Grand Canyon Flooding Splits Eco Activist Groups

Published May 1, 2008

The U.S. Department of the Interior’s decision to flood the Grand Canyon for three days, beginning March 5, has split the environmental community.

Many extolled the benefits of the flood, which was designed to mimic the periodic flooding that would occur if the Colorado River were devoid of human influences. Other environmentalists claim politics and poor management drove the decision to release more than 300,000 gallons of water per second into the river.

Replicating Natural Sandbars

The flushing of more than one billion gallons of flood water was part of the Interior Department’s experimental efforts to create sandbars and beaches for visitors, as well as habitats for fish and wildlife.

The sandbars used to occur naturally during seasonal and heavy rains. But in 1963 the Glen Canyon Dam was built, and since then the spreading of sediment has slowed. This has led to the extinction of two species of fish and the endangerment of two others, supporters of the flooding claim.

“Our ultimate purpose is to learn whether or not this is a viable strategy,” John Hamill, head of the Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center, told reporters prior to the flood.

Third Time a Charm?

Critics say the strategy has been attempted twice before and proven a failure.

In 1996, water was allowed to flow too long, and most of the sediment fell to the bottom of Lake Mead instead of on the beaches where it was meant to be deposited. In 2004, the little sediment that did expand the sandbars and beaches soon eroded.

The outcome of those floods led one group to file a lawsuit against the Bureau of Reclamation, alleging the agency violated the Endangered Species Act by ignoring the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s directions for the proper release of water.

Grand Canyon National Park Superintendent Steve Martin reported the latest flooding deposited large sandbars–some larger than a football field–in the Colorado River. He pointed to tracks from sheep and beavers on the newly raised and formed sandbars as evidence of the flooding’s success.

Critics: Too Little Flooding

The plaintiff in the earlier suit, the Grand Canyon Trust, is now back in the limelight, criticizing the latest flooding. Flooding works to restore the ecosystem only if it is performed regularly, the group claims. The Bureau of Reclamation does not plan another flood until 2012, which the Grand Canyon Trust claims is too far in the future.

“[The Bureau of] Reclamation has come in with a lot of show and fanfare,” said Nikolai Lash, a senior program director at the Grand Canyon Trust, in a press statement. “But we know that [any successes] are short-lived and the Grand Canyon deserves long-lived benefits, long-lived restoration.”

“I find it hard to believe the flooding is going to restore the natural habitat,” said Brandon Scarborough, a research fellow with the Property and Environment Research Center.

“Restore? That’s a crock,” Scarborough continued. “Maybe for a week it would do some good. But here’s the problem. The ecosystem was artificial once they put the dams in … and trying to do something that brings back the natural habitat is unnatural in the first place.”

Cheryl Chumley ([email protected]) is a Virginia-based journalist with a focus on land-use issues.