Sistine Chapel, the Grandest Canyon on Earth, and the crown jewel of our national parks, this cathedral in the desert has been renowned and revered by the Indigenous people who have lived along its canyon walls since time immemorial.
Since the mighty Colorado River began carving Grand Canyon some six million years ago, its waters have been inextricably linked to the plants, animals and humans in this landscape and beyond. Today, more than 40 million people and countless wild communities rely on this hardworking river.
In the last two years, after decades of over allocation compounded by the worst drought in a millenia, conditions on the Colorado reached a tipping point: Plummeting reservoir levels behind Glen Canyon and Hoover dams, Lake Powell and Mead, respectively, have brought all eyes to the Colorado. And Grand Canyon—connecting those two dams—is at the heart of it all.
As recently as January, federal water managers warned that Lake Powell could reach “dead pool” levels as soon as 2025. Dead pool is pretty much how it sounds—when reservoirs reach a level too low to flow through the dam at all, meaning no water is delivered downstream, and no power is generated.
“Even if you’d asked me five years ago, I never thought that I would see this in my lifetime,” says Ashley Brown, OARS Grand Canyon guide. “We were running really, really low water trips for the last few years, and we were anticipating record low flows for this whole season in Grand Canyon.”
Fortunately, for river runners and water managers, Mother Nature decided to throw the West a bone, delivering a record-breaking snowpack from the mountains of Colorado to California.
Record-breaking Snowpack Delivers for Western Rivers
“We just got pounded by storm after storm, which put a bunch of snow in the Rockies and made all those Upper Basin rivers really happy,” says Lars Haarr, OARS Grand Canyon Operations Manager.
So happy, in fact, that water managers approved a three-day pulse of high water from Glen Canyon Dam in late April to replenish Grand Canyon beaches and breathe new life into a stretch of the Colorado that had been at historic lows for years. The move allowed dam operators to open bypass tubes and roughly quadruple the river’s flow.
Brown, who was leading a Grand Canyon rafting trip at the time of the high flow event, says, “I haven’t seen that much water in the last 12 years.”
Fellow OARS Grand Canyon guide, Ross Duncan, was also on the trip, and says, “We see monsoon events, especially the last couple years where the river will rise pretty quickly, but we went from about 15,000 CFS to 40,000 CFS, and all of a sudden, we’re on a different river.”
Duncan says it was almost instantly apparent that the flows had delivered the goods. After years of low flows, he says, “It’d be hard to overstate how successful the beach regeneration was.”
Unlike the natural replenishment of beaches on free-flowing rivers, Grand Canyon is essentially starved of the sediment trapped behind Glen Canyon Dam. In order to recharge the river system with nutrients and rebuild beaches, water managers have to rely on sediment that enters the river corridor through other means, typically monsoon storms and flash floods. They then distribute that sediment through scheduled high flow events. When there’s not enough water, that means no sediment and existing beaches are eroded until a year like this one brings enough water to allow for a release of high water.
If this all sounds exceedingly managed for a river that runs through a wildly remote canyon that is known for its depth and solitude, that’s because it is.
The Big Ditch
“Sometimes I feel like the Colorado through Grand Canyon is somewhat disconnected from the rest of the basin because we’re essentially connecting two reservoirs, and what happens to us is basically dictated by water needs,” says Haarr, who spent the early years of his guiding career on a much more untamed stretch of the Colorado that runs through Cataract Canyon.
As far as water managers are concerned, the Grand Canyon is, in essence, a beautiful delivery ditch and thanks to a historic, and flawed, agreement between the Upper and Lower Basin States, a certain amount of water is owed from Lake Powell to Lake Mead each year. Every drop of that water has to go through Grand Canyon.
“The dam creates this false environment and you don’t necessarily notice a lot of those drought changes as far as the river trip goes, but as soon as you walk away from the river corridor, you notice it,” says Brown, who says as soon as she stepped away from the river itself, the drought was everywhere.
