Photo: Photo of the confluence of the Colorado River and the Little Colorado rivers, teal blue water flows beneath red and brown mountain under a clear deep blue sky.

Photo by Craig Ellsworth

Scientific exploration, education and partnership below Glen Canyon Dam.

Beneath the scorching July sun, a remarkable scientific journey took place within the depths of the Grand Canyon. Environmental scientists from WAPA’s Colorado River Storage Project Management Center embarked on a two-week quest to learn how to improve environmental conditions downstream of CRSP facilities while protecting and improving the hydropower resource at Glen Canyon Dam.

Funded by WAPA through Argonne National Laboratory, this venture held a twist – CRSP’s researchers were accompanied by a group of inquisitive youngsters from Grand Canyon Youth, a Flagstaff, Arizona-based 501(c)(3) nonprofit. What transpired was an amazing combination of exploration, education and connection.

Taming the terrain

Navigating the tempestuous terrain of the Grand Canyon is no easy task. Access is a challenge, requiring arduous river trips or treks through formidable desert landscapes. The only vehicle access to the river in Grand Canyon is at Lees Ferry, which is just below Glen Canyon Dam, and Diamond Creek, 226 river miles downstream.

“Everything in Grand Canyon either wants to kill you, stab you or smash you into lots of little pieces,” CRSP Fish Biologist Craig Ellsworth acknowledged, recalling an encounter with the elusive Grand Canyon pink rattlesnake, one of eight rattlesnakes encountered on the trip. Notably, this expedition spotted this Grand Canyon pink rattlesnake further upstream than any had ever been recorded.

“Getting a rafting permit to conduct research in Grand Canyon is often as difficult as getting a permit for a private rafting trip,” noted Ellsworth. Yet, that didn’t deter the CRSP team, who also had to overcome heat, scorpions, cacti, sharp rocks, big rapids, tolio foot fungus and the occasional jaded boatman encountered on the river.

Building on past research

In 2017, WAPA partnered with Larry Stevens of the Springs Stewardship Institute on a study to help understand why the aquatic food base, the bugs that support important fisheries below Glen Canyon Dam, is predominantly midge flies instead of mayflies, stoneflies and caddisflies like other tailwaters below CRSP facilities. The midge flies that dominate the food base indicate issues with either poor water quality or poor aquatic habitat conditions.

Researchers conducted the initial phase of this study at a tributary in Grand Canyon called Tapeats Creek. The data collected at Tapeats Creek pointed to why only a few types of caddisflies, and virtually no mayflies or stoneflies live in the mainstem Colorado River below Glen Canyon Dam.

The likely culprit: high amounts of silt and sand transported through this section of the Colorado River each monsoon season. “Monsoonal floods, which are a natural part of this environment, may be limiting habitat for the types of aquatic insects we would expect to see below Glen Canyon Dam,” highlighted Stevens.

WAPA partners with Grand Canyon Youth

Fast-forward to July 2023, the CRSP researchers and Stevens partnered with Grand Canyon Youth for this research project, transforming the canyon into an open-air classroom. GCY curates immersive wilderness experiences for kids across the nation, offering a unique opportunity for hands-on education.

“Many come in hopes of a fun and adventurous river trip with exciting rapids and beautiful nature but end up finding the most satisfaction in contributing to important science projects,” noted Yann Bosch, trip coordinator for GCY. “One of my favorite parts about GCY is watching the youth get more and more involved with science as their time on the river progresses.”

Amid the roaring rapids and tranquil eddies, a combination of education and excitement unfolded. GCY’s river trip was divided into two groups – half attended the first week, the other attended the second. The groups rotated between the Lees Ferry and Phantom Ranch to Diamond Creek stretches.

Science in the canyon

Students eagerly embraced learning about the scientific process of developing and implementing a research study. “The kids were very enthusiastic about being able to collect bug samples, and they were very helpful in assisting us with our study,” Ellsworth said.

This voyage of discovery extended beyond insects, encompassing a vital study on campsite risks. “In addition to collecting data for our bug study, we were also accompanied by two researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey – Grand Canyon Research and Monitoring Center on this trip,” Ellsworth noted.

They were collecting data for a campsite risk assessment for the Grand Canyon because in 2022, a large thunderstorm generated a flash flood that killed one person and severely injured several others camped at Tatahatso, along the Colorado River. The debris flow coming off the rim and into the camp was atypical and landed in a part of the camp thought to be relatively safe during events like this.

“The GCY participants helped provide insightful feedback on this community science survey to collect flash flood and debris flow information regarding impact to campsites and rapids in Grand Canyon,” said USGS scientist Erica Byerley, who also participated on the trip. “Observations made on this trip will help inform maps of debris flow risk to campsites, which will be shared with the greater Grand Canyon community to synthesize existing data and further distribute it to the public to mitigate environmental risk.”

The team stopped at Tatahatso camp where they learned how to collect survey data for the portion of the camp that was impacted by the flood. Later, they experienced their own flash flood event while camping at Ponchos Kitchen, further downstream. This provided another opportunity to have the young students assess safe camping locations and provide additional feedback for the project.

The expedition also reinforced powerful partnerships. Stevens and WAPA have both lent expertise to the Glen Canyon Dam Adaptive Management Program, a forum that unites stakeholders for a common cause.

“Being able to build partnerships with other stakeholders who are deeply committed to the protection of Grand Canyon is what makes the GCDAMP such a valued organization,” Ellsworth acknowledged.

And they had fun!

“Most rapids make you laugh, but some rapids make you scream,” Ellsworth said. “We had talent show nights and a silent night float from the last camp down to the takeout at Diamond Creek.”

The group discussed how to be good stewards of the environment and the importance of respecting of one another’s beliefs.

“Speaking as a GCY participant turned river guide, I can say I’ve seen the impact of this program firsthand. Many of our participants go on to become river guides, teachers, scientists or lawyers, but all keep their Grand Canyon experience with them,” said river guide, trip leader and former GCY participant Justin Gallen.

Every day brought its own adventure, from exploring slot canyons and swimming rapids (voluntarily) to violin solos in 100-foot-tall grottos.

The team took time to enjoy the adventure amidst the scientific studies, and the students found the work rewarding in many ways. “Trips like this get me a much-needed refresh from teenage life. This is my fifth GCY trip and each time I feel more connected with my true self,” said Abi Mills, a GCY student who participated on the trip.

Why does WAPA do this?

The Department of Energy supports good stewardship of the environment, which provides the energy resources that power the nation. The biologists at CRSP ensure changes in release patterns at hydropower facilities result from of data-driven decisions that help protect fisheries, which requires them to conduct research in downstream waters.

During the July expedition, the team was able to advance their bug research by collecting aquatic macroinvertebrate samples at 13 tributaries, which are currently being processed. While collecting samples, the kids learned the process of designing and implementing a scientific study.

“We taught them how one generates study questions, hypotheses, how to collect and analyze data, how to report on your findings and how you might use those findings to further refine your questions and your hypotheses,” remarked Ellsworth.

This expedition provided a valuable opportunity to study river conditions and examine the effects dams have on the environment, with the goal to maintain the vibrant Grand Canyon ecosystem.

“Our research of aquatic ecosystems of Grand Canyon benefited greatly by the enthusiasm and flexibility of this GCY trip, and it provided an unparalleled opportunity for the students to learn about water resources management,” noted Stevens.

Photos by Craig Ellsworth

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Last modified on March 12th, 2024