Researchers Assess Results in Grand Canyon Restoration Effort

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Twice over the last 10 years, the federal government has released massive floods into the Grand Canyon. The floods were intended to restore sandbars, or beaches that have been disappearing since the Colorado River was dammed in the 1960s. Now, scientists are trying to figure out if the effort was worth it.


Next, we're going to hear about the effort to preserve a landmark here in the United States. Twice over the last 10 years, the federal government has released massive floods into the Grand Canyon. The floods were intended to restore sandbars or beaches that have been disappearing since the Colorado River was dammed in the 1960s. Now scientists are trying to figure out if the effort was worth it. NPR's Ted Robbins reports.

TED ROBBINS reporting:

You want dramatic science? How about 300,000 gallons of water a second gushing from Glen Canyon Dam. The flood last November lasted 60 hours.

(Soundbite of water flowing)

Unidentified Man: ...(Unintelligible) 2004, you factor in the uncertainties, it's probably fair to say that there was about a 30 percent loss...

ROBBINS: Scientists discussing the effects of that flood at a Phoenix hotel made a considerably less dramatic scene, but a lot of people--environmentalists, power companies, boaters and government officials--have been waiting a long time for those scientists to crunch their data. They want to know if last November's flood was more successful than the first manmade flood almost a decade ago.

Mr. DENNY FENN (US Geological Survey): You know, that's the thing. People--how patient are they going to be? It's been 10 years now. When are we going to see more results?

ROBBINS: Denny Fenn is with the US Geological Survey, which coordinated the two floods. The USGS hoped that the floods would build up sandbars in the river. The sandbars are prime camping grounds for river rafters and crucial spawning grounds for an endangered fish, the humpback chub. Ever since Glen Canyon Dam was built, disturbing the Colorado's normal flow, both sandbars and humpback chub have been disappearing.

Mr. FENN: The numbers have dropped. We're talking about breeding adults.

ROBBINS: The first flood lasted a week. That turned out to be too long. Much of the sand pushed downriver onto beaches at the start of the flood washed away by the end. Last November's flood was less than three days long. It does appear to have left more sand on the beaches, but scientists have not seen any evidence yet that the flood helped the humpback chub. They say they'll need at least one more flood to find out how to make beaches last longer. But the best time for a flood is when the most sediment is in the river, after a storm.

Mr. FENN: Normally, you'd get these sediments in August and September and maybe then again in November and January.

ROBBINS: But August and September are peak demand times for electric power. Thirty million people use the electricity generated when water flows through, not around, the Glen Canyon Dam's turbines. Leslie James is with the Colorado River Energy Distributors Association. She says it's a balancing act deciding which needs are more important: electric power or canyon ecology.

Ms. LESLIE JAMES (Colorado River Energy Distributors Association): We lost $3.6 million of hydroelectric clean renewable power. We got some sandbars. For how long did we get the sandbars? I think that will be the real test of whether it was a success or not. How long will the sandbars stay around?

ROBBINS: Scientists and policy-makers, like Dennis Kubly of the Bureau of Reclamation, urge patience until there's more knowledge and the answers become clear. A decade, he says, may seem like a long time, but it's not.

Mr. DENNIS KUBLY (Bureau of Reclamation): Ten years is not a long time. It's half the life span of a humpback chub, so should we realistically expect that the numbers of humpback chub would suddenly change from decline to upturn to improvement, at least a major improvement, in less than half the lifetime of a single individual? I don't think so.

ROBBINS: In fact, no one knows. The humpback chub might need only one good breeding year in 20 to make a comeback. And the way it's going, scientists may need that long to write a prescription for management of the Grand Canyon that policy-makers can act on.

Ted Robbins, NPR News.

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