Let There Be High Water

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, July 1996

Let There Be High Water
By Hampton Sides

Thirty-three years after Glen Canyon Dam strangled the West's most celebrated river, the Grand Canyon gets its first regularly scheduled flood. Only Jehovah could have done it better.

We tether our boats in furnace flats, at the mouth of a parched side canyon called Basalt, and are just beginning to set up camp when we notice that the water is on the rise. The sun is slipping out of the sky, and the crenellated walls of the Grand Canyon are ranged around us, opiates of rock, as stupefying as they always are and always will be. There are 15 of us on a private river trip, all happy and UV-baked, smeared in greasy windbalm and sporting Neanderthal river dos after six days of running the cold Colorado. Todd, an exacting brewmaster from Oregon, taps a pony keg of an extra-special bitter ale he calls Milk of Amnesia. Yet as we stand at the water's edge, savoring mugs of the strong, viscous stuff, it's clear this is a moment we'll never forget.

Yes, we all agree, it's a fine day for a flood.

With the scent of tonight's dinner--jambalaya--wafting over from the Dutch ovens, we watch as the 50-degree water licks at our feet, swallowing an inch of shoreline with every wave. It's a businesslike advance, informing every instinct that Jehovah is up to old tricks, better start hammering on another ark. Or at least retreat to higher ground--which we eventually do, rescuing our tents and sleeping bags from vulnerable swatches of beach. No one is sure how far the water will rise, so we decide to wager on it. We scrawl our names on strips of duct tape, attach them to sticks, and plant these highly sophisticated gauges along the bank where we think the water will crest.

Our odd flotilla--three rafts, a dory, three kayaks, and a 22-foot, motorized snout raft that looks something like the African Queen--is shifting fast in the swirl of an eddy, forcing us to fasten on more and more lines in an expanding cat's cradle of nylon. Farther out in the river, the current has snapped into a frenzy, as though it just realized it's late for a downstream appointment. The pellucid blue-green of the Colorado soon turns the hue of turkey gravy. Granules of newly stirred sand peck at the underside of the pontoons, creating a close staccato, like Rice Krispies freshly doused in milk. Dead mesquite and cottonwood trunks shoot out of the eddy and bob helplessly toward Lake Mead. There is a strange, low grumble that we decide is a boulder rolling somewhere down in the murky channel. A rattlesnake wriggles for higher ground 20 yards from camp, and a couple of red-spotted toads hop along the shore, looking puzzled. Nothing in their short lives has taught them how to read the early warning signs of flood--not here in the Grand Canyon, where man has controlled the spigot for 33 years.

But this is no garden-variety flood, no mere impetuous gush of water. It was rehearsed in elaborate cybermodels and unleashed on schedule by engineering wonks, and right now it's being monitored by battalions of scientists stationed along the 300-odd serpentine miles of the Big Ditch. It may be the world's first premeditated flood, and it's certainly the first one whose sole purpose is preservation. The point of this weeklong spasm of water is to blast some 12 million tons of accumulated sediment from the main channel. To rebuild the canyon's beaches. To scour the Colorado's backwaters. To restore habitat for native fish. To re-create some semblance of the old river that was lost when Glen Canyon Dam was built three decades ago. It's designed to be a corrective riot, a grand simulation of nature's own revolt--the whole gargantuan effort predicated on the paradoxical truth that in order to get back to where we once were, we must further manipulate an already overmanipulated landscape, performing ever finer tunings of the primitive vignette.

The Bureau of Reclamation, which oversaw the building of the dam and is now staging this week's festivities, prefers not to call it a flood at all. No, this is an experimental beach/habitat-building test flow. Not that anyone can tell the difference between whatever the hell that is and a real flood, certainly not from our vantage point here at Basalt, some 80 miles downriver from Glen Canyon Dam.

At six o'clock this morning, March 26, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt donned a hard hat and strolled across a catwalk outside the humming ramparts of concrete that Edward Abbey once dreamed of blowing up. Then, with the twirl of a wheel, he let the foam fly. From the blue fathoms of Lake Powell, the water came roaring through the penstocks in four jets that shot hundreds of feet over the river and filled the air with the sibilant-edged boom of Niagara Falls. Over the course of the day, the flow rate has escalated from 8,000 cubic feet per second to 45,000. More than 117 billion gallons of water will spew through the floodgates by week's end.

