Friday, April 11, 2014

The Escalante River

The upper tributaries of the Escalante River rise on the Aquarius Plateau of southern Utah, a mesa capped by Tertiary volcanic rock and flanked by colorful outcrops of the Claron Formation (deposited during the Paleocene).  Tumbling to the desert floor, they flow southward, carving their way through Cretaceous strata that extend northeastward to the Waterpocket Fold and SSW to the Kaiparowits Plateau.

Nearing the main channel of the Escalante River, which begins at the town of Escalante, the tributaries and the primary stream begin to incise a layer cake of Jurassic sandstones, producing spectacular canyonlands.  Flowing eastward and then southeastward, the Escalante makes a tortuous, ninety-mile journey to the Colorado River, which it joins in Lake Powell; en route, the river and its tributaries cut down through Jurassic strata that span sixty million years of Earth's history.  Of course, in that arid landscape, that erosion is seasonal, occurring primarily during the spring snowmelt and the summer monsoon.

Protected within the eastern portion of the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument (established in 1996) and a northern section of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, the remote Escalante was one of the last rivers in the U.S. to be completely mapped and remains one of the last free-flowing rivers in the American West.  Yet, conflicting regional interests, combined with the effects of water diversion, roadway construction and alien tree invasion (primarily Russian olive and tamarisk) have threatened the welfare of the Escalante; fortunately, the Escalante River Watershed Partnership, a concerted effort of local conservationists, State and Federal agencies and the Nature Conservancy, is working to restore the river's natural ecology while respecting the interests of those who rely on the Escalante for their recreation and livelihood.