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Despite big winter, climate change impacting Grand Canyon
Keable says climate, lack of water impacting native fish and Indigenous sites

Heavy snowfall has affected operations at the South Rim, but the impacts of climate change are still being felt despite the big winter. (Photo/NPS)

Heavy snowfall has affected operations at the South Rim, but the impacts of climate change are still being felt despite the big winter. (Photo/NPS)

GRAND CANYON, Ariz. — Recent weather in Grand Canyon National Park has produced 2-3 feet of snow on the South Rim and 6-9 feet on the North Rim. Now all the Colorado River needs is 23 more years of that level of precipitation to compensate for the last 23 years of drought and climate change, according to Grand Canyon Superintendent Ed Keable.

Keable addressed climate change impacts during the January “Insights and Impacts” Zoom forum with Grand Canyon Conservancy CEO Theresa McMullan.

Climate change was the main focus of Keable’s park update and how it impacts everything from native fish populations and soil conditions to federal government research funding tied to hydropower.

“I’m spending between a quarter to 100 percent of my time any given day or week on climate change because it’s such an important issue,” Keable said.

The period between 2000 and 2022 is the driest 23-year period in more than a century and one of the driest periods in the last 1,200 years, according to the Bureau of Reclamation.

This winter’s snowfall required the park to use law enforcement and interpretive staff to assist with snow removal and visitor response, according to recent park update.

However, two decades of megadrought in the Colorado River Basin means the region needs five or six years of 150 percent snowpack to refill Lake Powell and Mead.

Over the last fifty years, temperatures in the basin have increased three degrees Fahrenheit. This has made soil drier, prohibiting downstream flows, said Colorado State University researcher Brad Udall in a recent NPR interview.

also making the soil drier in turn a lot of water doesn’t make it downstream according to climate researcher at Colorado State University Brad Udall in a Jan. 19 interview with NPR.

“The real challenge is water has been over allocated since the Colorado River Compact in 1922, which allocated 14 million acre-feet between the Upper and Lower Basin States when there was only 11 million acre-feet in the system. It’s considerably less than that after 23 years of drought,” Keable said.

According to the Compact, the Upper Basin States and the Bureau of Reclamation are obligated to release 7 million acre-feet of water to the lower basin. However drought and the soil hardening because of the aridificaiton means less water entering the system, according to Keable.

“We’ve had over the last two years about 90 percent historic snowpack and about 50 percent of that is getting into the river system,” he said. “ Which has impacts on agriculture and municipal uses. ... That’s forcing people to use more groundwater and there’s only a limited amount. The negotiations between the federal government and states about reducing between five and 6 million acre feet through an allocation process are pretty intense.”

The speed of aridification and climate change is moving faster than the previous projections at GCNP according to Keable.

“The federal budget process can take a year and a half to two and a half years to get through Congress (and) is a pretty slow moving budgetary process,” he said. “So when the impacts of climate change sped up the invasion of invasive fish into GCNP we didn’t have the budgetary resources.”

Funding from the GCC is critical for addressing rapid response as well as monitoring water quantity, quality and GCNP aquifers according to McMullan.

Keable pointed out GCNP doesn’t have a direct impact on those ongoing discussions, However it has informed water policy makers on impacts to the park, particularly native fish and Indigenous cultural impacts.

“The Zuni have their origins from the Grand Canyon and view the native fish as related to them,” Keable said. It’s a management priority made more complicated by the discovery in July that smallmouth bass are spreading.

Invasive fish management was one of the reasons that GCNP and Keable didn’t support high-flow experimental water release from Glen Canyon Dam during the fall citing fears that it would exacerbate the spread of invasive fish.

“There’s also a practical issue because if the (U.S.) Fish and Wildlife Service determines the Humpback chub or the Razorback sucker become endangered it increases the significant possibility of having to manage water activities through the Glen Canyon Dam through an endangered species regulatory framework. So rather than consider the impacts of hydropower or availability of water for agricultural or municipality use, the overarching factor in dam operations may have to become how we manage fish.“

Keable said chemical and mechanical removal of invasives during the fall were successful enough to warrant discussions with the Bureau of Reclamation and the US Geological Survey to “move water through the system next spring” with talks centered on the times and volume to release.

Outside of droughts impact other Indigenous affairs largely center on co-management discussions. The Navajo Nation is interested in developing recreational opportunities at Lees Ferry and GCNP is wanting to have talks with the tribal government about “possibly co-managing the Little Colorado River.”

“We’ve (also) expressed interest with the Havasupai tribe to manage 180,000 acres on the South Rim of traditional use lands and those conversations probably will kick into gear this year,” Keable said.


The majority of the interpretive ranger positions were not filled last year because of the lack of housing, which has affected a number of other departments. The park could have hired 55 interpretive rangers; however, only about 20 positions were filled according to Keable.

“The park needs to invest in new housing and there’s a drawn out process to get authorization from Congress to fund (that). … We’re working with the support of the National Park Foundation to develop a housing strategic plan, bringing in experts to develop that, which is a requirement for the National Park Service in order to ask for money for housing. We’re also tracking in Congress the LODGE Act which would authorize Public-private partnerships for housing development in national parks.”


GCNP continues to increase the number of dark sky compliant lighting fixtures, recent areas of focus have been the North Rim and Phantom Ranch. With work this spring installing retrofittings at Yavapai Lodge, Market Plaza and Trailer Village. By the end of the year 85 percent of lighting fixtures within GCNP should be dark sky compliant according to McMullan.

“A total of 134 dark sky events were hosted in the park at the South Rim, the North Rim, Phantom Ranch and Havasupai gardens,” McMullan said. “They connected over 15,000 visitors to Grand Canyon night skies (and) in 2023 our Star Party will be June 10-17.”

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