The problem of beach erosion in the Grand Canyon is often thought of as a "dam" issue that's out of the control of boaters. But in a small, but very real sense, erosion is something that boaters do have a hand in. And that means there are things we can do to help moderate the loss of vital beach areas and related habitat.
Let's start with information from the November 2005 Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS), Colorado River Management Plan (CRMP), which signals the problem.
"The highest number of camps (particularly large camps) existed during the inventory conducted immediately following the 1983 flood. By contrast, the 1991 inventory shows 75% fewer large camps than in 1983 and the 2003 inventory shows an even further reduction than in 1991 (Brown and Jalbert 2003). Compared to 1973, there are about a third as many large camps and a third less total camps."
After the 1983 flood, 438 camp beaches had been identified ˆ a number that did not include "small" camps. By 2003, there were only 214 campable beaches (of all size) remaining -- the actual number in the table that accompanied the above quote. Those categorized as large camps had decreased from 176 in 1973, to just 55 in 2003.
A more recent Park assessment is alarming. As many as 50 of those 214 2003 camps are now no longer considered usable. This recategorization was due to a variety of factors, including tidal erosion, being washed out by flash floods, and becoming overgrown. But taking all camp sizes into consideration, more than half of the beaches have disappeared in the last three decades, and more than 20 percent have disappeared in less than a decade.
This demonstrates that -- notwithstanding "beachbuilding" experiments ˆ we can't count on dam operations to significantly and permanently re-build beaches. Indeed, the pattern shows just the opposite is happening, and at a troubling pace.
It seems clear that at this rate of resource decline, Grand Canyon river-running capacity will surely be impacted in the not too distant future. Continued reduction in campable beaches inescapably signals a coming reduction in the number of trips at one time on the river. Say goodby to current capacity estimates, and their associated launch numbers.
(This entire topic is a collateral argument for direct involvement in the Long Term Experimental and Management Plan, which will impact dam operations and river conditions for decades to come).
Let's set aside the adverse impact of the dam's tides, and just talk about what boaters can do to help moderate this trend. Start with the fact that virtually any activity on a beach has some adverse impact. Just beaching a boat, clambering up over a sandy incline, and walking around loosens the sand for wind and water erosion. When there is even a small cutbank it cascades sand directly into the river. And every such instance means the life of that beach is in some small way reduced. Granted, it's a small and subtle influence, but over time it's important.
Careful selection of beaches for camping is critical. Picking a location that accords with the size and needs of your group is part of the solution. When a small party chooses to camp on a seldom-used beach that fits its profile, it's spreading wear and tear around and that will have the effect of nibbling away the life of that beach as well. By spreading usage to less frequently used campsites, we help to preserve the overall resource over a longer period of time. Anecdotally, it seems small beaches are somewhat more readily replenished by the dam's occasional high volume releases. So this could have the overall positive effect of sparing at least that much use ˆ and deterioration -- of the larger camps.
Consider the kind of activity that is conducted while in camp. Anything that loosens sand, or moves it toward the river, contributes in a small way to the eventual loss of that beach. This is not to say we should give up horseshoes, or minor landscaping to level tables. But things like multiple trailing down a cutbank to get from kitchen to boats are activities that could be stopped.
Large groups of boats have a large impact on beaches and the river experience for all.
It also seems clear that the number of boats in a river party impacts. There has been a trend in recent years for more and more rafters to bring their own boats ˆ many of them running with few or no passengers. In the case of a 16-person permit, it's not uncommon to see 6-8, on occasion as many as twelve or more, rafts as part of private trips. Consider the width of the average 16' raft, perhaps six feet, multiply that number by the number of rafts per trip tied up at a beach, say five rafts six feet wide and you have thirty feet of beach front impact, if you have eight rafts six feet wide and you have forty eight feet of beach impact.
Think about what a line of six or eight boats means on a typical beach. Not at some ankle-breaking rock pile like Tuckup, but at a friendly, popular place like Panchos, with a nice sandbank. Visualize a fleet of rafts tied up, with their lines chafing the slope and loosening sand to cascade into the water, while foot traffic to and from the rafts further aggravates the sloughing of sand into the river. The more rafts in a party, the more this multiple tie-up situation happens, the more sand is abraded away.
If your trip incorporates a large number of boats consider tying some of those boats to the stern of others reducing the number of boats impacting the beach. Tying to the stern is helpful at popular attraction sites like Deer Creek as well, allowing other river parties to tie up and visit at the same time as yours.
Adding to the problem of sand erosion is the common use of sandstakes. If some or all of the rafts are tied to sand stakes, the problem takes on another aspect. Their use ˆ particularly near the water or the edge of a cutbank -- causes readily observable damage. This isn't theoretical. The photo above illustrates the problem to beaches by the use of sand stakes.
The leverage of a line pulling against a sandstake close to a cutbank can act just like a shovel, to pry away whole chunks of the shore. Even if a sand stake is are planted away from the immediate shore, it loosens the sand, making it more susceptible to wind effects and subsequent erosion. Equipping your boats with long bow lines insures the capability of tying boats to vegetation or stable rocks that line river shore.
There is another impact aspect related to large boat parties. One of the considerations in developing the CRMP was social impact ˆ the visual and interpersonal activity that can shape a wilderness experience. I'm floating down the river in a three-boat trip at nominal speed, and a (let's say) seven boat trip catches up with mine. Assuming nominal separation of a couple hundred yards between rafts, this trip would stretch out almost a mile. With a modest speed differential -- from the first time their lead boat comes into sight until all of them have passed me -- it could be an hour or more. From a fixed point (a camp on shore) the passage of a large number of boats in one party takes a great deal of time as well, detracting from the experience of those on shore.
There is no clear-cut answer to the dilemmas described above. People will continue to want to bring their own boats, so they can have the experience of rowing the Canyon. They will want to tie up to a sandstake, rather than taking the time to dig out another length of rope to get to a hard point on shore. They will want to tie up side-by-side in ways that are convenient, but which could result in a beach fully lined with rafts ˆ all chafing away at the sand.
But it's important to raise awareness about this issue, so that boaters can make smart, considerate decisions about how they form and organize their trips, and how they conduct them. Doing so will help conserve the ever-more-rare beach areas of the GC river corridor, and improve the overall wilderness experience of a river trip.
For GCPBA: Rich Phillips
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