Cataract Canyon Comes Back to Life

February 18, 2024 | Rolling Stone

Damming the Colorado River wiped out a magnificent stretch of rapids for half a century. Now, incredibly, they’re returning — on their own

Brenda Bowen. Professor of Geology & Geophysics | Chair of the Department of Atmospheric Sciences | Director, Global Change and Sustainability Center

“I cannot emphasize how amazing, and important, it is that Returning Rapids [a small group of river-rafting enthusiasts who consider Cataract Canyon a second home] is convening the science community around this, and bringing in agencies and tribal communities and people from different backgrounds,” says Brenda Bowen, a geoscientist with the University of Utah who’s been coming on Returning Rapids trips since 2019. “It’s already changed the trajectory of the outcomes of this landscape because they’ve brought more attention to it, and they’re helping people organize around it.”

And yet many river rafters, conservationists, and scientists see these lower reaches of Cataract Canyon, for all of their scientific, cultural, and recreational significance, as falling through the cracks of government-agency management, where no precedent seems to exist for who takes responsibility for a reservoir turned returning river. Eric Balken, executive director of the Glen Canyon Institute, which focuses on restoring the Glen and Grand canyons, says that “many land and water managers treat the emerging landscape as an area that will one day be under water again, even though the data suggests the opposite. This management approach of ‘That’s just where the reservoir used to be, it’s not important’ is so misguided. As the reservoir comes down, what’s emerging has similar qualities to all the popular and cherished parks and monuments in this area, like Bears Ears, Grand Staircase Escalante, and Grand Canyon.”

A recent environmental impact report by the Bureau of Reclamation, which is in charge of dams, implied erroneously that mostly invasive species were returning as Lake Powell’s water level dropped. But Returning Rapids  has brought scientists down Cataract, who find native plants returning, birds returning as shorelines emerge, beavers returning as willows and cottonwoods sprout on those shorelines. In response to a request for comment, the Bureau of Reclamation directed me back to the report with the erroneous implications.

Canyonlands National Park, which manages the river, and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area (NRA), which manages the reservoir, tell me in a joint statement that the agencies are aware of the landscape emerging in Cataract; staff see it on routine river patrols and receive Returning Rapids’ trip reports. Both agencies “maintain active programs for resource monitoring throughout the park, including monitoring of archaeological sites, monitoring for invasive vegetation species, and monitoring of various plants and wildlife species. As the lake level drops, areas of shoreline are incorporated into the park’s existing science-based monitoring and research programs to understand and respond to the changing lake environment.”

Returning Rapids regularly shares its observations and data collected from scientists on its trips with these and other agency managers, and has invited and brought Canyonlands officials on its science expeditions. Mike DeHoff [a river runner and local from Moab, Utah, has] invited officials from the NRA, but none have yet accepted. Although Returning Rapids recently attained a new degree of credibility in becoming a project under the Glen Canyon Institute, often when DeHoff shares real-time data of changing conditions with agency decision-makers, he says, he’s usually greeted with some iteration of “Wait, who are you guys?”

Read the entire article by Cassidy Randall with photographs by Len Neceferin in

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