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Guest story: The Flood of 2008

[Front matter: this is a story my dad wrote after a science trip down Grand Canyon back in 2008. I've got his most of his collected works here, and I'll be posting them now and then. My dad's a bit funnier, a lot cooler, and much less pretentious than me; y'all should like this one.]

It’s already the most massive boat I’ve ever driven and they keep bringing stuff on board. Here comes a laser geodometer, in a custom case the size of an oil drum. “Keep it out of the crunch zone,” the fellow says, “it cost 60 grand.” We’ve taken the spare motor out of its box and filled the space with a laser sediment particle meter, an acoustic Doppler current profiler, a couple of generators. The P-61 sampler is a fish-shaped solid-brass instrument that takes two people to lift off the beach. I’ve got all three spare outboard engines and the whole fleet’s gas; the kitchen and all the food, a veneer of personal duffel in carnival colors, lashed over everything like a hairnet. I like to keep a neat boat and this one looked like a 37 foot chili dog smothered in onions. The cargo platform is six inches under water. “Don’t think you’re special, Cooper,” my boss, Brian Dierker, growls as he hands me a huge aluminum box full of, apparently, bricks, “this isn’t even close to the worst I’ve seen.”

We’ve come to study the effects of an artificial ‘flood” on the beaches of Grand Canyon. They’ve been slowly disappearing since the dam went in, which shouldn’t have surprised anyone, but the ruinous effect the dam would have on the riparian environment was the last thing on anyone’s mind in 1963.

The Colorado River drains an area larger than Spain and it falls two and a half vertical miles to the sea, slicing through the geography like a buzz saw. Before the dams went in, the river was the world champion earth mover in its class, transporting a half million tons of sediment through the Grand Canyon every day. Not anymore. Its waters rarely reach the sea at all.

In a river system that supplies drinking and irrigation water for millions of thirsty westerners, the sediment in this river is a particular nuisance. It clogs canals and intake structures and abrades pipes, pumps and generating turbines. The USGS estimates that within eighty years, sediment will cover the intakes for the river outlet works at Glen Canyon dam, one of the principal justifications of which was to keep the country’s largest reservoir, Lake Mead, from filling with silt faster than anyone had ever thought possible. The mud that used to flow as part of a river “too thick to drink, too thin to plow” is now settled out in Lake Powell. What water exits the hydroelectric generators at Glen Canyon Dam, the water that is floating our boats, is cold and clear, the opposite condition of what had been shaping the river corridor for millennia, and the perfect tool for scouring the beaches and sand bars of Grand Canyon to bare rock.

In the interest of preserving what was left of the riverside environment within the National Park, the various federal agencies involved had decided to let enough water out of the dam to “mimic” a natural flood. They had haggled about it for months. The hope was that tributaries to the Colorado below the dam had contributed enough sand and silt in recent flash floods to give the main river material to rework into new beaches. Our mission was to measure how well that tactic had worked.

Maybe I’m a little rusty at piloting a boat this size but I feel like I’m in the back seat making suggestions. The little four-stroke Honda 30 horse outboard is legendary for its quiet reliability until it coughs and dies, then won’t start. The other boatmen know what the problem is and shout their advice. Too much choke, not enough choke, too much or too little throttle, frududenator on backwards, sprazzeled plugs, etc. I pull the starter cord till I’m gasping and spent. Brian comes over. “You gotta put it in gear and give it full throttle five times,” he says adjusting this and that. It starts on the second pull.

It froze hard at the put-in the night before we left and everyone’s got on rubber boots and tattered ski wear, like homeless Nordic irrigators. We travel downriver less than a mile before reaching the first survey point. The Grand Canyon Research and Monitoring Center, under the umbrella of the US Geological Survey, has been keeping track of the size and shape of the sediment deposits along the river for more than a decade. There are permanent reference points at various places along the river that are marked with paint. By placing a surveying instrument called a “total station” directly over these points, laser pulses can be sent out to a hand held reflector along the shoreline that measure the position of that point relative to the station within 2 centimeters. String together enough points and you have a contour map of the beach you can compare with the previous one. Sound easy?

