The second I stepped onto Bright Angel Trail on my 8 mile descent into the Grand Canyon to join the 8 river guides, 2 old friends, and 15 new friends for two weeks I became an integral part of a community, and a caretaker of this international treasure. This community includes boaters from all over the world, the Colorado River, its side streams, sand, soil, vegetation, archaeological sites, and wildlife. My river mates were a community of intelligent adults, who could be observed with their heads down, hands folded behind their backs, in focused observation of a bug making its way across a desert beach.
As a participant in this journey I became a steward of Grand Canyon National Park. I felt the responsibility to preserve and protect the river and surrounding canyons with as little of my impact as possible. This exceptionally strong feeling is brought into clearer understanding by the guides’ vast knowledge, the 1800 million year old vishnu schist that doesn’t let you forget you are 1 mile deep in the earth’s core and the cryptobiotic soil crusts; a diverse community of living organisms such as algae, cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) bacteria, lichen, mosses, liverworts, and fungi. These crusts maintain soil stability, prevent erosion, contribute nutrients for plant growth, retain water in the soil for plants, and provide a home for seedling germination. Just one step can crush the crust, taking decades for it to recover! It’s terrifying to find yourself standing on this otherwise insignificant looking black sand, realizing how little you know about the world around us.
The Colorado River is born of high Rocky Mountain snow. Spring sun melts the snowpack and the water begins to flow downhill developing into streams, creeks, and rivers to form the Colorado River. After the Colorado River leaves the Rocky Mountains, it journeys into the Colorado Plateau where it picks up sediment and moves it downstream like a conveyor belt. The gradient of the Colorado River and the material it moves make this desert river powerful. In Grand Canyon National Park alone, the Colorado River drops more than 2,000 ft. over 277 miles. Over its entire 1,450 miles it drops more than 14,000ft making this region a formidable impasse to transportation crossings and the formation of the Southwestern United States.
The change from annual to daily water flows through the Grand Canyon, a regular part of the Glen Canyon Dam operations since blocking the river in 1963, have eroded beaches, reduced native fish populations and habitat, and undermined sediment support, which is an important transfer of nutrients down river, erosion prevention and delta building. Grand Canyon’s declining state is possibly the most well documented record of human impact on our environment. In addition, severe drought combined with burgeoning growth in need of hydropower has put intense pressure on the Colorado River and its canyons, species, habitats, and communities. “As reservoir levels have fallen to historic lows, it has become imperative to not only change the way we manage the river but also to reconsider how we operate dams”. unesdoc.unesco.org/images
The Grand Canyon Trust www.grandcanyontrust.org was conceived on a river trip in 1981 by adventurists who recognized the importance of protecting this public gem. While they have made remarkable progress in stemming the tide of threats, the canyon remains under siege. The following issues are part of the Trust’s portfolio of ongoing issues.
- Natural Quiet: Noise pollution from flights is related to the government’s failure to enforce the 1987 National Parks Overflights Act. Noise from air tours, operations of Glen Canyon Dam, and other threats to Grand Canyon continue to impair its integrity for use and enjoyment by future generations Learn more…
- Colorado River Management: Impacts to the Colorado River ecosystem that have resulted from Glen Canyon Dam operations, which have historically ignored science and favored cheap power generation over environmental concerns. Learn more…
- Providing Water in the Greater Grand Canyon Region: Impacts to Grand Canyon water resources — especially its fragile springs and seeps — as a result of groundwater pumping to provide water to cities. Learn more…
One of my new friends, Dan Tonsmiere, is a Riverkeeper for the Apalachicola River. Apalachicola is a historic, paradise, delta, town in northwestern Florida where oyster and shrimp boats begin their daily pilgrimages into a once seafood-rich bay. I learned first hand how easily upriver residents can affect such a pristine picture perfect environment. www.oysterguide.com/maps/gulf-coast/apalachicola.
Riverkeepers make public resources available for local communities. Local waterways can be protected by citizen-led efforts provided with local knowledge to confront pollution in the courts, the media, and the political system. This helps prevent politically endowed industries from monopolizing the democratic process that insures our lawful rights to clean water and air and to correct any current regulatory failures. In essence, Riverkeeper is an environmental “neighborhood watch” group maintained by concerned citizens. Its constituents are not public officials and are not swayed by politics, but include members who defend the public use and restrict the private alienation of the river’s benefits. www.riverkeeper.org
In New York City, we have Riverkeepers dedicated to the protection of the Hudson River and its tributaries, as well as the watersheds that provide us with our drinking water. It was the first “keeper” to be founded. Today, there are over 150 “keepers” around the globe, all members of the Waterkeeper Alliance umbrella organization. Its important to know that the public trust doctrine separates private ownership from resources held in common by the public and that we have a legal right, recognized in New York’s Constitution, which holds that the people own the Hudson River and all citizens have a right to its use, but none can abuse this privilege to degrade its use by others. An even greater emphasis in our federal statutory system declares no one has the right to pollute public resources and everyone has the right to a clean environment.
Being in the Grand Canyon on the Colorado River brought this basic right to a unique understanding. There is no wifi, no communication with the outside world, no planes flying overhead, you see no other people for days, no lights filtering out the night stars, no shelter, no medical help beyond the expertise of your guides, no supply replenishment, and no convenient way to get out once you get on the river. It is the Seventh Wonder of the World for good reason. Precambrian history is right in front of you. Waterfalls, canyons, caves and cliffs that are a destination in any other place are around every bend of the river for 300 miles. Everything is so big that your brain cannot register its size. Forces strong enough to push a twenty foot raft under water are crashing in on you. And the sounds!!! Moving water has an infinity of different sounds that take you from primal fear to spiritual elation.
It wasn’t easy to be a good steward of this gift. Meals were eaten by the water’s edge to prevent crumbs from attracting species that learn to live on our waste. Walking was permitted on supporting ground and designated trails only. Urinating was isolated to the river or a pee cup only. Other waste was performed at night or in the morning at the “groover” and carried with us. Camp grounds were clean and were left without any traces of us being there. Food was prepared over tarps. Dishes for 25 were washed in 10 gallons of water. Personal sanitation and wellness affected the entire group. Rocks and trees were not to be used as furniture and clothes hangers. My ziplock bag disappeared with a smattering of toothpaste on it to become a raven’s or a rodent’s meal with the remaining bag left to exist somewhere in this pristine place for decades to come. Ugh!! I was inspired, though. A person can reduce their waste to a 21″ x 7″ x 8″ container in the course of two weeks and still have 3 amazing meals a day and loads of fun filled conscious raising adventure.
Ways You Can Help
- Learn about and support River Keepers
- Consider making less impact on our environment
- Take a river trip
Until next week,