Biologists and Colorado River raft guides alike thought it was a sure thing: For one week in the spring of 1995, floodwaters from Glen Canyon Dam would roar through the Grand Canyon as they hadn't since the high water summer of 1984.
The raging waters would scour 225 miles of
river bed, lifting beach sand and redepositing it on the depleted
beaches downstream. The new beaches would buffer Anasazi ruins
along the river corridor and the high water would improve spawning
habitat for native fish - replicating the flood environment in
which they evolved.
But the Bureau of
Reclamation, the federal agency that built and now manages the dam,
recently pulled the plug on the one-week flood proposed for
sometime in April.
The agency says it needs more
time to study the effects of the "beach habitat-building" flows on
the dam and the environment. This decision reverses the
recommendation of its draft environmental impact statement on the
operation of the Glen Canyon Dam.
"The flow is
still on the books," insists BuRec spokesman Barry Wirth. "It's
delayed, not scuttled."
worry that BuRec is capitulating to hydropower interests that stand
to lose revenue if the experimental flood proceeds. The delay may
also signal years of legal disputes over the
"I hope this isn't the final stamp of
disapproval," says Cameron Staveley, a field manager with Arizona
Raft Adventures. Rafters and several other conservation groups,
including the Grand Canyon Trust, urged the agency to reschedule
the flows for later this year. BuRec, however, says the flows must
happen in the spring to reduce impact on fisheries below the dam,
which sidelines the research until at least spring
The Western Area Power Administration,
marketer of the dam's power, isn't sure the weeklong test is
worthwhile, anytime. WAPA, which sells the electricity to various
grids serving cities in the West, has not publicly opposed the
flood flows, but "questions the value of such a test flow when
compared to its high cost," says spokesman Eric
WAPA estimates that the weeklong higher
flows, which must in part bypass the hydropower turbines, would
cost the company about $4.5 million in lost revenue. A more vocal
opponent of the plan is the Upper Colorado River Commission,
representing four states with Colorado River entitlements in the
Commission Director Wayne Cook says
the issue is the precedent-setting nature of the flood release, not
the lost revenue. Cook says the Commission fears that similar
situations will arise in the future if the Bureau simply declares a
need to bypass hydropower turbines solely for research purposes.
In any case, Cook says, BuRec can't legally
allow water to exit the dam without generating hydropower unless
it's an emergency.
criteria absolutely prohibit such a thing," according to Cook. He
says hydropower generated by the dam must pay back taxpayers for
money that the federal government borrowed to build other water
In response to the River Commission's
challenge - and in anticipation of a potential lawsuit - BuRec has
asked the Interior Department's Solicitor General, John Leshy, to
rule on the legality of bypassing the turbines in this one
instance. Wirth says BuRec's lawyers believe the turbines can
legally be bypassed. Leshy has yet to issue an
Most conservationists consider BuRec's
delay a smokescreen. They maintain that its soon-to-be-released
EIS, which already contains provisions for spring high-water
research flows, gives BuRec authority to proceed with the flood.
"Power interests are afraid of losing control of
the river. That's what is at stake here," says Rob Smith of the
Southwest office of the Sierra Club. "The river has always been
controlled for water and power interests, but the water belongs to
us, the public. Even the power generated belongs to us."
Conservationists are frustrated with the delay
because damage to the Canyon has been so long in the making and a
solution seemed close at hand. Since the mid-1960s, boaters and
guides have raised the alarm about disappearing beaches and
Their concerns finally
received scientific confirmation in 1989 when a BuRec study found
that the clear, sediment-free waters emerging from the dam were
indeed crumbling beaches along the Grand Canyon corridor. Much of
that eroded sand has collected underwater, on the river bed itself.
The study also found that the clear water and its cold temperature
threatens native fish, which prefer warm, silty water that floods
in the spring and trickles in the winter.
on the findings and increasing public pressure to slow beach
erosion, former Secretary of the Interior Manuel Lujan ordered
interim flow regulations in August 1991 (HCN, 8/26/91). The measure
decreased beach erosion but failed to rebuild beaches, which is why
the Bureau included an experimental beach-building flood in its
To Shane Murphy, director of Grand Canyon
River Guides, the delay is maddening. "Politics don't have any
place in this issue," he says. "Flood flows used to happen every
year." For this year, however, it appears that politics will
continue to prevent the Colorado River from healing
* Ross Freeman, HCN
For more information,
or a copy of the three-volume EIS, contact the Bureau of
Reclamation, Colorado River Studies Office, 125 S. State St., Room
6107, Salt Lake City, UT 84138-1102 (801/524-4099).