Reporters will grope for metaphors. It is, they'll say, enough to fill Chicago's Sears Tower in 17 minutes. Enough to fill Arizona's Sun Devil Stadium in less than ten minutes. Tourists will ask the Park Service when and where they can expect to see the tidal wave that will come churning through the canyon, mowing down wildlife, vegetation, and hapless rafters like us. A television producer from an extreme sports show will call to inquire whether a crew could be helicoptered in to shoot footage of a daredevil surfer shredding the big tsunami. (Request denied.)

Alas, the tsunami never arrives, but the hydraulics are huge enough to make me grateful for the party I'm with. Nearly all of my companions are or have been professional rafting guides. All told, they've racked up some 1,000 trips through the canyon, a collective wisdom that I find particularly reassuring under the circumstances. Some of them even boated in the historic high water of 1983, when a record snowmelt caught bureau officials off guard and forced them to spill huge amounts of water--in excess of 90,000 cfs at certain points--in a frantic effort to prevent Lake Powell from running over.

For my rafting hosts, this flood wasn't part of the original plan, just a happy coincidence. The application for this permit had languished, as they all do, for six years on a Park Service waiting list. When the number came up, they realized, with very large smiles, that the put-in date fell only a few days before the high water. And now here it is. By nightfall the river is deafening, and some of the canyon rats are sitting by the fire, talking about the storied rapids we'll be bouncing through tomorrow. Hance. Sockdolager. Horn Creek. They know every coming kink and eddy and can draw in the sand the exact layout of each rapid. They speak of the nuances in an intimate, fraternal shorthand, sounding like a bunch of old Scots discussing a certain enigmatic hole at Muirfield or St. Andrews.

The sky ripens from pink to indigo, and soon the Hyakutake Comet floats into view, inching like some ghostly flagellate across the cosmos. We've been admiring it all week, treating it as our personal night-light. But now I'm thinking this isn't right, this isn't natural, this is a sci-fi flick. Surely this scene has been enhanced for our benefit by some obscure special-effects division of the Department of the Interior. We've got a flood at our front and a comet at our back and a couple of million-year-old walls defining our aperture. We've got everything but the word epic written on a billboard in the sky.

All of which could be skewing my sense of scale. But from where I'm sitting, never having run the Colorado before, the water out there appears to have turned from merely malevolent to homicidal.

"Yeah, it'll be big tomorrow," says Dennis, a coolheaded, ponytailed river guide of 15 years, looking inscrutably over the river.

Big? I ask.

"Yeah. Big and squirrely."


"Look, if we flip, we flip," Dennis says, borrowing a line from a deceased canyon legend named Whale, who before becoming a river runner had seen action in Vietnam. "I mean, it's not like there's going to be snipers."

Three days before the flood, however, the river did indeed take on a vaguely martial cast, looking like a staging area for some imminent assault. As we floated down from the put-in at Lees Ferry, past Badger Creek, past Indian Dick Rapid, and on through the Roaring Twenties, we kept spotting impressive evidence of our government at work. Surveillance planes droned overhead. Choppers dropped in. Motorboats shuttled fish guys, bug guys, dirt guys to their stations. Scientists were submerging cables, tagging plants, inserting radio transmitters into the soft bellies of fish. They were wiring up the whole channel, converting it into a 300-mile-long laboratory primed to receive the mother lode of data.

At one point we met a young technical assistant whose job for nearly two weeks was to take hourly water samples and then pick out all the organic matter--"orgs"--separating the damp stuff into neat little stacks and labeling them: piles of midges, piles of flies, piles of gnats. It sounded like a sentence on Alcatraz. "I'm going crazy!" she confessed. "Can I hop on board with you guys?"

Most of the time I was riding with veteran guide and photographer Dugald Bremner in his dory, the Skagit. "Graceful in repose, high and dry in the heavy going," he likes to say, quoting an old river-running brochure. He is a soft-spoken purist of the river, with a desert-baked face and a taste for single-malt scotch. His attitude with regard to watersheds is summed up in a bumper sticker affixed to his camera case: dams suck. "They do," he says. "Literally."