“I watched desert plants die in that time,” says Brown. “There were cactus that turned purple, which means they lost all their chlorophyll and driving down from Flagstaff when you get into the pinyon and juniper forest around Gray Mountain and Antelope Hills, some of the pinyon pines didn’t survive. I’ve watched a lot of the desert dry up and not survive the last two years.”
For guests, she says, the extreme drought brought some things closer.
“We saw bighorn sheep, dozens and dozens of bighorn sheep in those years because there was no water anywhere else,” says Brown. “And now this spring, our folks were sort of disappointed because we didn’t see any, but the reality is that’s actually a good sign. They had options for water elsewhere in the canyon. It’s little things like that, that you notice when you spend so much time in this place.”
Stretching 1,900 square miles, including 277 miles of the Colorado River, the Grand Canyon spans 18 miles wide, and dives a mile deep, calling more than 5 million visitors to its breathtaking vistas and red rock trails each year. Of those millions, less than one percent ever venture below the rim to launch the trip of a lifetime. For many, the beauty and magnificence of Grand Canyon can hide its fragility. But those who’ve spent years on the river beneath the rim have been listening to the canyon along the way.
“A lot of us are really in tune with what’s happening in the canyon, and a wet year like this one is also a reminder, it’s not just the river,” says Duncan. “We see all of these springs, these really famous places like Vasey’s Paradise, and Dutton and Whispering Springs coming back to life.”
He continued, “Vasey’s Paradise is one of the most famous places in Grand Canyon, and for several years basically, there’s no water coming out of that thing. This year it’s a raging torrent, a waterfall shooting out of the Redwall. It’s amazing to see what can be recharged in a somewhat short period of time, but it also makes you understand just how dire it was.”
And that’s something Brown, Duncan and Haarr all emphasized: These high flows are definitely something to celebrate, but let’s not squander it.
“I think—I hope—that this past several years has been a wake-up call for everyone,” says Haarr. “I’m hopeful that the Upper Basin and Lower Basin States can continue the dialogue and come to an agreement over how to cut water voluntarily, to diminish the demand on those allocations.”
That Grand Canyon Magic
So with all of this, a heavily managed river, unprecedented conditions and an uncertain future; why Grand Canyon? Both Brown and Duncan are quick to say, they can’t not be there.
“I decided I couldn’t live without the Grand Canyon. I’ll be on the first trip, last trip and as many as I can get in between for as long as I can,” says Duncan. “Because that whole phrase, ‘once in a lifetime’ gets thrown out a lot, but that’s pretty much what this is.”
Anyone who has spent time beneath the rim cannot help but be humbled by the scale, the complexity, the magic of this landscape. It’s a place that demands true presence and a slowness not found in the hyper-connected world many of us live in. To lie along the banks, gazing up at the river of stars above, is quite simply awesome in the literal meaning of the word.
“I think in this day and age with everybody constantly staring at their phones and overloaded with information, to be able to walk back in time and put all of that away and just start talking about billion-year-old rocks, is an unbelievable experience,” says Duncan.
People come from all over the country and the world to find it.
“It changes you,” says Brown. “It has a profound effect on people’s lives, it’s incredible to see. And it continues to have a profound effect on mine. No matter how many times I go down, it’s this magical place. For me, it’s a very spiritual place and I can’t imagine not being in the Grand Canyon.”
Navigating a New Chapter of the Grand Canyon Story
Even with this year’s abundance, Haarr has his eye on the bigger picture.
“Last fall, and continuing into this winter we had a real scare, so much so that many news outlets were talking about the lack of water in the Colorado River. We had people calling and emailing the office and saying, ‘I have a trip scheduled for August. Is there going to be enough to float boats downstream?’” says Haarr.
He says it brought the Grand Canyon guiding community together in a new way this spring when he and managers from many other commercial outfitters joined together for a trip, planning on scouting rapids with historic lows in mind. While the snowpack, and additional water delivery, gave everyone some breathing room, he says the camaraderie, collaboration and shared experience from that trip will continue to help chart the future of rafting in Grand Canyon.
