We float rivers for fun. For adventure. For discovery. We do it for the magic around the bend. The smooth hiss of water and stone. A canyon wren concerto. The slap of a beaver's tail. The solitary stare of a bighorn sheep.
Last spring, I stumbled across something unusual on the Colorado
River in the Grand Canyon. Where John Wesley Powell found black
crags, whitewater and scientific fame, I found a
It happened like this. We were camped on a
swale of sunlit sand near Diamond Creek. As usual, Martin Litton,
the "grand old man" of the canyon, had lugged a curious item on
shore: a case full of books. Most river runners carry a book or
two. Martin brings dozens. You are almost certain to find Powell's
journals in Martin's "library." The works of Edward Abbey and
Wallace Stegner - both of whom Martin knew well - are usually in
stock, too. Anything is possible.
What I found
that April morning was a slick new book with a clumsy title: Dams
and Rivers: Primer on the Downstream Effects of Dams. With a
dramatic aerial photo of a dam-throttled river on the cover, the
book looked like something the Sierra Club might publish. But a
small logo on the cover told a different story. It read: U.S.
Geological Survey, Circular 1126.
publications have a reputation for dullness. To non-scientists,
they are impenetrable. But as I opened Dams and Rivers, it was
clear this was an exception. This was new strata for the Geological
Nowhere did I find the fossilized prose
of science with its gray rubble of footnotes, its dead sea of
figures and formulas. Instead, I gazed at color photographs,
beautiful sketches of endangered species and, most wonderful of
all, clear writing on a subject fairly new to science - the impact
dams have on rivers
"Viewed in one
carefully chosen dimension, many dams have been worthwhile - this
dam prevented flooding, that dam generated a lot of electricity,"
the report stated. "But with time, we have also come to realize
that the adverse environmental effects of a dam may extend in
circles far wider than had been appreciated in the past. We did not
spend a lot of time thinking about the issue of downstream effects
when conceiving dams during the first half of the 20th century ...
The river emerging from a dam is not the same river that entered
Bells sounded. A light flashed
on. This was more than a government publication. This was a new way
of looking at dams and rivers, a book that seemed to spring from
the same soil as Powell's revolutionary Report on the Lands of the
Arid Region, published by the Survey in 1878. Like Powell's work,
Dams and Rivers did not dodge controversy. It waded into
"Some people are fond of
contemplating the elimination of certain dams. In a few instances,
the environmental costs ... are deemed so great that (a) dam's
removal is conceivably warranted," the report stated. "But, by and
large, this is rarely a realistic
"The real question
then becomes: Can a dam be operated so as to maximize its benefits
and minimize the costs. The exciting answer is "maybe."
Intriguing stuff. But another surprise lay in
store. Inside Dams and Rivers was a kind of rare earth mineral, a
trace element almost never found in government publications: humor.
I found it by chance, buried deep in unlikely terrain - the
"We appreciate the
input of Hector Morales, Lester Ray Talley, Frank Almendariz," the
report's authors began. More than 30 names later, they came to the
Mike Yard and Dave Wegner of the Bureau of Reclamation and Brad
Dimock of the Grand Canyon River Guides critically reviewed early
drafts of the manuscript whereas George Wise and George Dickel of
the U.S. Geological Survey helped our thought processes both on the
river and off."
Bells sounded again. George
Dickel is not a government scientist. George Dickel is a brand of
Tennessee whiskey. I read the line to Martin, whose talent as a
librarian is overshadowed by his skill as a bartender. Martin knows
Dickel and his clan well: Johnny Walker, Old Grand-Dad, Jack
Daniel's. Martin's reaction was immediate: A wide grin Jim-Beamed
across his face.
Obviously, this was no ordinary
U.S. Geological Survey "circular." Here was a book with the vision
of Powell, the humor of Twain, translucent, magazine-style prose
and National Geographic-caliber photos.
morning, there was little else to do but stow the book, finish the
trip and ask questions later. Who were the authors, Michael
Collier, Robert Webb and John Schmidt? Why did they write Dams and
Rivers? How did this rare flower of a book sprout from stony,
Months later, I would track
down the answers from Collier, a family practice physician in
Flagstaff, and Webb, a Survey hydrologist in
"The Geological Survey
is realizing it needs to project itself beyond scientific circles
if it's going to get its message out, if it's going to survive as
an entity," Collier told me. "They are trying to encourage people
to think about how to communicate with laymen."
