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Restoring the Grand Canyon, Experimentally

The Grand Canyon, no matter how much a work of natural beauty it appears, shows numerous signs of human handiwork. Perhaps the most subtle is the gradual loss of sandbanks resulting from the 1963 construction of the Geln Canyon dam upstream. Along with controlling water flow, the dam traps the sediments which had, for millennia, filtered through the canyon, creating sandy habitats for land and river life alike. As a result, four out of eight fish native to the Grand Canyon have died out, and a fifth extinction looks likely soon.

But the Independent reports that an experiment is now underway to see if restoration is possible. For 90 hours, additional water has been piped in at the rate of 41,000 cubic feet per second, stirring up 800,000 tons of sediment. The flow will end today, but the experiment is just beginning. Over the next 18 months, scientists with the US Geological Survey will be watching the formation of sand bars and silt pools to see if the result is a resurgence of native species. If so, further water flows will help keep the sediment moving the way it should. More information is available from the Bureau of Reclamation and the USGS.

The scientists working on this project will not be able to restore the Grand Canyon entirely, but may be able to shift it back towards a state closer to natural. This will be difficult, but it's worth trying. The Independent talked to Bennett Raley, the assistant secretary for water and science at the Department of the Interior about this issue:

[Raley] said the experiment was a process by which scientists try something, learn from their mistakes and then try something else.

"Speaking tongue in cheek, playing God is harder than it looks," he said.


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