At mile 32, we rounded a bend to confront two long mare's tails of springwater hissing out of the canyon wall, some 200 feet up. It's a famous little spot called Vasey's Paradise. The constant spray from this pair of natural faucets has created an incongruously lush microclimate, like a green wadi in the Sahara, with hanging gardens of fern and watercress and monkey flower carpeting the limestone down to the river's edge.

Vasey's was crawling with scientists on this blustery day. "Come on up!" a young biology student called, waving us into the cove. He looked glad to see some fresh faces.

"What's going on here?"

"Snail duty!" he replied. "We're using nine-irons to chip these guys up the bank."

Over by the twin falls, a few biologists were crouched in the wet weeds, hunting for specimens of the Kanab ambersnail, an endangered species. It is believed that this tiny terrestrial snail is a last vestige of an age when there was a great deal more moisture in the canyon. The objective was to tag the snails with a teensy-weensy number for future studies and then gently place them, one by one, a short distance up the bank, so that the population here wouldn't be hammered by the high water. This was a mission of mercy, in other words, to minimize mollusk carnage. At this point, they were up to number 638 and were still hunkered in the muck, continuing their search for the biological equivalent of lost contact lenses.

It was a surreal scene, all the more so when one considered the fact that these painstaking biologists were ultimately being paid and marshaled by the Bureau of Reclamation, erstwhile destroyer of riparian ecosystems. The notion that the bureau's apparatchiks were now overseeing this elaborate environmental project came with loud ironies--shades, one might say, of the fox guarding the henhouse. Then again, times change, and even government agencies may be capable of an about-face. As one contract scientist I'd met earlier, a lifelong adversary of the bureau, had told me, "This is an enormous redemptive act. Not that they're doing this out of guilt--there is no guilt in government--but the bureau boys are wearing the green hats here." Bruce Babbitt, in his quavery Jimmy Stewart drawl, would put it another way: "After so many years of concentrating on water capture and power generation, this test is a symbol of our new commitment to making environmental restoration an equal part in the water equation of the West."

But what environment were we seeking to restore? What sort of conditions were we, to borrow bureau parlance, "managing for"?

Floods, often bigger than this one, were once a regular spring fling on the Colorado, a swell of Rocky Mountain snowmelt and sediment glurping down through the canyon. The spectacle was not only impressive to watch; it was a crucial part of the natural order of things, a seasonal flux to which all life was intricately tied. But after the dam was constructed in 1963, the spring floods no longer cleaned out the river. The environment of the Colorado below the dam changed dramatically. The muddy, warm water turned clear and cold, drawn as it was from 245 feet below the surface of Lake Powell. Life on the river became tied less to the seasons than to the whims of the Western Area Power Administration and the diurnal power pangs of cities as far away as Los Angeles and Denver. One of the results of these wildly fluctuating daily flows was that many of the canyon's beaches, prime camping grounds for the 22,000 rafters who annually float the canyon, began to erode at an alarming clip. An estimated 40 percent had disappeared between 1963 and the start of the test flow.

It took more than a decade for scientists to figure out just what kind of havoc all these changes were wreaking on the river--and what could be done about it. Some 13 years and $60 million were spent studying the various options in a vast, tedious process that took into consideration more than 37,000 public comments and the findings of some of the country's finest ecologists. What emerged from this morass of paperwork was a new bureaucratic buzzword, "adaptive management," and a recommendation that would have been heretical in 1963: Why not use some of the water in the Colorado for purposes other than generating electricity or irrigating the Cadillac desert or sprinkling the putting greens of Scottsdale and Las Vegas? Why not use the water to mimic the pre-dam floods? The dam taketh away, but the dam might also provideth.

No one was sure the test flow would do what it was supposed to do, but if it worked, the bureau hoped to stage these faux floods every few years, viewing them as a Roto-Rooter maintenance plan on a big, big scale. The scheme was extremely ambitious, and this initial test alone would cost upwards of $3 million, when you tallied up all of the scientific work and the estimated lost power-generating revenues.

