Story and photography by Carl Galie
In April 2015, as I was getting organized for a ten-day raft trip through the Grand Canyon that was planned for September, American Rivers announced its 2015 America’s Most Endangered Rivers List. (See this year’s list, 2016, at: https://www.americanrivers.org/threats-solutions/endangered-rivers.) First on the 2015 list was 277 miles of the lower Colorado River that runs through the Grand Canyon. Three proposals that could impact the river were noted.
- The first was a plan to reopen old uranium mines near the canyon. There were proposals to revive some of the inactive mines and expand the exploration of active mines, which could potentially contaminate groundwater. The current moratorium on uranium mining around the Grand Canyon only applies to new mining claims.
- Next was a proposal for the Escalade project, which includes building a two-million-square-foot development on the rim near the east end of the Grand Canyon that includes a tram to the bottom at the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers. American Rivers states that the “Escalade project would forever damage the canyon’s remote, wild character. If the Escalade project moves forward, 10,000 people per day could crowd a pair of walkways along the edge of the river in the canyon. The riverside development includes a restaurant, gift shop and restrooms that would irrevocably scar this national treasure, causing serious concerns about noise, pollution and human waste.” (For updated information on the Grand Canyon Escalade bill, go to: http://savetheconfluence.com/ .)
- Finally, a developer proposed a plan to expand the town of Tusayan, Arizona, near the entrance to the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park. This project includes a spa, dude ranch, hotels and more than 2,200 homes. This expansion may require a substantial withdrawal of groundwater from the already declining aquifer in an increasingly drought-stressed area of the country and could negatively impact ecologically important seeps and springs within the Grand Canyon itself.
Considering that I had been working on water issues since 2009—when I began documenting the impact mountaintop removal (MTR) of coal was having on water resources in the southern Appalachians (see https://nanpa.org/photographer-project-mountaintop-removal-story-and-photographs-by-carl-galie/ ), the three proposals convinced me to turn my rafting trip into a small project and increase my trip from 10 days to 28.
Much has been written about the challenges facing the Colorado River Basin, so I explored as much of the river as possible to document some of the problems. I started at the headwaters in Rocky Mountain National Park, and then headed south, following the river. Fortunately, there are a number of roads that run parallel to the river from its headwaters in Colorado to Moab, Utah, and there are plenty of photo opportunities along the way.
I spent a few days in Moab, Utah, to explore Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park. To my surprise, I found the Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action (UMTRA) project along the west bank of the Colorado just outside of Moab. The uranium processing plant operated from 1956 until 1984. The UMTRA project site encompasses 480 acres, and 130 acres are covered by the mill tailings pile. Currently, the Department of Energy is removing contaminated tailings away from the river. I came across this mill fully by chance. Considering its scope—especially since it is located so close to Moab and two national parks—I could not believe the project didn’t come up in my pre-trip research.
I had some preconceived notions about water usage in the West from my research. I quickly learned, however, that water issues there are not cut-and-dried. It was a revelation that the over usage of water happening along the river was not caused entirely by greedy landowners but, instead, because of arcane laws. Many of the states have water laws that encourage farmers to overuse water resources through “use it or lose it” clauses.
The primary discovery on my journey down the Colorado River is that there are more issues facing the area than I could have imagined. It will take more than 28 days to accurately document the challenges. To be continued.
Carl Galie is a North Carolina photographer who has worked on conservation issues for the past 21 years. Carl was awarded the first Art For Conservation Grant in August 2010 for his project “Lost on the Road to Oblivion, The Vanishing Beauty of Coal Country.” In March 2014 Carl received Wild South’s Roosevelt-Ashe conservation award for journalism for his work documenting mountaintop removal of coal in the Appalachians.