Vaseys Paradise

The flows of Vaseys Paradise, a perennial spring in Marble Canyon, have visibly declined in the past two years due to low snowfall, which recharges the aquifer that feeds the spring. The spring, which usually flows from three or four holes in the canyon walls, now only flows from one hole, said Ben Tobin, a hydrologist and cave specialist at Grand Canyon National Park.

Larry Stevens/ Springs Stewardship Institute

Along the sweeping red walls of Marble Canyon in Grand Canyon National Park, a smudge of green clings to the rock face. The vibrant leaves and grasses are fed by the waters of Vaseys Paradise, one of hundreds of perennial springs that flow from the walls of the Grand Canyon.

But over the past two years, the spring’s waters, which usually stream out of three or four holes in the canyon wall, have diminished and now only flow out of one hole.

Due to meager snowpacks last winter and this one, hydrologists are seeing a decline in base flows in Vaseys Paradise and other perennial springs around Grand Canyon National Park, said Ben Tobin, a hydrologist and cave specialist at the park.

“If you don't have that snowmelt that recharges the aquifer, then the base discharge of the spring is going to steadily decline,” Tobin said.

Tobin and other local experts say springs in the Grand Canyon and throughout northern Arizona are places where the recent lack of snowfall could have very visible impacts. That’s because snowmelt, as opposed to summer rainfall, is by far the most important source of recharge for the aquifers that feed the region’s springs.

Some of the natural features most vulnerable to recent dry weather are ephemeral springs, which are fed by shallow aquifers that respond closely to climate changes. These water sources, which flow intermittently during the year, make up one third to one fourth of northern Arizona’s springs, said Larry Stevens, the curator of ecology at the Museum of Northern Arizona and the director of Springs Stewardship Institute. During dry years, many ephemeral springs will stop flowing, Stevens said.

The other worry is that perennial streams like Vaseys Paradise will slow to a trickle, and even possibly stop flowing without the needed recharge from the surface.

Warmer temperatures also have been shown to increase evaporation rates at springs, removing water but not the salts, which changes the dissolved solids concentrations in the water, said Abe Springer, a hydrologist at Northern Arizona University.

The ecological repercussions of springs drying up or declining in flow could be huge.

Springs are hotspots for biodiversity, Stevens said, and when they go dry the life they support likely goes away as well. He estimates there are hundreds to thousands of species that are springs-dependent, including 10 percent of the endangered species in the Southwest.

Montezuma Well, a spring about 50 miles south of Flagstaff, is believed to have the highest diversity of unique species of any point in North America, Stevens said.

Vaseys Paradise feeds a rich carpet of mosses, grasses and shrubs and supports a range of species, including the endangered Kanab ambersnail.

“That’s the big concern is if we go from having perennial systems that have sustained unique flora and fauna, if it goes from being perennial to ephemeral, the question is are those unique systems going to survive?” Tobin said. “My initial thought is they’re going to have a hard time existing.”

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