John Wesley Powell was a Civil War veteran, scientist, and most notably, explorer. He established our understanding of the American West when he became the first to lead an expedition through the Colorado and Green Rivers in 1869. Powell’s commitment to scientific exploration and proper management of these newly discovered natural resources was apparent and he went on to serve as the Director of the USGS for over a decade. Now, 150 years later, Powell’s legacy fiercely remains, as a team of USGS scientists are currently exploring a 1,000 mile stretch of the Colorado River Basin. This journey has appropriately been coined the Powell150 Expedition, paying tribute to Powell and his team who broke the same ground many years prior.
The Sesquicentennial Colorado River Exploring Expedition (SCREE) team will be on the river for a total of 70 days. As mentioned on the team’s “Trip Premise” webpage, “this expedition is not a reenactment of the past, but rather a re-envisioning of our future that engages traditional, historic, and contemporary river ecosystem perspectives to derive proactive management strategies, integrating community values, science, and humanities through an analysis of culture, informed management, and traditional ecological knowledge.” SE CASC’s USGS Research Ecologist, Mitch Eaton has just joined the team for a 5-day stretch of the expedition. You can read about his perspective going into this adventure below and be sure to stay tuned for updates about his experience!
A perspective on flat waters of the Green River
By, Mitchell Eaton
Our group joins the expedition downstream from Echo Park, a district within Dinosaur National Monument at the tail end of Lodore Canyon. It was a welcomed resting site for Powell and his team in 1869 after they experienced a demoralizing fire that resulted in the loss of critical expedition supplies. Although designated in 1938 as part of the National Monument, Echo Park and Split Mountain were selected by the Bureau of Reclamation for a pair of dams that would have flooded large sections of the Monument. Public opposition by the Sierra Club, other NGOs, and the National Park Service resulted in Reclamation abandoning the Echo Park dam project. The conflict ended, in part, through compromise – the conservation organizations agreed to not oppose the construction of a larger dam 450 miles downstream in a little-known canyon that was not protected by a park or monument. Construction of the Glen Canyon Dam, just 15 miles upstream from the start of the Grand Canyon, thus began in 1956.
We enter a section of the Green River as it leaves the soaring red rock canyons of Split Mountain. For the next 5 days, we will float a stretch of the river characterized by flat water, wide meanders and sand bars as it bends through lower-lying agricultural valleys. We will take out at Sand Wash, just prior to where the river enters remote Desolation Canyon. Contrasting with other parts of the Colorado Basin that are more evocative of western wilderness and the grandeur of canyon country, this stretch is not commonly included in the commercial rafting circuit. For more than 100 miles, we won’t experience any of the thrills of white water or the rush of the current as the river is forced through narrow canyons lined with steep cliffs. Here, the Green River takes on a more utilitarian character. At the turn of the 20th Century, this area was full of gold miners and placer pits. Today, it supports agricultural production and produces mineral wealth in the form of petroleum and natural gas.
Although thrilled at being invited to take part in this expedition, I was slightly disappointed when I first learned about my assigned section. Like most Coloradans, I have a fairly narrow definition of rafting on the Colorado Plateau. Urging myself to reflect a bit deeper, I also have a reasonable understanding of the diverse values placed on natural resources in the arid West. Juxtaposed to the somewhat elitist status of premiere white water and gold medal trout fisheries, this stretch is, at its heart, a working-class river. Thrill-seeking boaters are one of dozens of constituents having a stake in the bounty of these rivers. Water from the Colorado Basin nourishes habitat for endemic and endangered species, irrigates crops, provides drinking water and hydropower to western cities, and supports fossil fuel production, while the canyons themselves serve as center-points of creation for several Native American tribes. Because of these varied and often conflicting interests, and due to a large human population relying on this limited resource, the Colorado Basin watersheds are among the most heavily managed anywhere on earth.
John Wesley Powell understood these competing values very well 150 years ago. His supporters in the US Congress were hopeful that Powell would return from his expeditions with confirmation that engineered water projects could turn the American west into a lush, verdant landscape capable of supporting new pioneers and industry on a massive scale. Powell had no illusions regarding the ability of these watersheds to prop up such an ambitious green future and quickly dispelled congress of such unrealistic notions. Recognizing there would be fierce competition for a limited potential, Major Powell had a prescient grasp on the battles and trade-offs that would ensue over management of the rivers during the next 150 years. He also understood that decisions on managing these watersheds should be deliberate and balanced by the needs of multiple ‘great industries’, and be supported by robust and transparent science. My work with the USGS has attempted to uphold these principles by working with stakeholders and managers to understand their values and needs before deciding what science will best serve in their decision-making process. Given this perspective, witnessing these interests at work while floating the section between Split Mountain and Sand Wash is, in fact, very apropos.
Interested in Learning More?
- You can follow the Powell150 team’s location as they progress through their journey.
- Check out their updates on Twitter @Powell_150.
- Be on the lookout for updated posts on the team’s Expedition News blog here.
- This Earth and Space Science News article, Green and Grand: John Wesley Powell and the West That Wasn’t, provides some history about John Wesley Powell and his explorations.
- This USGS webpage, 150th Anniversary of the Powell Expedition, highlights relevant resources, portraits, and additional information.
- This USGS webpage, John Wesley Powell Expedition: Then and Now, explores the similarities and differences in the 19th and 21st century expeditions.