And yet this wasn't just any river; this was the Ganges of the environmental movement, hallowed waterway of John Wesley Powell, David Brower, and Edward Abbey. It was already perhaps the most regulated, most studied, and most politicized swath of water in the world. If the history of grandiose public-works projects has taught us anything, it's that playing God can be a little like telling lies: One act eventually begets another.

"Hello, various humans!" a skinny, auburn-haired biologist called down to us from the camp at Vasey's. He was wearing squishy irrigation boots, short pants, and an Australian outback hat, and he had a distracted air about him, like a director on opening night.

A contract scientist for the bureau, Larry Stevens has been intimately involved in the flood's planning for the past four years, a vital voice in the byzantine process. River runner, author of one of the canyon's definitive river guides, restless polymath, and biologist with a Ph.D. in zoology, Stevens has devoted a quarter-century of his life to figuring out this monumental Rubik's Cube of water and sediment and rock. Call him Professor Grand Canyon. For all practical purposes, this stretch of the Colorado is his office, and throughout the week he'd been hopscotching around, giving interviews, overseeing teams of scientists, checking to make sure everything was in order for the high water's arrival.

I shook hands with Stevens and asked him if he had a minute to talk. "Nope," he said, glancing at his watch. "Got a helicopter to catch." Just then a chopper popped over the rim and perched on a flat spot just below the talus. "Maybe I'll see you somewhere downstream!" he yelled as he grabbed a briefcase and ran down the footpath to hitch his ride.

Yeah, right, I thought. There's only 245 miles of Grand Canyon left to go. We'll see you down there. Then up he floated, whisked to the rim like some raja of the river.

Yet sure enough, two days later we ran into him. It was at mile 55, at a place called Kwagunt Marsh, where he was conducting a survey. "There's going to be a lot of loss of life here tomorrow," he said, looking out over an expanse of rustling cattails that would be fully inundated within 24 hours. "It's one of the things about this flood that I'm not too crazy about." Before 1963, he said, there were very few marshes in the Grand Canyon; their creation was one of the unforeseen results of the dam and depending on your point of view may have been a positive thing, drawing a rich trove of new wildlife.

At nightfall Stevens sauntered over to our camp, his survey complete. We were having margaritas on the big snout raft, the whir of the blender resonating obscenely down the canyon. After a few drinks, Stevens was howling old sailor ditties, a guitar on his knee, the scientist metamorphosing into his old river rat self.

It was turning cold and windy, but it didn't matter, for tonight was sauna night, a time-honored river running tradition. We baked a dozen stones in the fire, and draped a tarp over a pair of kitchen prep tables, insulating the structure with sleeping bags. When the stones were ready, we shoveled them into a pit dug in the sand. Then we stripped down and crawled toward the amber glow.

After we got a handle on the furnace heat, the conversation turned to the dam, and the irony that the very thing that had made a mess of the canyon environment was now being used to move back the clock. "Yes," Stevens said, "but we'll never really get back to that other river. That river is long gone. What we have now is something else entirely, something that's not altogether natural. But this is still the most incredible place in the world."

There was a long silence, and then Stevens started crowing an unfamiliar song: "Bring back the river! Set that muddy water free!" It was a piece of doggerel he once wrote about the humpback chub, a prehistoric-looking Quasimodo of a fish that's native to the canyon. The chub is the closest thing the canyon has to a mascot, but because it does better in warm water, its population was clobbered by the advent of the dam. "We survived the droughts when the water was low / the trouble started when the bureau built the dam, 33 years ago..."

After the song was over, we sat for a few long moments, thinking chub thoughts, paying silent homage to its sorry humpbacked fate, but the verdict was unanimous. We couldn't take it anymore. Our brains were turning to consomm‹. We scrambled out and plunged ourselves into the Colorado. Someone had to devise a way for people to actually want to take a dip into this river of Freon, and here it was: Poach yourself alive.

I stayed under as long as I could bear it--three seconds, maybe. It was an otherworldly cold, all out of character for a river that runs through desert lands. It felt wrong.