At 47, Collier is an unlikely savior. He isn't even a government
scientist. Twelve days a month, he is a doctor. The rest of the
time he devotes to other passions - photography, flying and
river-rafting. His work for the Survey comes on the side. And much
of it involves a camera. All of the photos in Dams and Rivers - and
there are more than 80 - are
"In 1970, I did my
first Grand Canyon trip. And along the way I began to photograph,"
he said. "Photography has always been a sort of a central thread in
But for Dams and Rivers, Collier was
more than a photographer. He was the symphony conductor who pulled
it all together. Webb and Schmidt, a geology professor at Utah
State University, provided the scientific guidance. Collier
listened, traveled and traveled some more. He visited seven river
systems in all (the Salt, Snake, Rio Grande, Platte, Green,
Colorado and Chattahoochee). He became a translator. He took the
arcane vocabulary of river science - kilowatt-hours, acre-feet,
cubic feet per second - and shaped it into clear, readable
Dusk settles over the Platte River as the
sky fills with lesser sandhill cranes gliding in to roost. Their
five-foot wings are extended but not beating, bony legs already
pointing toward earth ... The river has always offered habitat that
the cranes need: shallow water spread across a wide channel, broken
up by numerous sand spits and islands. But during this century,
that riparian habitat has been drastically altered, largely by the
placement of dams upstream.
Collier did more
than write like a poet. He rattled the walls of university and
No-one works in a vacuum ...
Scientists dealing with the downstream effects of dams - at levels
ranging from basic research to applied engineering - must formulate
questions whose answers can ultimately make a difference. To strive
for anything less is to be just another
"When I wrote
that, I was thinking, "Why do all these studies? Why waste your
time?" "''''Collier said. "Well, because they (scientists) might
make a difference. People were struggling with me to get that out
of there because you just don't say things like that. You don't
bite the hand that feeds you."
In September -
nine months after Dams and Rivers was published - something
unexpected happened. The book received the Geological Survey's
Eugene M. Shoemaker Communications Award, which honors publications
written for lay audiences.
Collier flew to the
award ceremony in Reston, Va., expecting a quiet bureaucratic
function. He found something quite
"I was being
pummeled," he told me. "I didn't know any of the people back there.
They were all vigorously shaking my hand, saying "Great job."
"I thought "This is very
strange." Because initially, when I used the gee-whiz language that
helps people keep reading, I was told you can't write that way. I
said, "Well, sorry, but I'm gonna." But once it was done, people
were glad to see it."
though, reaction has been different. Dams and Rivers has hardly
doesn't have a clue how to get this out," Collier said. "I've gone
out of my way to give out hundreds of copies. But it's haphazard.
Unfortunately, there's no economic incentive to make it available."
The book's obscurity is a tragedy. For its
underlying message - that dams can do environmental good, if used
differently - needs to be
"The (controlled) flood
of 1996 in the Grand Canyon is a good example," Collier said. "The
idea that a single flood can make a difference was new. Our
thinking was: If this was valuable in the canyon, can we begin to
take the tools and apply them to other rivers?"
The answer seems to be yes. Changes in dam operations - higher
flows here, warmer water there - can widen channels, resuscitate
native fish, restore beaches and backwaters. There will be cost and
controversy. There will be false starts. (Many beaches born in the
1996 Grand Canyon flood have already been washed away by erosive
releases from Glen Canyon Dam.) But it can be done. We are the
richest nation on Earth. We can afford to help what we have harmed,
rebuild some of what we have destroyed. That is what Dams and
Rivers is about.
fleece we coveted was finding tweaks one could do to dam operations
that, with a minimum of impact on water storage or electrical
generation, would have big effects downstream," Collier told
"The impetus (for Dams and
Rivers) has to be credited to Bob Webb," Collier said. "For a long
time, he's been doing Grand Canyon work, looking at the function of
the dam, trying to weed past opinions and preconceptions and look
at changes in the
"Schmidt was the
brilliant thinker. He had the clearest, longest vision. I listened
hard any time he spoke. Webb always surprises me. He knows things
very, very well. But he can be a real clown. Irreverent."
It was Webb who put George Dickel in Dams and
"It commemorates a
real event. It wasn't a practical joke," Webb told me at the
Survey's Research Project Office in Tucson. "We were on the Rio
Grande, on a river trip, in December. And it's kind of cold down
there. We always bring whiskey. And we always drink it out of the
bottle. We were just sitting around on a very cool night, talking,
and the conversation was very instrumental to what was put into
that circular. Michael and I were just sitting there, bouncing
thoughts off each other, talking back and forth. To me, it was very
important. That's what acknowledgements are for."
The sentiment, though, is not universally
"A terribly sensitive
issue," Collier said. "The Survey's top brass in Washington are
still dismayed that a government publication would be so irreverent
as to acknowledge George Dickel. But the fact is, we drank Dickel.
They weren't totally howling drunken parties. But they were fun."
There remains one more surprise to Dams and
Rivers. It's free. You can get a copy by writing: U.S. Geological
Survey, Branch of Information Services, Box 25286, Denver, CO