Friday, March 14, 2008

Fooling With Mother Nature

If you recall, I took a trip of a life time down the Grand Canyon in April of 2000, almost four years after it had been flooded by one of those man-made floods that just recently ended. Because I was on a dory boat, we had a full two-week head start on the glut of rafting season and therefore pretty much could camp as we please. Although most sandbars were greatly diminished from erosion, we still had our pick of them with our relatively small group. However, the guides frequently showed me pictures of the canyon prior to the damns when the very same sandbars, now the size of a typical fraction of an acre suburban home lot, were tens and twenty times the size.

Funny things happen when sandbars are eroded away and replaced once every four to eight years by man made floods. Native vegetation that had been there for hundreds of years on a sandbar gets swept downstream with the erosion. When the sandbars are replaced with the man-made flood, a faster invasive type of plant called "piss weed" due to the odor it emits when burned quickly takes over. The native vegetation would eventually come back if given the chance but total erosion of the beach happens within a year or two and the frequency of our floods are much much longer. Given the choice, I would much rather camp among the native vegetation than piss weed.

Although fires are regulated in the bottom of the canyon due to the arid conditions and the flammability of piss weed, I went in the spring where we were allowed fires. But the dam that limits the flooding that destroys the sandbars also limits the firewood. The only firewood to be found in the bottom of the canyon is that which has been washed there from upstream. Since a dam and retention pool effectively cut that supply off, you are left with the occasional logjam washed down out of a side canyon. These occur sometimes once in a decade or longer. Needless to say, when we saw an accessible log jam, we would sometimes load up the baggage boat with some firewood to enjoy a fire or two in the evening. Most nights we cooked over gas.

Another repercussion of the dam itself is that it completely obliterated the native fish population. The fish that once thrived in the warm muddy waters of the Colorado have died thanks to the filtered and extremely cold water emitted from the bottom of the dam. It begins it's journey at the base of Glen Canyon at a chilling 46 degrees and warms up by a full six degrees by the time it reaches the cesspool known as Lake Mead. I about had a hard attack jumping into the water after a hot dusty hike. I can only imagine what goes through the fishes mind when forced to live through such a drastic temperature swing. Needless to say, any thoughts were short lived before most died and were swept downstream.

But we the human race are on top of it and after creating a recent man made flood, we have built up the sandbars. People are already oohing and aahing at our progress. Yet all the work will be undone by this time next year and the next flood will come in another four to eight, if ever. For you see, too many cities built in the middle of a desert during the worth drought in recorded history have come to depend on the water in those stagnate cesspools behind the dams and think we are crazy for letting the water go. I think Nikolai Lash summed up the situation the best. I leave you with a quote from him.

"It's kind of like when President Bush landed a jet on the aircraft carrier and held up a banner that said `Mission Accomplished,"' said Nikolai Lash, senior program director at the trust. "Reclamation has come in with a lot of show and fanfare from last week's event and we're seeing the benefits of doing these high flows. But we know that they're short-lived and the Grand Canyon deserves long-lived benefits, long-lived restoration."

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