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USGS Work Is Leading to New Operations for Glen Canyon Dam

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Sand bar along the Colorado River in Grand Canyon
Grand Canyon: Sand bar (foreground) along the Colorado River in Grand Canyon.
Since its completion in 1963, Glen Canyon Dam has controlled the flow of Colorado River water through Grand Canyon. By changing the flow of water and sediment down the Colorado River, the dam has caused numerous changes downstream, including a decline in the number and size of sand bars along the river in Grand Canyon National Park. Sand bars and banks are essential components of the Colorado River ecosystem and were distinctive features of the pre-dam landscape. They create terrestrial habitat for riparian vegetation and associated fauna, and backwater channels used as habitat by native fish. Bars are used by boaters and other park visitors, and some of them help preserve archeological resources. Because of the sand bars' importance, their restoration and maintenance have been a high priority for programs established by the Department of Interior (DOI)'s Bureau of Reclamation to assess Glen Canyon Dam's effect on downstream resources and to make recommendations for dam operations that will better protect those resources. The most recent such program is the Glen Canyon Adaptive Management Program, established in 1996.

USGS scientists from the Coastal and Marine Geology Program (CMGP) have been contributing to the assessment of sand resources in Grand Canyon for more than a decade, through sedimentologic studies (Dave Rubin, Menlo Park, CA) and the use of sidescan sonar (Roberto Anima, Menlo Park, CA), underwater video (Hank Chezar, Menlo Park, CA), and other marine-research technologies. Their findings contributed to a decision by DOI to release an unusually large volume of water from Glen Canyon Dam in spring 1996 to determine, in part, whether this artificial "flood" could move sand from the river's main channel into sand bars along its banks.

CMGP contributions to sand-bar restoration efforts in Grand Canyon are continuing to affect DOI management decisions. In August 2000, Dave Rubin and colleagues from the USGS (David Topping), Utah State University (Jack Schmidt), and Northern Arizona University (Joe Hazel and Matt Kaplinski) were requested to summarize their recent published findings for the office of the Secretary. To respond to this request, the group worked with their program manager at the USGS Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center (Ted Melis) and prepared a memo reporting that restoration efforts—including the 1996 Grand Canyon flood experiment—were failing to meet the sediment goals established by the Glen Canyon Adaptive Management Program. The memo explained why the restoration efforts were failing and how operations in Glen Canyon Dam might be altered to optimize sand-bar restoration.

The memo written by Rubin and his colleagues summarized five technical articles that had been published in the journals Water Resources Research and Geology and in a special volume on the 1996 flood experiment published by the American Geophysical Union. In addition to the normal scientific review of these five articles, the memo itself was carefully reviewed by the Technical Work Group and its sediment subcommittee of the Adaptive Management Work Group (groups established as part of the Glen Canyon Adaptive Management Program). These groups endorsed the findings in the memo, and the Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center (also part of the Glen Canyon Adaptive Management Program) made a formal proposal to adopt the recommendations. In April, a vote was conducted by the full Adaptive Management Work Group, and the proposed flow recommendations were approved by a vote of 17 to 1 (with 1 abstention). These recommended changes to dam operations have been forwarded to Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton.

The media have reported these recent events (see Related Web Sites below) in USA Today (April 11), The Arizona Republic (April 26), the Arizona Daily Sun (April 26), and the New York Times (April 26 and June 11).

The scientific findings summarized in the memo evolved into an article for Eos (in press, expected to be published in June 2002). New technology and a better understanding of sediment transport gained from the Grand Canyon work are now being incorporated into marine sediment-transport studies.

Related Sound Waves Stories
Sedimentologic Engineering in Grand Canyon
November 1999
Ground-Penetrating Radar Examines Sand Bars in Grand Canyon
November 1999
Grand Canyon Researchers Receive Award
November 1999
Sediment Transport Research and Sidescan-Sonar Surveying in the Grand Canyon
July 1999

Related Web Sites
Artificial Grand Canyon flood failed, scientists say
USA Today - April 11 2002
U.S. Panel Backs a Risky Effort to Save a Grand Canyon Fish
New York Times - April 26 2002
free registration required for access
Restoring an Ecosystem Torn Asunder by a Dam
New York Times - June 11 2002
free registration required for access

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in this issue: Fieldwork cover story:
Mapping Lake Mohave

Research Delmarva Coastal Bays

Glen Canyon Dam

Outreach Career Options for Jr. High School Girls

Coastal Hazards Lecture

Earth Day at Lowry Park Zoo

Practical Applications of GIS

Gulf of Maine GIS Workshop for Teachers

MarineQuest 2002

Florida Caribbean Science Center Open House

Meetings CMGP Knowledge Bank

Communicating Science in a Virtual World

Continental-Shelf Territory Rights

Awards Kvenvolden Honored

Staff & Center News Student Employees

New Woods Hole Chief Scientist

Two New Employees at WHFC

University of Minnesota Visitor

Publications Special Issue of Marine Geology on USGS Monterey Bay Research

Timely Publication for Gulf of Mexico Mercury Concerns

June Publications List

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