Cataract Canyon Without Lake Powell: A Monumental Legacy Of Dried Mud

Jun 13, 2021, 10:37 PM | Updated: Jul 5, 2023, 4:07 pm

CATARACT CANYON on the Colorado River — Lake Powell has drastically shriveled during 20 years of drought, allowing dozens of miles of the Colorado River to become a river again in world-famous Cataract Canyon. But why have many of its legendary rapids failed to return?

Three men from Moab have made it their crusade to study that issue and to document a stunning after-effect of Lake Powell: a river struggling to cut its way through a monumental legacy of dried mud.

Mike DeHoff is a welder by trade, but on the river, he’s a man on a mission.

“It’s just a personal curiosity that’s grown into this big old mess of a project,” DeHoff said as he launched a small motorboat above Lake Powell and headed upriver.

He’s one of three investigators in an effort called the Returning Rapids Project.

Another is Pete Lefebvre, a river-running guide who worships white-water.

“Getting splashed in the heat of the summer and running through the roller-coaster ride of the rapids, it’s just a good old time and a lot of fun to be had,” he said.

The third investigator is Chris Benson, a government geologist with a keen interest in long-lost rapids, such as Sheep Canyon Rapid, which was submerged for years by Lake Powell.

“Scary, yeah, people were very scared of this rapid,” Benson said while floating over the invisible rapid. “And now today, it’s a tranquil scene.”

Today the three boaters can easily motor their boats upriver through 30 miles of canyons where the lake used to be. As the Colorado River has become a river again, the three men have been studying a frustrating — and fascinating — problem.

“Everything got exposed,” DeHoff said. “But the rapids weren’t coming back.”

“In terms of major ones, there’s at least 15 major rapids gone right now, and then a bunch of other smaller ones that weren’t as consequential,” Lefebvre said.

They’ve been comparing today’s Cataract Canyon with old photos, collecting data on river-levels, running small rapids that once were big. What they’re documenting is a river fighting its way down through an enormous deposit of dried mud left behind by Lake Powell.

DeHoff said the process began a half-century ago when the Glen Canyon Dam blocked the river 200 miles downstream.

Chris Benson and Pete Lefebvre study changes to the Colorado River. (KSL TV) L-R Mike DeHoff, Pete Lefebvre and Chris Benson with the Returning Rapids Project. (KSL TV) Mike DeHoff along the Colorado River. (KSL TV) Mike DeHoff studies the Colorado River. (KSL TV) Pete Lefebvre and Mike DeHoff on the Colorado River. (KSL TV) Pete Lefebvre on river. (KSL TV) The Returning Rapids crew. (KSL TV) The Returning Rapids crew. (KSL TV)

“Moving water carries sediment,” he said. “Still water can’t carry sediment, and so when you put a dam in the way of the Colorado, that sediment drops out, and it all dropped out in Cataract Canyon.”

Dozens of miles of river and many sets of rapids were buried by an enormous deposit of sediment.

“It’s 35 to 40 miles long, it is 50 to 130 feet deep,” DeHoff said.

During the last 20 years of drought, after Lake Powell withdrew from Cataract Canyon, the river has been cutting down through the sediment, leaving towering cliffs of dried mud, some 100 feet high or so.

Some of the old roller-coasters are slowly coming out to play, such as the partially restored Gypsum Canyon Rapid.

“This would be our 6th one coming back, and these are hold-on-tight, big fun, big rapids,” said Lefebvre.

According to the three investigators, much of the old Cataract Canyon ecosystem also seems to be making a comeback.

“The beaver population has skyrocketed,” said DeHoff. 

Lefebvre noted other signs of recovery.

“The rapids and also some beaches and big native trees are starting to grow back, too,” he said.

The three investigators produce a river guide each year to answer the questions of river-runners.

“What are the rapids doing?” Lefebvre said, describing the most frequently asked questions. “Do you need a motor to get out? Is there current? What do the camps look like?”

But DeHoff said there are more fundamental questions for the future: What if Nature makes more water available? Will humans decide to refill Lake Powell?

