Glen Canyon: Using a dam to heal a river
And in that surreal place, the boatman who'd brought us there, 16 miles up the Colorado River from Lee's Ferry to Glen Canyon Dam, was presenting an idea even more surreal: He wanted to see the dam create a flood to help the river below the dam. This seemed so alien to the purpose of a dam - really, to the whole purpose and thrust of the past century, which has been so much about controlling and rationalizing nature - that it was hard not to laugh.
From the time it began to back up water in 1963, Glen Canyon Dam turned the lower basin of the nation's wildest river into a waterworks that flowed entirely according to the demands of those who used its electricity and water. For its builder, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, this dam had come into being as the arch-realization of that vision of political and economic rationality that sees the natural as raw material to be reconstructed to meet human needs and desires.
Into this monumental stronghold of the rationalist vision, the boatman wanted to intrude a flood? - a manmade flood? Skepticism was understandable. But, 10 months later, last spring, I stood on the deck of the Bureau's powerhouse, at the base of the 500-foot mountain of the dam, feeling through the soles of my feet the thrum of 45,000 cubic feet per second of water passing through the dam, everything in the dam that could be opened up running full out - close to a third of it not even "paying its way" by going through the generator turbines - as the dam and its managers created that most undamly thing: a flood. A scheduled, managed, controlled flood, from March 26 through April 2, 1996.
Southwestern writer Russell Martin wrote a good book about the building of Glen Canyon Dam, A Story That Stands Like a Dam: Glen Canyon and the Battle for the Soul of the West. But, much as I liked the book, I think he got the title backwards: It's more to the point to say that Glen Canyon is a "dam that stands like a story' - one of the deep myths that is the real scaffolding for everything that humans do.
Those deep stories are tricky: We think that because we seem to be enacting them as our story, we are somehow their author. But in fact, they are stories being written about us, and they are stories about what we are actually doing, not just what we think we are doing, or hope we are doing.
The boatman on the river below the dam that day was Dave Wegner, principal architect of the flood of 1996. In 1982, Wegner, an ecologist, was hired by the Bureau of Reclamation to manage what sounded like a reasonably unthreatening new program: the Glen Canyon Environmental Studies. After 20 years of operation, the project was to study the effects of the dam on "existing river-related environments and recreational resources of Glen and Grand canyons," and to determine if there might be better ways "to operate the dam," for environmental and recreational needs, but still consistent with the dam's original purposes. The office, at that time, had no charge other than to "study the dam and its effects'; no impact statements were mandated, no deadlines set - just "study the effects of the dam."
The Bureau of Reclamation, which had had the project imposed on it as a result of a lawsuit brought by the Environmental Defense Fund, responded as though someone had thrown a dead cat through the door. Wegner was told by his superiors that he was "window dressing," a "token environmentalist'; that the less he accomplished, the better. A colleague in the Bureau told him that he had been chosen over an engineer because they were afraid an engineer might get something done.
This kind of reaction is sometimes laid over deeper currents of fear, and support for this suspicion is provided by conservationist Dan Beard, who eventually gave the old guard at the Bureau a whole lot to think about when President Clinton made him Commissioner of Reclamation in 1992. "Wegner's superiors were scared to death of what he might do," Beard said. "They didn't even want him to list (his) office phone number."
Most of our conflicts over the Colorado River may stem from its reality as a construction zone, where a modestly scaled but energetic flow of water is in the process of removing a bulge from the earth's crust in order to construct a river.
A river is not what it appears at first glance - a kind of natural storm sewer, carrying water off the land. A closer look at the way a river works indicates that the water, while unable to deny gravity's pull, creates and participates in many strategies to slow its own passage from the land. Where it flows off of steep land, the water picks up whatever it can carry - dirt, rocks, leaves, trees, animals seduced and drowned - and drops that load in front of itself as soon as it can, trying to meander, spread itself, disappear back into the land by supporting whatever plant life will grow up in its quiet places and backwaters. In its matured relationship with the land, the flow of water meanders through softly sloped valleys in great, slow, sweeping bends, depositing itself in pools and hiding out in wetlands - its departure inevitable but delayed as long as possible.
