NPS considers future of North Wash ramp, extending Hite ramp instead

The Colorado River as seen from above its starting point at Lee's Ferry near Glen Canyon Dam.

The Colorado River as seen from above its starting point at Lee's Ferry near Glen Canyon Dam.

GRAND CANYON, Ariz. — First, the good news — the Colorado River is churning past the North Wash take-out at about 4 miles per hour, running about 7,500 cubic feet per second (cfs) and rising. The North Wash take-out is used by river runners exiting Cataract Canyon, famous for its “Big Drops” rapids.

The bad news is the historic low water in Lake Powell, the reservoir behind Glen Canyon Dam. Years of drought have lowered the water in “Powell Puddle” to historic lows and the Colorado River has responded accordingly. Cutting down through sediment deposit in the upper reaches of the reservoir when the reservoir was full, this winter the Col-orado River dropped about 8 feet below the serviceability of the North Wash take out.

A river trip attempting a take-out two days ago found a small sand island at the river’s edge, and the take-out ramp was reached by a tiny causeway of driftwood placed in deep mud. Woe to anyone stepping off this little causeway, as knee deep mud is the immediate result. Another group took three to four hours to pack their boats across this mud hole to the ramp only to find it “so steep a truck can’t pull a trailer up without hooking up another truck.”

Warm weather in the last week has allowed the river to begin its spring rise, now running 2,500 cfs higher than last week. As the river rises, river runners are now able to get their rafts to a small rockpile and derig there and carry all their gear to the end of the ramp.

Things will look up a bit with the large amount of water about to pummel Cataract Canyon in what the Bureau of Reclamation forecasts to be a 92 percent of average inflow for the 2019 water year. The Bureau of Reclamation anticipates the reservoir behind Glen Canyon Dam will drop to 3,566 feet above sea level, 134 feet below full pool, before rising a bit over 30 feet for the year. That will be enough of a rise in the reservoir to reach the foot of the ramp, at an elevation of 3,600 feet. When the reservoir drops again next fall, things will go gumbo again without extending the ramp.

According to Glen Canyon National Recreation Area Superintendent Billy Shott, Glen Canyon is working with Canyonlands National Park on a long-term solution to the problem.

“Our big issue now, aside from the primary issue of spending resources on an unsustainable asset, is receiving a permit from the Corp of Engineers,” Shott said.

Shott was optimistic for a fast turnaround on the permit from the Corps.

One of the problems facing the National Park Service when considering increasing the length of the North Wash Ramp is compliance as the NPS is limited to the current footprint.

Shott noted, “The project area has expanded to near capacity based on our NEPA requirements.”

He added that the National Park Service knows the North Wash ramp is in a terrible position, is a money and material pit, and is simply unsustainable. At the same time, Shott recognizes the ramp’s importance to river runners needing a dependable exit point.

This ramp may soon be abandoned all together. The NPS is looking at extending the original Hite ramp. According to Shott, the NPS has decided to take this risk and have secured the significant amount of funding needed to attempt this project.

“We currently have the funding, have a Corp of Engineers permit application with revised high-water mark, and are exploring interested contractors,” he said.

Until then, anyone running Cataract Canyon may experience a bit of extra work when taking out at North Wash until the river rises another 6 feet. That should happen in late May.

Tom Martin writes and distributes articles via the River Runners for Wilderness (RRFW) Riverwire newsletter, which addresses current events impacting river running on the Colorado River.

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