“I think that we’re going to get faced with a similar decision that was made when the dam went in,” DeHoff said. “What resources are we going to prioritize and what resources are we going to sacrifice? We get to talk about some of those decisions again.”

The Returning Rapids Project is a volunteer, non-profit organization. The three investigators have stepped up an effort to raise funds to cover their expenses.

Meanwhile, as their studies continue, the muddy Colorado is doing its best to move all that mud downriver and into what’s left of Lake Powell. 

KSL 5 TV Live

Local News

a woman puts an arm around a taller man...

Debbie Worthen

Family launches foundation in remembrance of loved one who drowned in Puerto Rico

The BK Outreach effort is named after Ben Kerbs, who died while swimming in Puerto Rico. His family is healing through service.

6 hours ago

A group of young Filipino girls are excited...

Dan Rascon

Tabernacle Choir arrives in Philippines to continue ‘Hope’ world tour

There was celebration, music and dancing as the Tabernacle Choir on Temple Square arrived in the Philippines to kick of the second segment of its Hope world tour.

6 hours ago

The mug shots of Ruby Franke and Jodi Hildebrandt obtained by KSL on Feb. 21 2024. It's expected th...

Shelby Lofton

Long-term therapy expected for Ruby Franke, Jodi Hildebrandt’s young victims

After their mother, Ruby Franke, and previous counselor Jodi Hildebrandt were sentenced for aggravated child abuse, it's expected the Franke children will need long-term therapy to heal from the trauma they've endured.

8 hours ago

The Larry H. Miller Company and Miller family unveiled renderings for the Power District, a nearly ...

Lindsay Aerts

Utah Legislature unveils plan to help finance new MLB stadium

Utah's taxpayer funds are intertwined in a new bill proposed to fund a stadium that will help bring a Major League Baseball team to Utah. State leaders think the investment will pay off.

10 hours ago

Show in Smithfield...

Mike Anderson

‘The groundhog was wrong’: Heavy snow, rain mix hits Cache Valley Utah

Rain across much of the Wasatch Front brought a lot of that heavy, slushy snow to the Cache Valley Wednesday.

10 hours ago

A mother and son were hospitalized Monday night after they were burned near a campfire in West Poin...

Garna Mejia

After boy killed in West Point explosion; fire officials urging education about fire danger

Two fire incidents in less than two weeks involving 12-year-old boys have fire officials urging education about the danger. The 12-year-old in the West Point incident died.

10 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

Modern chandelier hanging from a white slanted ceiling with windows in the backgruond...

Lighting Design

Light Up Your Home With These Top Lighting Trends for 2024

Check out the latest lighting design trends for 2024 and tips on how you can incorporate them into your home.

Technician woman fixing hardware of desktop computer. Close up....

PC Laptops

Tips for Hassle-Free Computer Repairs

Experiencing a glitch in your computer can be frustrating, but with these tips you can have your computer repaired without the stress.

Close up of finger on keyboard button with number 11 logo...

PC Laptops

7 Reasons Why You Should Upgrade Your Laptop to Windows 11

Explore the benefits of upgrading to Windows 11 for a smoother, more secure, and feature-packed computing experience.

Stylish room interior with beautiful Christmas tree and decorative fireplace...

Lighting Design

Create a Festive Home with Our Easy-to-Follow Holiday Prep Guide

Get ready for festive celebrations! Discover expert tips to prepare your home for the holidays, creating a warm and welcoming atmosphere for unforgettable moments.

Battery low message on mobile device screen. Internet and technology concept...

PC Laptops

9 Tips to Get More Power Out of Your Laptop Battery

Get more power out of your laptop battery and help it last longer by implementing some of these tips from our guide.

Users display warnings about the use of artificial intelligence (AI), access to malicious software ...

Les Olson

How to Stay Safe from Cybersecurity Threats

Read our tips for reading for how to respond to rising cybersecurity threats in 2023 and beyond to keep yourself and your company safe.

Cataract Canyon Without Lake Powell: A Monumental Legacy Of Dried Mud