The creation of Glen Canyon Dam has had a profound influence on Colorado River recreation. The cold, clear water released from the base of the dam has allowed the development of a vibrant, non-native rainbow trout sport fishery along the 15 mile stretch of river immediately downstream of the dam. Meanwhile, interest in Colorado River white water rafting has risen dramatically since the mid-1960s, due in part to the relatively consistent and generally higher flows being released from the dam relative to pre-dam conditions. Today a 226-mile journey through Grand Canyon by boat is regarded as one of the world’s premier white water rafting experiences.
Beginning with the initial explorations of John Wesley Powell, second Director of the U.S. Geological Survey, river runners have used sandbars along the Colorado River as campsites. Previous research by the National Park Service and others in the 1970s and 1980s documented the loss of campsite area and concluded that the natural erosion of sand bars had been exacerbated by the completion of Glen Canyon Dam. Because of their crucial role in contributing to a high quality visitor experience, the relative size, distribution, and quality of campsites along the Colorado River are of particular concern to river managers.
Following the establishment of the Glen Canyon Dam Adaptive Management Program in 1997, a systematic campsite monitoring program was initiated by the Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center (GCMRC) to track changes in the amount of area suitable for camping at a sample of sand bars throughout the river corridor. Working cooperatively with the GCMRC, researchers at Northern Arizona University have monitored campsite area at approximately 31 representative sandbars between Lees Ferry and Diamond Creek, Arizona, using repeat surveys since 1998. These monitoring efforts have shown a relatively consistent decline in campable area of approximately 15% per year, punctuated by occasional pronounced but short-lived increases following high flow experiments in 1996, 2004 and 2008. The decline in campsite area appears to be due to a combination of factors: 1) overall reduction in the pre-dam sediment supply by about 90%, 2) effects of daily fluctuations in river level due to hydroelectrical operations tied to daily fluctuations in energy demand, and 3) vegetation encroachment due to the loss of periodic scouring floods. Currently, researchers are compiling and analyzing these data on a site-by-site basis to understand the long-term impacts of Glen Canyon Dam operations on the condition and quality of Grand Canyon campsites and the implications of these changes for visitor capacity and quality of experience.
In addition to the ongoing monitoring program, GCMRC is working cooperatively with the National Park Service to develop a comprehensive Geographic Information System (GIS) atlas documenting historical and current campsites in lower Glen Canyon and Grand Canyon National Park. In addition to GIS maps of campsites, the atlas includes relevant data and photographs about each of the camps. In the future, this atlas will serve as an electronic repository for all information related to campsites along the Colorado River between Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Mead. Over 500 campsites have been documented to date, of which approximately 320 are actively used by river runners and anglers.
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