It’s not. The glitch is in getting that reflector to the various points, a job that fell primarily Emily Thompson, research tech and human fireball. Hundreds of readings have to be taken, so you have to hurry. The map needs to extend into the river to where the boat-mounted sonar mapping instrument can begin to “see,” sometimes way out in the 48 degree water. The shoreline can be anything from slime-covered rocks to bottomless ooze. The bars are often cloaked by what I would have previously described as “impenetrable” thickets of tamarisk. Clad in chest-high rubber waders and dragging the pole-mounted reflector, Emily will slosh, thrash or slither through it all.

We only make 6 miles the first day, surveying along the way. The next day we make fourteen and the canyon is already 2000 feet deep. We camp on a dune and the wind blows a silica hurricane all night. Maybe I’ve gotten too close to the research subject already. “Fine” sand particles are up to 250 microns in diameter and great candidates for aeolean (wind) transport. There’s a kilo of it in my scalp.

The rapids are close together for the next few miles and the engine keeps cutting out. We sputter through them without incident to our next survey site at South Canyon. The wind is howling among the cliffs and gyres of spray from the rapid below are whipped hundreds of feet in the air. Gusts of stinging spray rake the boat from cresting waves a quarter mile away. When at last we proceed, the engine is reluctant and the other boats are around the corner before we gain the current. Then it dies with a certain resignation. I pull on it for a while then look around. We’re in the middle of the river and creeping downstream against the wind. Nearing the entrance to the next rapid, we’re going to start picking up speed shortly but we’re not going into rapid. We’re going into the rocks. Where we will spend the next few days.

I begin to pull frantically on the starter cord, smacking my hand repeatedly against the motor box, flaying off nickel-size chunks of flesh. I don’t even notice. Panic seems a legitimate response. I pull and pull, trying every possible setting of choke and throttle. The motor has stopped breathing, flatlined, and will soon begin to turn blue and stiffen up. I change gas tanks, squeeze the gas pressure bulb near bursting, then mash it under my heel, pull some more. It will not fire. We are utterly helpless.

Salvation comes in the form of another boat from upstream, a research vessel escorting a news team from the Today Show. They seem odd angels but they drag us to safety. It takes twenty minutes to put on the spare engine but it won’t run either. I’ve drained the water separator a dozen times but someone recommends I pull the filter cartridge. It is full of water, right up to the top. “Oh, no wonder,” I remark to myself. Later I will drain nearly three gallons of water out of that tank, pumping it into a sediment-sampling jar a cup at a time, using the bulb taken off a fuel line and salvaging the spoonful of gas that floats on top. It will take all afternoon. For now, I bypass the filter with another hose and drain a pint of pure water out of the carburetor bowls. The engine starts right up, but I take a minute to wash off the blood, which is all over. It looks kind of unprofessional. How the water got in the tank will remain a mystery.

We make another 15 miles without incident and pull into camp below President Harding Rapid. While camped here in 1923, a US Geologic Survey expedition learned of Mr. Harding’s death by way of the first radio carried into Grand Canyon. They named it after him. Not much of a rapid, rated 2-4 on a ten scale, but then… We will gather data here for nine days and observe the river’s rise and fall. Officially called 44.9 mile camp, it has much to recommend. There is a route out to the rim. It is seldom used by recreational trips and the first research on sedimentation in Grand Canyon was conducted here. Records and photos go way back. A guy named John Schmidt et. al. actually came up with the terminology for the various parts of the beach building process here.

There is the “separation bar,” where the water loses velocity and hence sediment carrying capacity at the foot of a rapid. There is the “return channel,” where along-shore currents retain enough power to transport sediment even though they are traveling upstream, filling the void left by the accelerating water of the rapid. There is the “reattachment bar” where the return channel spends its sand-carrying energy opposing the falling water of the rapid.

It sounds simple, but I am reminded of a quote I think I remember from Richard Feynman, the “smartest man in the world,” after Einstein died: “I would have two questions for God,” he said, “what is the meaning of life?” and “please explain turbulence.” It is the last unsolved problem of classical physics. You can model it on your computer to heart’s content but you will be deceived. Its complexity is beyond our understanding, and its effects are best observed and not predicted. That’s why all the stuff on my boat. We just don’t know what’s going to happen. In spite of our number crunching prowess, there is no substitute for reality.

