Image by Dawn Kish
One of our favorite things at Goal Zero is learning about the exciting and impactful things you do with our products whether you’re taking our power banks on your next flight, mounting solar panels on your van, or taking your power station on a camping trip with friends.
Jack Stauss from the Glen Canyon Institute shares his story of using Goal Zero equipment to support essential research projects in Cataract and Glen Canyons.
Powering Research in Cataract and Glen Canyons
Jack A. Stauss, Glen Canyon Institute Outreach Director
Image by Dawn Kish
The raging waters of the Colorado and Green Rivers are revered—there is almost nowhere better in the United States to learn wild histories of the West and to experience the power of nature firsthand.
At the heart of this system are two canyons that are steeped in the history of ancient peoples who called the place home, more recent explorers, and the roots of the modern environmental movement. Cataract Canyon and Glen Canyon share beauty, mystery, and awe. But both have been subject to large scale Western development for much of the last 100 years and those projects have altered the character of these canyons.
But, in a quintessential wildcard desert move, climate change and overallocation of the resources have poked holes in that development. Massive reservoirs, the largest in the country, are draining. And in their place, sinuous sandstone canyons are returning. This has given us an opportunity to reassess our relationship to water in the West, and to see the place anew.
Below the Big Drops
50 miles south of Moab, the Colorado River through Meander Canyon meets the Green River from Stillwater at the Confluence. The Confluence is a sacred place: the meeting of two great Western rivers. Nestled in the heart of Canyonlands National Park, the Confluence is the place where the rivers mix and the traveler can camp on a white sandy beach framed beneath towering golden walls. At sunrise and sunset the whole place glows with an ethereal light like nothing else I have seen. The calm water sluices together, churning with their different blend of rich sediments and continuing downstream.
This spot also marks the end of miles of flat water and the beginning of Cataract Canyon. Cataract at high water is one of the most feared sections of river—tight, steep, constrictions in the crumbling sandstone push the water into monstrous waves and waterfalls, crashing and exploding as boaters try and navigate through 30 miles of chaos.
The “end” of Cataract Canyon’s whitewater has, since 1977, been just below a nefarious rapid called “Big Drop 3.” That is the place where, until 1999, the reservoir Lake Powell backed up the river and the mighty Colorado and its warm, silty water came to a dead halt, settling out into the cold, blue waters of Powell.
Doing the Work: Lower Cataract and Upper Glen
Image by Jack Stauss
Here marks the beginning of our work at Glen Canyon Institute and Returning Rapids Project. From the bottom of the Big Drops all the way to Glen Canyon Dam, some 200 miles, and hundreds more miles of side canyons and tributaries. It’s a vast landscape. Feeder canyons: slots, narrows, and steep couloirs of rock that lead to the river run with ferocious flash floods or annual streams that provide water and nutrients for native plants that have reestablished themselves as the reservoir has dropped.
Depending on if we are working in the Lower Cataract/ Upper Glen Canyon area, or in main Glen Canyon, our approach to the research we do changes. In Cat and the Upper, we are primarily looking at sediment: the moving of river sands and silts inside canyons and in the main channel. This tells us how much the original river has changed, and at the rate at which it is changing, and what factors play into sediment mobilization. For the sake of Returning Rapids, they hope to learn when enough sediment is scoured away from the river bottom to hopefully reclaim the original river bottom and once again see historical rapids in the canyon.
For USGS, Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research, and universities across the Basin, this is terra incognita. Some of the de-watered side canyons are cross sections of geology happening on a very short timescale. Processes that usually take millions of years, happening in a mere 60. The excitement is palpable as the team trudges around with real time kinematic GPS units, and cases of tools, dissecting these dunes of reservoir sediment.
Other teams have taken weeks to resurvey the river bottom with advanced equipment, doing bathymetric readings to actually map the bottom of the river. In 2021, we got the first full river profile in 100 years.
From canyon to canyon, each place is different. Depending on the character of the canyon, the scale of sediment mobilization is different and that has impacted the main river corridor in various ways, but one thing is certain—when given the chance the river can roar back to life. What was once still blue water, is now, in many places, free flowing water with up to Class III rapids.
After traveling miles downstream in the restored river, teams hit the reservoir at a place called the Delta Face, another serious point of interest for researchers from across the Colorado River Basin.
As one might guess, these powerful tools we use for gathering data in the canyon take a lot of energy. Goal Zero has made it easy for us to set up camps to explore and do the research we need to. By providing our teams with solar panels and Yeti 500X power stations, we can be sure we’ll have the power we need to charge our instruments and light up camp to get the work done.
Down in Glen
In Glen Canyon proper, the changes I have seen in my four years exploring the region are nothing short of breathtaking. Places that I thought would be buried under water or sediment for decades to come, have been restored in a matter of a season. With the precipitous drop in the reservoirs and historic monsoon flooding the area, water and sediment fall away as nature reclaims the landscape.
Since 2019, we have been surveying the biological succession in the main Glen Canyon corridor. We have around 50 plant “transect” sites established in the canyon. These sites compare sections of side canyon that look at both above and below high water. So far, the findings are inspiring. While areas that are most recently out of water (under a year) are predominantly non-native plants, after a year or two natives are able to reclaim the ecosystem. Willows wave in the gentle canyon breeze, stream orchids and primrose bloom where there was once stagnant water. And astonishingly enough, cottonwood trees have taken root. In some places 40-foot-tall trees have been growing for 15 years.
Like the work upstream, each side canyon is different. Depending on the size, width, and available water in a canyon the re-establishment will look different. That means that like with the work in Cataract, we need to spend weeks and months in the area doing the work. These backcountry canyons are far from any wall outlet, and lugging a gas generator out via boat is laughable. Once again, Goal Zero has come in incredibly handy to help us charge our devices and tools to keep us both productive in the day and illuminated in the evening. Our battery packs and solar panels have become an integral part of our river and reservoir kit.
The Future of the River
Image by Jack Stauss
While the future of the place is as uncertain as next year’s snowpack and runoff, one thing is for sure: in the long-term Glen Canyon is coming back to life. Climate models show that we will never again see a full pool reservoir Lake Powell. So, it is imperative that we continue our work: keep studying and exploring the landscape. While I am out hiking through sediment, grasses, creeks, and following the footprints of beaver and raccoon, I am optimistic. Nature shows us that there is a better future for both us and the landscape, if only we give it the chance to lead.