LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — David Kreamer’s connection to the Colorado River is stronger than most, formed during an epic kayak adventure almost 40 years ago.
Now a professor in the Geoscience Department at UNLV, Kreamer recounted the “humbling experience” that played out in 1983 below Glen Canyon Dam. It was a record year for snowpack, and conditions converged to melt it faster than anyone was prepared for. As water crept to the top of the dam, the decision was made to unleash a flood like none seen since the dam was built.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is preparing for a “high-volume release” later this month that will be a shadow of 1983’s event. It was announced Thursday as the government said Lake Powell would rise 40 feet this year along with a 33-foot rise at Lake Mead due to snowpack that hit 160% of normal levels in the Upper Colorado River Basin.
“It was my first trip. If you ever feel highfalutin about yourself — go down a big river in a small boat,” Kreamer said Friday.
He was part of a private river trip, the only kayaker in the group. When they launched on June 15, the flow out of the dam was already at 52,000 cubic feet per second (cfs), well above the 39,500 cfs release planned this year.
“The first night it went up to 62,000. By the time we were done it had gone over 100,000. They brought it back down to 90,000, but it was a humbling experience,” Kreamer said.
As the river raged, it carried driftwood and logs, swirling into eddies and whirlpools that created dangerous conditions. Some rapids got bigger, and some simply disappeared in the deep water.
Kreamer remembers his kayak going into a whirlpool and looking up as the water closed around him.
“They’d take my kayak like going down a toilet,” Kreamer said. “They said my kayak disappeared.”
At Crystal Rapid, the second-biggest rapid through the Grand Canyon, Kreamer said two-thirds of the river went into a hole. “It was eating even the large pontoon boats,” he said.
The lore around the 1983 release has grown through the years. “The Emerald Mile” recounts an expedition described as the “the fastest ride in history through the heart of the Grand Canyon” in which three river guides took a small wooden dory down the Colorado. Several videos about the dam and the 1983 release are posted on YouTube by the Bureau of Reclamation and others.
Kreamer has been through the canyon about 40 times, and continues to work with students who study the river and the sustainability of springs fed by groundwater. He is the president of the largest “truly international” groundwater organization in the world, the 4,000-member International Association of Hydrogeologists.
He talked about his trips through the canyon as he discussed the drought’s impact. He has watched Lake Mead drop over the past 20 years, the landscape changing as the water level declines. Kreamer said it’s personal in some ways.
On drives around the Overton arm of Lake Mead he sees the physical changes. Satellite photos, the relocation of Lake Mead Marina in 2008, and the emergence of long-submerged landscapes are the evidence of a 23-year drought that has reshaped the country’s largest reservoir.
He kayaks below Hoover Dam, launching at Willow Beach. The Grand Canyon and the Colorado River have been a constant in Kreamer’s life.
He talks about the river’s blue-green color in spring, turning reddish-brown each year as monsoons wash over the landscape, continuing to erode the desert more than a mile above water level. Red ephemeral waterfalls carry silt to the canyon floor.
“It’s a special place. It’s hard not to have your perspective change after you’ve taken a trip down the river,” Kreamer said.
The “high-volume release” from Glen Canyon Dam has become a regular event, even through the drought. It typically happens in November, but there wasn’t one in 2022. The Bureau of Reclamation hasn’t said exactly when it will happen this month, with only a few details announced on Thursday:
“Reclamation will take advantage of April’s higher water releases and will conduct a 72-hour high-flow release from Glen Canyon Dam later this month. This will involve a release of water from Glen Canyon Dam that is more rapid than normal — up to 39,500 cfs during its peak — to move sediment stored in the river channel and redeposit it onto beaches, which will benefit conditions at Grand Canyon National Park and aid in management of invasive species in the Colorado River.”
From the time the water leaves Glen Canyon Dam, it takes a little more than three days to get to Lake Mead, traveling 227 miles before reaching Diamond Bar in Arizona.
In addition to rebuilding beaches, the rush of water could help suppress a growing problem with smallmouth bass, which have established populations below the dam. Warmer waters attributed to climate change have helped the fish spread further downriver. The bass are considered a predatory invasive species.
The National Park Service also notes that the high-volume release will help protect archeological resources.