Newest U.S. National Park Torn by Dam Dispute

David Hosansky
for National Geographic News
February 11, 2002

U.S. officials and Colorado residents are locked in a water dispute that has important implications for one of America's newest national parks.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, which Congress designated as a national park in 1999, is one of the most spectacular gorges in the United States. Its nearly sheer cliffs plummet more than 2,000 feet (610 meters) to the crashing rapids of the Gunnison River, producing vertigo-inducing vistas unrivalled in the West.

But the river that helped carve the canyon is the subject of a tug-of-war between nearby water users and park officials. The National Park Service last year filed a suit in a Colorado court to restore historic water flows, which have been altered by a series of upstream dams.

"The water made the canyon," said Sheridan Steele, the park superintendent. "Our charge is to maintain natural conditions and natural processes as much as possible."

But nearby residents in Uncompahgre Valley and the town of Montrose—located about 250 miles (400 kilometers) southwest of Denver—worry that more water for the canyon will mean less water for farmers, new developments, and river recreation such as rafting.

"It's definitely an issue of concern for everyone in the water-rights business," said Jim Hokit, general manager of the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association. "This could have a negative impact on our agricultural industry and also impact our ability to grow [crops]. It could create depletions of water for domestic purposes."

Unique Geology

In its lawsuit, the park service is seeking to restore the river flow through the canyon to levels that existed in 1933—the year when President Hoover declared the Black Canyon a national monument.

At that time, the river regularly flooded the canyon floor, keeping it largely devoid of vegetation. The construction of upstream dams and the resulting controls over the river flow have prevented floods, allowing non-native plants such as salt cedar to colonize the area and alter the natural ecology.

A coalition of five environmental groups supports the plan, contending that historic water flows are needed to restore the park to its natural state. "To adequately protect this national treasure, we have to give it the water it needs and is legally entitled to," said Pam Eaton, regional director for the Wilderness Society.

Environmentalists view the battle as especially important because of the unique geology of the canyon, which was created over millions of years by volcanic eruptions, the uplift of mountains, and the flow of the Gunnison River.

The abrupt cliffs of the Black Canyon—so named because of the black shade of the water and surrounding rock—plunge more sharply than those of the Grand Canyon. The gorge is so narrow that the north and south rims are just 1,200 feet (365 meters) apart in places, creating unusually dramatic views.

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