Canyon Tales
Restoration of the
Escalante River

by Bill Wolverton

•  After the October Floods  •

On October 6th, 2006, the Escalante River, after some 3” of rain region–wide, sustained a mega–monster flood, the likes of which has not been seen in decades, certainly not in the 27 years that I have been acquainted with it. From the evidence I have seen in three places so far it was at least 20 feet deep in the main channel and spilled over the banks and flowed wall to wall in most places.

This past Sunday, October 29th, I paid a visit to the river in the vicinity of Coyote, and what I found was astounding. After dropping into lower Coyote from 40 Mile Ridge, I first climbed out the north side and down to the river between Coyote and Stevens Canyon, and, where I descended to the river, I found that ALL of the vegetation that had grown up in the reservoir mudflat had been completely flattened, buried, or washed away. I went upstream to Stevens Canyon and found more of the same. Sad to say though, it was quite a disaster for some really nice places—really ruined a couple of very nice campsites on the river below Stevens.

I then went on downstream to the confluence with Coyote. Along the way it was still more of the same, but I also found that some huge stands of Tamarisk that had grown up in the mudflat in the vicinity of Stevens Arch had been completely washed away. Approaching the downstream side of Stevens Arch there is a large boulder that had originally been in the middle of the river. It had been almost completely buried in the mudflat in the 1983 overfilling. Since then the gradual downcutting had cut a channel around the left side of it, and floods were working into the right side, but by then the remaining mudflat was too high above the river for the usual floods to be able to flow over it and breach it. This time I found that the boulder was once again out in the middle of the river, most of the river was actually flowing to the right side of it, and the mudflat remnant, between the boulder and the right hand wall of the canyon, was gone completely. This left a small slickrock ledge, that I remember having to climb down from in order to continue upriver in 1979, exposed again for the first time in some 25 years.

Down around the bend there was more very large Tamarisk gone completely. Along the way in this stretch there were also river cobblestones along the exposed bars, instead of nothing but mud, and large rocks that had been buried for a quarter century were once again visible. The river was actually looking like a river again, with several small rapids instead of a sluggish, slow moving pond. For years now I have found it depressing being in this part of the river, knowing how it used to look, and have avoided it, but not anymore.

It is beautiful. Still somewhat scarred, but beautiful.

One of the most astounding things though, was just below Coyote on the right side of the river. Before the reservoir the river had flowed right up to the slickrock wall from the entrance to Coyote on down around the left bend below. After the reservoir mudflat was deposited in 1983 the river cut a channel into it but left a long remnant of it on the right side below Coyote that subsequently got completely overgrown with Tamarisk. I had resigned myself to figuring that it was going to be permanent, but after this flood it was almost completely gone, with only two narrow strips of it left, plus a few odd clumps of mud clinging to the slickrock wall, which could be easily removed with a shovel.

Then, as I was standing there contemplating this miracle, something rather unnatural caught my eye in the slickrock at the entrance to Coyote, and I did a double take, hardly believing what I was seeing—the benchmark! I practically shouted it out loud. The long lost benchmark at the entrance to Coyote that I had only heard of—could have seen in 1979 before the mudflat but don’t remember, probably because I was so awestruck by the grandeur of the place. The benchmark that had shown that the confluence of Coyote and the Escalante was supposedly safe from inundation—but which proved to be wrong—now exposed again for all to see. 3705’ elevation it showed. I literally had tears of joy in my eyes. Later comparison with a 1979 photo of the confluence showed that the streambed is now cut down almost to its original level. Not quite, but probably less than a foot to go.

This flood was so big that it actually flowed OVER the mudflat on the inside of the river bend just below Coyote for the first time since it was deposited, and knocked down, washed way, or buried much of the large and dense Tamarisk that had grown up on it, so that there is once again some open ground there. Much higher than it was of course, but beginning to bear a resemblance to what it used to look like.

I went on up Coyote and found that it had sustained a flood bigger than any I had ever seen also, and it had overtopped all of the remaining mudflat remnants, knocking over all of the willows that had grown up on them. (I got rid of all the Tamarisk a couple of years ago.) It also cut into them somewhat, but there is still some progress to made here. I suspect that the force of the flood in Coyote was tempered somewhat by the fact that the river was so high and pooled up back into Coyote. The backed up water from the river flood left a very obvious high water line, where there has never been evidence of water before. A few more floods in Coyote without the river being so high may make some real difference. The stream bed has been lowered enough now that there are rocks exposed that I had long forgotten about.

The next day I hiked the rim of the Escalante River canyon from 40 Mile Ridge (south of Coyote) downstream to where I could see the reservoir, which was between Cow/Fence and Explorer Canyons. The flood had greatly enlarged the channel through the mudflat, which had been quite narrow in places, and there are now exposed bars alongside the river that will make hiking it much easier in places. In the past the channel has been so narrow that there was no place to walk except in the river. Also, the river was flowing fairly clear past Coyote, although Coyote was muddy and adding a bit of muddiness to it. However, as I made my way along the rim the river appeared to get much muddier, and sand waves could be seen building up and shifting and collapsing, indicating ongoing sediment transport downstream, all to the good. Of course there was an enormous raft of flotsam from the flood just below Explorer Canyon—bigger than any I have ever seen. There are also very large remnants of the reservoir sediment along the river that are going to remain there indefinitely, since the river has now cut a channel large enough to handle a record breaking flood. They mostly have vertical cut banks that will generally be impossible to climb, and they are heavily overgrown with Tamarisk.

After these two hikes I went into 50 Mile Gulch to check on progress on the erosion of a remnant mudflat there that is still occupying a part of the original slickrock channel and causing a waterfall that shouldn’t be there. At one point this has finally been cut back to expose a bit of slickrock wall, but it will probably be a long time before enough of this is washed away for the stream to find its original channel, unfortunately.

From there I went over to Davis Gulch and found that another flood had ripped out a huge section of ancient sediment upstream from the head of the reservoir, following one that did the same thing a couple of years ago, and completely transformed it into a brand new canyon with a brand new 15–foot waterfall, never seen during European presence in North America. I may have been the first one to see it and realize its significance, although there was one other set of footprints in the area. Amazing. Downstream in the reservoir zone the canyon continues its recovery, with an abundance of native vegetation coming back, without too much Tamarisk. The stream has now cut down to bedrock for most of the way from the head of the reservoir to the two step waterfall that only appeared about two years ago.

•  Another Royal Flush  •

Just did a quick trip through Coyote a few days ago—first time I had been in there all year. I could hardly believe what I found. You know about last year’s huge flood on the river and in Coyote, of course. Well, Coyote has had an even bigger one sometime this summer.

The lower end is now almost completely reamed out of reservoir sediment, with only two remnants of it left, one on either side just above Ladder Alcove. From there to the river is nothing but bare slickrock walls, almost completely devoid of any plant life except the tiny things growing in cracks in the slickrock. One remnant, the last one on the right before the river, has been reduced to no more than a small pile of sand a few feet high in the inside of a bend, and all of the willows and everything else that had been growing in it are gone.

The sand bar that had been built up by last years flood at the end of the ledge leading to where the ladder originally was is now gone, with an overhanging wall now exposed as before. There is still a remnant of the mudflat there, but the stump that had been buried in the ground that we used as a step to get up is gone, washed away along with all the sediment that it had been buried in. The remaining bench somehow got built up a bit higher though, and it is now BARELY possible to get up from it onto the ledge. I had to take one shoe off to get better traction with my skin to do it. There is not even much of that part left, as some of it at the upstream end got washed away also.

Bill Wolverton

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© 2007 Bill Wolverton