FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Ted Kennedy sums up what he sees along the river in the Grand Canyon: “It’s buggy out there.”
That is to say, an experiment to change the flow of water from a dam near the Arizona-Utah state line appeared to boost the number of aquatic insects that fish in the Colorado River eat.
Scientists are hoping to better understand those results with a second bug flow experiment that started this month and will run through August. They found that releasing low, steady flows of water from Glen Canyon Dam over the weekend gives the eggs that bugs lay on rocks, wood or cattails just below the water’s surface a better chance of survival. Otherwise, they might dry out and die within an hour.
“It’s a powerful reminder that flows really matter, that just a couple days a week of steady flow can illicit massive emergence,” said Kennedy, a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.
The bug flows are part of a larger plan approved in 2016 to manage operations at Glen Canyon Dam, which holds back Lake Powell. The plan allows for high flows to push sand built up in Colorado River tributaries through the Grand Canyon, as well as experiments that could help native fish such as the endangered humpback chub and non-native trout.
Researchers are recommending three consecutive years of bug flows. Scott VanderKooi, who oversees the Geological Survey’s Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center in Flagstaff, said something about the weekend steady flows is encouraging bugs to emerge as adults, which might lead to more eggs, more larvae and more adults.
Researchers are hopeful rare insects such as stoneflies and mayflies will be more frequent around Lees Ferry, a prized rainbow trout fishery below Glen Canyon Dam.
The bug flows don’t change the amount of water the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation must deliver downstream through Lake Mead to Arizona, Nevada, California and Mexico. The lower levels on the weekend are offset by higher peak flows for hydropower during the week, the agency said.
The agency recorded a sharp increase in the number of caddisflies through the Grand Canyon. Citizen scientists along the river set out plastic containers with a battery-powered black light for an hour each night and deliver the bugs they capture to Geological Survey scientists, about 1,000 samples per year.