Sunday, November 18, 2007

Colorado R at Lees Ferry

photo copyright Brian J. McMorrow

Since the first half of my career with the USGS was as a streamgager, and while I did a lot of other field work, servicing streamflow gages and making discharge measurements and the subsequent office work to produce the real-time data for the Web and the annual data report data, much of my best memories are from times in the field. That's because you're where the real world of hydrology is and where you are in the world. Not sitting in an office being a scientist, but around rivers where it happens.

Well while I was in the Phoenix office, the USGS was contracted to study the sediment transport and deposition on the Colorado River below Glen Canyon Dam as part of a government inter-agency task force to see if the lower Colorado River regime could be restored as the years of clear water had eroded numerous beaches and redefined the hydrology of the river. The Flagstaff and Phoenix field office chiefs realized the study was to begin without anyone doing some initial data collection before the releases were to begin.

To resolve that they dispatched another technician and I to the Colorado River at Lees Ferry gage for the period leading up to the start of the study, meaning about two weeks or less depending when the study crew showed up from Flagstaff. This gage is just downstream from the starting point for the rafting trips down the Colorado River, see a photo with the gage on the opposite bank (tall concrete house - access and measuring cable just upstream, not visible in photo).

Well, for those who haven't driven to Lees Ferry from Phoenix, it's about a 5-6 hour drive. Driving north from Phoenix you venture in and out of the Verde River valley before getting up on the Mogollon Plateau into Flagstaff, going from about 1,500 feet to over 7,000 feet at Flagstaff. You drive through Flagstaff north to Page. It's all down hill from Flagstaff, often straight for miles and miles. The only stops are along the Navajo Reservation towns.

Just south of the Colorado River the highway splits to Page and to the Grand Canyon. We stayed in Page the first night before going to the gage the next day. Our job was to measure and take sediment samples twice a day. It's about a 4 hour job to do this as you measure on the way over to the gage, service it, and sample on the way back. With the equipment setup and takedown, it consumes a morning and an afternoon each time.

On the first day we went to Marble Canyon for lunch. Then it was a town if you stretch your imagination to include a small motel, restaurant, store, and gas station along with a few tourist shops because it's on the highway from Page to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and on to southern Utah. In short, it was a wide spot in the road. But we liked it so much we went back to Page, cancelled our room and stayed at the motel.

What we liked most of all was the area around it. The Vermillion Hills were beautiful in the evening. And there was the bridge, the desert, and the small roads to check out. No one questions workers in government trucks on back roads. So we had a great time, and although the work as routine, we liked watching all the boats leave the launch site in the morning and paddle or power underneath the cable while we worked. And watch them setup in the afternoon for the next day's launch.

Well, it was memorable for just being routine and magnificant too. It's the adage I tell folks about streamgaging. We got paid to go, stay and work in places people go on vacation, and pay to stay. And we contribute to the study of the nation's rivers. What's not to like about that?


  1. I loved your post about your work with USGS. I am working on a MS in hydrogeology and hope to have some stories like that one day! At present, I am working on a class presentation on water use in the Colorado Basin and could really use a photo of the Lees Ferry station that shows the access and measuring cable. Any chance you have one? I'd really appreciate if if I could use it.

  2. Angela, sadly there are few if any on-line photos of the gage. The Water Office in Tuscon used to have tons of gage photos on-line but removed all of them a few years ago, and friends there don't know if or when they'll be back on-line.

    And I didn't take photos of all the gages I serviced in my career. I regret this as now it would be nice to have and share the times and places. Now it's almost standard to take a digital camera with field work, but it wasn't then for having to pay for the camera equipment, film and processing.

    Without using a copyrighted image, your best bet is either contact the outreach office in Tuscon or extract images from any on-line publications. Most of the images in USGS publications are public domain and useable by the public with a simple photo credit to the publication.

    Using a google search I couldn't find many and most are copyrighted with the gage incidental to the content. Photographers don't seem to want a tall concrete house and cableway in their image. I'm still looking for a better one.

    If you find one, I would appreciate knowing, and if I find one and you still need one, let me know and I'll send it or the link(s) to you. Of course, you could always drive there. Yeah right.

    Good luck with your MS degree and career.