Will The Extreme Drought Affect my Grand Canyon Rafting Adventure?
By Sharon Hester
If you have heard about the long-term extreme drought and effects of climate change on the Southwest region and Colorado River system, and have concerns, you’re not the only one. We hear this concern a lot on phone calls. AzRA is also concerned for the communities and ecosystems of the region that all rely on Colorado River water to survive. Much will have to change, such as water conservation practices and water regulations/law soon for the region to continue to thrive.
However, not having enough water to raft the Colorado River in the foreseeable future due to regional drought is not a concern. You may ask how can that be, we have heard so much about the extreme drought? Let us explain!
The Colorado River Compact
The Colorado River is a large volume and heavily regulated river system. The 100-year-old federal act, the Colorado River Compact mandates that the upper basin states (CO, WY, UT, NM), where most of the water is created by snowpack, deliver 8,230,000-acre feet annually to the lower basin states (CA, NV, AZ). This figure includes Mexico and Indigenous Tribe’s allocations. That amount can be averaged out over a 10-year period. With the current regulations, even in a heavy shortage year scenario, 7,000,000 acre-feet/year must still flow down through Grand Canyon from the upper basin states to the lower basin states.
For a bit of perspective, 8.23 million acre-feet/year equates to a median water release of about 12,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) per day from Glen Canyon Dam/Lake Powell. That includes both the higher flows in mid-summer and the lower flows in the shoulder months and winter. The month of June 2021, 10,615 CFS is about the average per day being released, and similar flows are likely to continue through August 2021.
If the annual flow was officially reduced to around 7 million acre-feet/year, it would still average close to 10,000 CFS/day over a year. It is interesting to note that pre-Glen Canyon dam period (prior to 1963), the average flow of the river annually was about 8,000 CFS.
Changes to the Colorado River Compact?
There are a lot of powerful stakeholders and interest groups that use the Colorado River water. Changing the parameters of the Colorado River Compact is a huge, complicated legal endeavor, which will affect many water municipalities of both the upper and lower basin states.
Even if the Colorado River Compact is modified in the near future, and the required water mandated to be delivered to the lower basin states (CA, AZ, NV, Mexico and Indigenous Tribes), becomes reduced due to lack of water in the upper basin states, it is unlikely that there would not be enough water flow to raft through Grand Canyon. As it stands today, the river through Grand Canyon National Park Service is flowing at what is considered normal post dam flows and is only a slightly lower flow than the last couple of years.
Similar flows will continue into the near future until Federal law is changed. As long as there is snow melting into the reservoirs of CO, WY, NM and UT, a lot of that water will have to go through Grand Canyon to feed the thirsty cities and farmlands of the southern states. The river is runnable at very low flows, so rafting in Grand Canyon is not at risk of stopping anytime soon due to drought and climate change. For the remainder of 2021, it is forecasted that the required amount to equal the 8,230,000-acre feet of water (averaged annually over a 10 year period), will be delivered to the lower basin for the remainder of this year.
The Effects of the Extreme Drought
If the Colorado River through GCNP were to become so low as to not be navigable, most southwestern communities would have enormous issues to contend with, and rafting will be the least of our worries for those of us who live in the region. While sadly this could happen with more years of continued drought/climate change, with careful planning and changes in water conservation efforts, humans will hopefully still be able to live in the region AND have rafting adventures on the Colorado for generations to come!
When all is said and done, even at the lower volume flows, there is still plenty of water to raft through Grand Canyon. Many rapids in Grand Canyon are much more challenging and rockier at lower flows. Some rapids grow bigger waves at lower flows and are washed out at higher flows. Grand Canyon rapids are always exciting at any given water flow!
If you would like to look at the history and current water flows in the canyon, please refer to: https://waterdata.usgs.gov/monitoring-location/09380000/#parameterCode=00060&startDT=2020-06-01&endDT=2021-06-17.
If you would like to learn a lot more about status and projected releases from Lake Powell through GCNP go here.
Please note on any given year there is always the possibility of temporary emergency extreme low flows due to power grid issues or other emergencies.