“We all love the higher flows no matter what kind of craft you’re in, but rafting trips like OARS runs are pretty flexible to run all these different water levels,” says Duncan. “In terms of the guest experience, if you came on an October trip where the river’s at 6,000 CFS or you just came on this trip where it was 20,000 CFS, that’s a different river, but it’s not a better or worse experience. Whether you’re talking higher flow, lower flow, muddy river, clear river, hot days, cold days, short days, long days, those experiences are slightly different, but it’s equally amazing in terms of the level of the experience.”
Haarr agrees, “Water levels don’t really dictate whether you’re going to have a good time or not. In low flows, certain rapids are going to be bigger than they would if there was more water. You’re going to have good splashes every single day.”
Brown says the team will have to continue to adjust expectations and programs to fit into whatever the future holds and she pointed upstream to the fluctuations on the Colorado in Cataract Canyon as an example of what may become a reality in Grand Canyon.
“We can run rafting trips at pretty low flows,” says Brown. “[Cataract] behaves more like a free-flowing river, where it gets high in the spring, then it drops off later in the fall. And they run trips through the summer months and into September. That could be our reality in Grand Canyon.”
Grand Canyon National Park Superintendent Ed Keable shared in an email that he is “confident that some water will always flow, and recreational boating will have opportunities to float through the canyon,” though, “the type of watercraft may change as environmental conditions change.”
And that’s something Haarr says OARS has going for them. As one of the original and solely human-powered companies out there, OARS has deep experience running smaller, more nimble boats through Grand Canyon and in rivers across the West.
“The dories, however,” says Haarr. “There’s nothing forgiving about a dory in low water. That’s just the nature of that craft. But the dories are such a big part of our history here.”
Grand Canyon: A Love Story
That dories may become rare in Grand Canyon holds its own poignancy. As OARS founder George Wendt wrote in a 2016 opinion piece in National Geographic, “In the 1960’s a man by the name of Martin Litton started rowing dories, wooden boats, through the Grand Canyon. It was around the same time that Litton made an impassioned speech to David Brower and the Sierra Club urging them to lead the fight to oppose the proposed Marble Canyon and Bridge Canyon dams in Grand Canyon. They did—and they won. After that, Brower referred to Litton as his “conscience.”
Wendt continued, “It turns out quite a few others do, too, especially those who carry on Litton’s legacy rowing dories down the Grand Canyon. And it makes sense because Litton said: ‘There is a mystic thing about a dory. It has lines that belong on the water. There’s a soul about it, a spiritualism almost. Those who come to dories never seem to go away.’”
And as Kevin Fedarko wrote in his book, The Emerald Mile, Litton “inaugurated a tradition of naming every craft after a natural wonder that, in his view, had been heedlessly destroyed by the hand of man ‘to remind us of places we’ve destroyed without any necessity, so that maybe we’ll think twice before we do it again.’” The tradition evolved over the years to include names of places that were threatened by human development or activities, not yet destroyed and absolutely worth fighting for.
Duncan says, “With George and Martin Litton, it’s all a part of our history.”
As Wendt wrote, “For me, the drowning of Glen Canyon followed by this monumental victory on the Grand, delivered the realization that such wild places need to be preserved and protected for future generations, and that this would only happen if they were shared so that people would know what was at stake. It prompted me to make this my life’s work and to continue with Martin’s tradition of running dories through the Grand Canyon and on other rivers in the West.”
Wendt was always quick to remind people that conservation is a fight that’s never over, and people have to love a place in order to save it. After talking with Brown, Duncan and Haarr, it’s clear that this Grand Canyon love story is one for the ages.
“Dam or not, low water, high water, whatever it happens to be, the Grand Canyon’s going to be there and Mother Nature is going to persevere,” says Brown. “And that trip, and that place, will continue to hold a lot of magic. So you have to just get out there and appreciate the conditions that are there, for what it is and try to understand our place in it.”