Large dams have the potential to dramatically alter the flow regime, geomorphology, and aquatic ecosystem of downstream river reaches. Development of flow release regimes in order to meet multiple objectives is a challenge facing dam operators, resource managers, and scientists. Herein, we review previous work and present new analyses related to the effects of Glen Canyon Dam on the downstream reach of the Colorado River in Marble and Grand Canyons. The dam traps the entire incoming sediment load in Lake Powell and modulates the hydrologic regime by, for example, eliminating spring snowmelt floods, resulting in changes in the geomorphology of the river downstream. The primary geomorphic impact has been the erosion of sandbars along the banks of the river. Recognition of this impact has led to many scientific studies and a variety of experimental operations of Glen Canyon Dam with the goal of rebuilding the eroding sandbars. These efforts have thus far been generally unsuccessful and the question remains as to whether or not the dam can be operated such that sandbars can be rebuilt and maintained over extended periods with the existing sediment supply. We attempt to answer this question by evaluating a dam operation that may be considered a "best-case scenario" for rebuilding and maintaining eroded sandbars. Our analysis suggests that this best-case scenario may indeed have viability for rebuilding sandbars, and that the initial rate at which sandbars could be rebuilt is comparable to the rate at which sandbars have been eroded since dam construction. The question remains open as to the viability of operations that deviate from the best-case scenario that we have defined.
Additional publication details
Is there enough sand? Evaluating the fate of Grand Canyon sandbars