Why do Scientists want to flood the Grand Canyon?

The Southwest region of the country has been experiencing one of their largest droughts in history, and the Grand Canyon’s Colorado River flows right through that parched section of the world. Communities in the area depend on the Colorado River for drinking water and power, but they’re not the only ones interested in the increasingly shallow stretch of water. It’s one of the most developed river systems on Earth, held back by 15 dams on the main stretch of the river alone, and after more than two decades of debate between conservationists, developers, and the US government, it can finally begin supporting another community – the surrounding sandbar’s fragile ecosystem.

Building 15 dams on one of the world’s largest rivers is sure to have an impact on the local ecosystem, and the Colorado River is an example of how unforeseen consequences of development can have far-reaching negative effects on the environment. The sandbars that border the Colorado River on either side are beginning to disappear, and as they’re washed away, the unique ecosystem that they support is disappearing as well. The Colorado River has always washed away sediment – that’s exactly how the Grand Canyon was formed, after all – but before the dams were built, more sediment was allowed to flow down the Colorado and replenish sediment as it was washed away. With 15 dams, that is no longer the case, but scientists are currently fine-tuning a solution that worked in the past. The problem? Their solution cuts profits for those running the dams.

The solution in question? Controlled flooding of the Grand Canyon. The first controlled flood actually occurred back in 1996, nearly 20 years after it was first discovered that the Colorado’s sandbars were deteriorating. While this was determined a success, its effects were only temporary, and after about a year, the sandbars were once again in danger. Two more controlled releases took place in 2004 and 2008, and since then, several other floods have taken place. The benefits have been determined to outweigh the cost, so it’s very likely that we’ll see another one soon.

It’s also likely that the next controlled flood will be the smallest thanks to unusually dry Grand Canyon weather, but there is hope that this controlled flood will be the most effective yet. For the past three years, the US Department of Interior has been conducting the high-flow experiment (HFE) to determine the ideal time and place to release a controlled flood.

Using time-lapse cameras, scientists have been figuring out how long different sandbars last under different conditions. They’ve also been research what time of year would be best to release the next burst of water, and the past three years have been a testament to what they can achieve – even if it costs dam owners a little bit of money.

It’s very possible that this experiment could fail, but at this point, only time (and additional research) will tell, but the scientists were sure to leave us with a few words of encouragement as they push forward with their plans: “Although long-term success cannot be predicted, the early results of HFE attempts to maintain the Grand Canyon’s sandbars show promise.”

How do you think these problems should be solved? What do you believe should be preserved and developed? Let us know in the comments section below.