We could make it warmer if we really wanted to spend the cash. The scientists have proposed a special intake mechanism that could be rigged up at the dam, drawing water from different thermal levels of the lake. Which would be good for the chub but bad for the trout that have flourished in the canyon and thus bad for the bald eagles that have come to feed on the trout. There were infinite unforeseen quandaries up and down the food chain. Every move has unintended consequences, every doctoring of the potion leaves a funny taste on the back of the tongue. Once we've taken up the business of "managing for" entire ecosystems, juggling the incomprehensible calculus of nature, it's hard to know when to quit.

All the river-running advice in the world cannot adequately prepare you for your first encounter with truly gigantic whitewater: the basso profundo rumble, the fugues of froth, the million watery rhythms bombarding the senses. I'm standing on a promontory above a monster rapid named Hance, feeling the mist rising off the water, smelling the turbid river smells. Some of the canyon rats are peering through binoculars, trying to figure out which of Hance's several slots will make the best run today, the run least likely to end in hypothermia and the dispatch of a rescue helicopter. "Couple years back, someone lost it here," Dugald tells me, shouting over the boom. "His boat wrapped around that rock over there. Went down and didn't come back up."

Well, that's some comforting news there, Dugald. Kind of you to share.

As we've already experienced this morning, the high water has made everything more dynamic, less predictable, harder to read. There are strange "boils" that keep bursting to the surface, causing us to lift and spin out of the current like waterbugs. The tranquil pools between the rapids are no longer tranquil at all, more like pneumatic tubes suctioning us downstream to the next big attraction. On the other hand, the flood has actually washed out many of the rapids in the canyon, turning once dicey patches into extra-swift but easily navigable runs.

Not so with Hance. Hance has only gotten mightier, louder, squirrelier.

They ever find the guy's body? I ask.

"Well," Dugald shouts back, "they helicoptered me and this other guy in with kayaks, and we spent a couple days searching downstream. Never did find'm. Probably got trapped under some rock Had to swell up with methane before it would pop back up. Couple months later, a science team spotted the body floating past Phantom Ranch, and they retrieved it."

To further blacken the atmospherics, there's a Park Service "observer" stationed on the banks here, a clipboard in hand. He inquires as to how the high water's been treating us thus far, asks a series of pointed questions about flips and near flips, and then waves us off to our doom.
Sufficiently steeled, our running strategies figured out, we jump on our boats and slip back into the mainstem. I'm riding with Dennis and his wife, Chris, on the snout raft, which will afford me enough height and stability to watch the fate of our armada unfold. Dennis runs right, and soon we're drifting toward a hundred-yard gauntlet of holes and eddies, boulders and haystacks, that right now is looking as grotesque as any Hieronymus Bosch painting. But hey--no snipers.

I won't give you some ridiculous yahoo account of the proceedings, because you can well imagine: It's huge, it's wild, we take on many gallons of water--but somehow we make it through without flipping.

As we're flung out of the swirlies and back into the main channel, we can plainly see the enormous redistribution of sand that's quietly taking place all around us, can sense the floor plan of the canyon rearranging itself. Indeed, a week after the flood recedes, officials will estimate that beaches and sandbars have been restored by as much as 30 percent. In some places, 12 feet of new beachline will be created. At mile 122, a USGS team will underestimate the rate of sediment accumulation, and $60,000 worth of scientific instruments will be buried under a fresh sandbar. Later, Babbitt will say the entire flow experiment "worked brilliantly" and will announce that what has been learned here might be applied to other ecosystems mauled by man--the Platte, the Columbia, the Everglades. Dave Wegner, the Bureau of Reclamation official who was more or less the czar of the flood, will say that he is "elated--the event seems to have followed the script very well."

Yet as we point our boats into the Inner Gorge, feeling the black walls closing in, the script is perfectly unreadable. We're wet, shivering, and inexplicably euphoric, lurching toward the soul of the Grand Canyon, toward Granite and Crystal and Lava. At this point it makes no difference who or what unleashed this great brown roil we're riding, or for what reason. It's an authentic life force now, moving to its own powerful caprice.

Hampton Sides is a senior editor of Outside.

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