We will measure the current velocity and sediment content through the water column at half meter intervals. The size and concentration of particles will be determined. “Sand” becomes “silt” below 62.5 microns and turns to “clay” at 3.9 microns. Larger particles are bounced and dragged along the bottom as “traction load.” The researchers are serious about their work, rise early and doggedly pursue good data until the light fails.

For the next nine days the camp scene will be mine. I’ll be up before its light and conk out long after dark wearing all of my smoky, grease splattered clothes. One day I hike to the rim and take in a therapeutic dose of broad abject emptiness. A thousand feet of the great wall of the East Kaibab Plateau lies to the north and west and is blanketed with snow. The San Francisco Peaks shimmer on the horizon like a distant sail.

The flood comes, along with a glut of visitors. There is a guide training trip, a twelve boat private trip that fails to take Harding Rapid seriously at 42,000 cubic feet per second. Two of their boats are upside down. There’s a trip of distilled officialdom; honchos from bureaus across the spectrum of government agencies with reporters, department heads and chiefs. The last time I saw Steve Martin, Superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park, he was a junior ranger setting on the prosecutor’s side of the aisle while I was convicted of kayaking the Little Colorado River into the park without a permit. It was a first descent and I’m still proud of that, but he didn’t remember me. Lots of water under the bridge and he was busy being a stern advocate for Grand Canyon.

I got to watch an exchange between him and an official from the Bureau of Reclamation that did a lot to illuminate the conflicts between the different agencies that are often charged with opposing responsibilities. The BurRec guy wanted to know if we could determine the minimum amount of water it would take to accomplish whatever beach building would be done. The dams his agency built were supposed to pay off a host of other Reclamation projects with hydropower revenues. That was half their rationale. If you let water go without generating power you’re losing money, maybe 3 million dollars by their reckoning, for the 41.500 cfs flow for 60 hours. Only two thirds of that will fit through the turbines. The rest comes out of the jet tubes and is “wasted.”

There used to be an average seasonal high of 86,000 cfs in Grand Canyon. A flood in 1957 rose to 152,000 cfs and there is evidence of 300,000 cfs flow not long before the gauges went in. The flood of 2008 is barely high water, but it’s something. There’s all that buzz about the Seventh Wonder of the World and the World Heritage Site but that’s hard to put a number on. What if you if you were try to figure the value of the sea life the river used to nourish or the riot of birds in its former delta? The accountants would croak. Lake Mead is 46 percent full and Powell is 44 and the conquest of the Colorado is a “mission accomplished.” There doesn’t seem to be enough water to go around but they’re building new aqueducts and selling more homes and it can never stop or even slow down. It’s all right there in the presumptions. So what if there’s not a beach in Grand Canyon, the native fish are gone and ancient ruins washed away? People in Phoenix will literally perish without air conditioning. Is that what you want? The reservoirs are filling with mud, the generator intakes are close to sucking air, the plan seems to be unraveling at the most basic level, but the dams are still working for now and the populace cries out for cheap electricity. What’s more important? You can see the problem.

It takes hours for the muddy water of the high flow to completely displace the clearer water of the low. The sonar mapping boats are running continuously and you don’t have to do much analysis to tell that the beaches are building like gangbusters. The newest boat is equipped with a multi-beam sonar scanner that maps a section of river bottom 175 degrees wide. It sends out 80 separate beams 40 times a second, through a transducer that is mounted on what appears to be a great aluminum cannon. A laser reflector is fixed to the boat, and the big old geodometer lets the data recorder know exactly where it is. Software will adjust for the motion of the boat. Multiple passes are necessary and each will have to match up exactly with the one before. I am rather in awe of level of sophistication.

Chief researcher Matt Kaplinski helped to design the boat and is running the telemetry now. Flat panel displays are mounted to the lid of the big aluminum cross box in front of him and a table for his keyboard will fold down in the rapids. Matt is absolutely gleeful about how well the rig is working and it puts a jolly man in a jolly mood. Stocky and solid, like an elf that may go 225, he might suddenly break into song or decide to dance along with the generator. He’s an avid hockey player and moves well. It’s his 12th year studying sediment transport in the canyon, and he knows as much about it as anyone. “We’re getting great data,” he smiles.

Over 15 hours the flood subsides and the river drops to a quarter of its previous volume. There are big new sand bars and backwaters where shoals can warm up enough for the native fish to spawn. They are particular about the temperature at which they have sex, nothing below 61F, please, and there are few opportunities in the dam-chilled river. The voracious non-natives aren’t helping either.

