Rockies Research Trip Days 3 and 4: Canyons, Hydrology and Utah

Tuesday, July 12

Paonia to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

While parting with the idyllic Orchard Valley Farms was tough, we had much to look forward to as we packed up early Tuesday morning to head off to the North Rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. We were there to investigate, first-hand, the effects of a recent negotiation securing a 1933 federally reserved water right for the Black Canyon National Monument (now National Park). This water right established minimum and peak flows for the Gunnison River flowing through Black Canyon, and has been in effect for three years now.

Later in the afternoon we’d meet with a knowledgeable Park Hydrologist and get the full details on the status of the Gunnison River (an important tributary to the Colorado River). But for now, it was time to hike down the 1,800 vertical feet into the canyon and see the roaring river ourselves. The 1.75 mile hike down “SOB Draw” took us a little more than an hour as we carefully picked our way down scree, lowered ourselves around boulders, and avoided poison ivy as well as we could. The view down into the canyon was stunning, and reaching the bottom left us with no doubt as to why this spectacular yet remote canyon was awarded National Park Status.

After a dip in one of the river’s many pools and the obligatory photo shoot (check out our facebook page), it was time to head back up. This required some serious scrambling, but was arguably far more fun than the uphill slog offered by flatter, less rocky trails. Plus, the view was unbeatable.

Because of the remote location of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, it took us nearly two hours to drive from our North Rim hike over to the South Rim, where we were camping. The drive offered incredible scenery, however, as well as chance to check out the river’s largest reservoir in Colorado, the Blue Mesa Reservoir. This dam-reservoir system, in conjunction with two other major dams (Crystal and Morrow Point), makes up the Aspinall Unit. This storage and diversion system was the brainchild of Colorado Representative Wayne Aspinall, thoroughly debated by the environmental community, but finally created in order to provide water for growing metropolitan areas throughout the West.

Once on the South Rim of Black Canyon, we rolled up into camp just in time to meet with Michael Dale, the Park hydrologist, and were greeted by heavy rain. Dale was a great sport and we discussed flow rates, park recreation, impacts of dams, water rights and the economy of the surrounding area. He was an excellent source as far as familiarizing us with the technicalities of flow forecasts and changing hydrological components.

Wednesday, July 13th

Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP to Green River, UT to Moab, UT

After a beautiful sunset and a refreshing night’s sleep, we took off early again this morning, this time bound for Utah. A morning in the car got us caught up with various field trip contacts using email on our smartphones, and Carson finished a movie detailing our first few days on the road (you can check it out here). We stopped first at the John Wesley Powell Museum in Green River, Utah, where we learned extensively about Powell’s first trip down the river in 1869.

We hopped back on the road to get to Moab, where we were met by the now-routine afternoon thunderstorm and the treat of waterfalls of rain running off of Moab’s stoic red rock. We pulled into town in time for a meeting with Living Rivers head John Weisheit ( ), a long-time advocate for recognizing the natural flow regime of the river and the negative impacts of growing human presence. Weisheit provided a very cynical but realistic point of view on the Colorado’s future, discrediting the efforts of water purveyors and policymakers in consistently diverting and damming the river.

Now that we’re having precious internet time at Moab’s public library, we’ll be all ready for another evening camping, a Thursday morning meeting, and a hike to the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers tomorrow.

By Sally Hardin, Colorado College State of the Rockies Project Researcher