We shoot the shoreline one more time, Emily on the rod, Nat running the total station. Except for rigging the boat, I’m eager to move on. I feel like I’ve been at 45 Mile all my life. Toward late afternoon we finally take off. There are new sand bars all along the way and the consensus is it looks like better beach building that the two times they’ve tried this before. We camp with another research trip just above the mouth of the Little Colorado. They are taking “drift” samples to determine what creatures and foodstuffs are available to the fish in the water and how that changes with the high flow. We don’t have to set up our kitchen and I’m much relieved.

In the morning I try to rig the boat a little tighter for the big rapids to come. The Little Colorado River has an enormous drainage and has brought in enough sand to rebuild the beaches for miles downstream. It looks encouraging. We’re running on about 9,000 cfs I reckon and the rapids are tight and full of rocks. We regroup above the first major one, Unkar Rapid and run within sight of one another. Walls of creamy Shinumo Quartzite rise steeply out of the water and I know the crux is coming.

Hance Rapid is at the mouth of Red Canyon and it’s long and broad and steep and rocky. Instead of narrowing down at the top, the river widens and boulders the size of my bedroom stretch in a line from bank to bank. In the dories we used to always start on the extreme left and row to the right like crazy. I counted up once and every boat in the warehouse had a repair in the right front footwell, where one particular rock in Hance had blown a hole in the side. Big boats start on the extreme right, in the only chute that’s big enough to fit through and strive to get left. It’s the tightest move in Grand Canyon and the most critical. Boatman have given names to various features to simplify the description of what happened to them. Misjudge your momentum on the entry and you may end up on “Whale Rock.” Sometimes overnight. If you don’t get enough of your left tube in the “Duck Pond” eddy to turn you then you’re down the right, through the “Land of the Giants.” Sideways. I’m always a little gripped. You have to float in with no throttle and no momentum but pointed the right way and waiting. Waiting, waiting, waiting, while 49% of the fibers of your being are screaming, “Do Something, for God’s Sake!” The roar is overwhelming and a perfect indecipherable hell of white water gradually reveals itself. We’re not going to scout it. Wouldn’t change anything.

I’m thinking we look pretty good going in. I’ve got a visual on the parking rock and as it slides by I crank the throttle wide open and swing the tiller hard to starboard. For an instant, I think I’ve got it. Then everything slows down and I can see events unfold as if the river of time were flowing like honey. It’s not coming around. We’re not making the cut. That’s puzzling. I think to look down at the engine after an age and see the jagged edges of the casting where the tiller handle has broken free of its mount. I haven’t been turning the engine, I’ve been bending the little rod that controls the throttle. “That’s not fair,” I think. The motor is pointed straight ahead, jammed wide open and we’re all going to hell. Us and the geodometer and the laser sampler and the rest. I look at the red button which will kill the engine, the lanyard on it called the deadman switch. Then I gaze around at where we are. Going into some rocks, looks like. Pity. The engine is winding and at least we’re still pointed left. That’s gotta help. I can’t pull the engine when it’s under power and if I turn it off we’ll be where we’ll be. Don’t care for that idea. We’re gonna smack a rock with the lower unit any second now and then it won’t matter. No sooner has that thought bubbled up than we hit hard and the motor dies. I pull the engine and notice that all three blades of the prop are flattened against the hub. No sense starting it up again, I reflect, and reach to lock it in the tilt position. Something is busted and it won’t stay up. We go through a sharp hole, I lose my grip and it falls back in. I pull it out again and look downstream. A lot of the boat is actually having a pretty good run but the stern, my part, is 10 feet upstream of the biggest nastiest hole in Hance Rapid, sideways. I mentally apologize to the Honda, let go of it and hold on for dear life. There is a whack so solid I expect to see nothing but guts from the power head trailing in the water where the lower unit used to be. We’re still moving left and actually careen into the shore and lodge there in the rocks before we are out of the rapid. Well, nice to have that over with, I’m thinking.

I’ll do much better after that.

Copyright 2008, all rights reserved. No part of this writing can be reproduced, rewritten, broadcast, or published without the written consent of the author. Picture credits: AP and FreeLargePhotos.


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