A river, seen thus, is not just a flow of water, but a whole set of strategies for interacting with whatever the water flows through. Ditches, waterworks, drainage canals, sheer canyons - those are not rivers. They are systems for water on its way to somewhere else. A river is water that already is somewhere. And what the river is, is not just the water but everything that participates in its being there: the meanders the water makes by dropping its baggage in its own path, the floodplains whose water table it maintains, the pools it makes for the furtherance of the projects of beavers and farmers, and the workings of the beavers and farmers - all are part of, and joined by, the river.
But due to an upwarp in the North American crustal plate, the flow of water we call the Colorado River is a long way from being matured. It is a system for cutting and carrying earth in quantity, working with wind and airborne water to remove the upwarp called the Colorado Plateau, and build a river's kind of valley. By the time Anglo-American civilization reached it, it had already cut and conveyed so much earth out of the Plateau that, in its lower reaches below the canyons it has cut, it was running on a broad leveed platform of its own deposits above the surrounding desert region; it had pumped so much silt into the Sea of Cortez over the past 5 million years that it had run a dam all the way across it, cutting off the northern hundred miles or so of the sea, which dried under the desert sun and became the Salton Sink (now the Imperial Valley).
When we got there, the Colorado River was still in the chaotic state of all serious construction zones, as it will be for millions of years to come: running for part of its course in deep canyons as much as a mile below a high desert that it drains but does not water, and for another part of its course running above a low desert that it floods - when it has the water. A chameleon of a river, then, once out of its mountains and into the arid lands: a trickster river running either below or above the surrounding drylands, doing little for the land but eating at it, moving it around, conveying it to the sea.
The Colorado's changeable quality was enhanced by the fact that it was not nearly so large a river as it sometimes seemed. It only ran in a powerful flood for a few months each year, when the winter snowpack was melting up in the tributary region. Some years, a hellacious flood: In 1884, it came through the canyons at 300,000 cubic feet per second - enough to put water 10 feet deep on a football field every second. Many other summers it ran well above 100,000 cfs. Once the snow was gone in the mountains, it became a very modest flow, often well under 10,000 cfs for months at a time - except when thunderstorms up on the dry Plateau might bump it up to 40,000 or 50,000 cfs for an evening or a day.
So it had gone for millions of years: a steep flow of water gnawing down into the ongoing uplift, trying to drop more in front of itself than it tore out - a situation similar to driving a car at full acceleration with the brakes set.
And the wind and the airborne water kept working on the walls cut by the flowing water, shaping the upper layers of the canyons to what we know today: a precipitous and vastly scaled region of beautiful desolation, a land without enough water shedding what little it gets quickly and casually off its steep slopes, and the rest of the time drying up and blowing away, or falling in on itself, while at the bottom of it all, in a green and brown strip, a flow of water and scatter of life tried to put together a river in a confined space.
That was the natural landscape into which the Anglo-Americans advanced, caught up in a movement variously called "Manifest Destiny," "Progress' and "Western Civilization." In the more general perspective of American history, this was a story of technologically reconstructing and rationalizing nature in the context of a set of economic and political ideals, a teleological tale in which all would eventually live happily ever after in a world rebuilt around human needs and desires.
But as that destiny-driven story moved into the semi-arid Great Plains, and then into the driest parts of the West, it began to resonate with old stories from early religions, the story of turning a desert river into the desert, to turn the desert into a garden. "Come," said the people on the plains of Mesopotamia, "let us build ourselves a city and a tower whose top may reach unto heaven, and make a name for ourselves." Or it was, as American historian Donald Worster put it, "the myth of human redemption through irrigation technology."
I believe it serves accuracy to say that where Western Civilization met the westernmost arid West, "Manifest Destiny" broke through the limits of philosophy and ideology and became - never mind what the Constitution says - a state religion. The religion began with the belief that just the advent of American farmers onto those semi-arid and arid lands west of the 100th meridian would suffice to turn the desert into a land of milk and honey. The incantations that "rain will follow the plow" or "rain will follow the trains' were offered up as "scientific facts."
After thousands of true believers had dried up, burned out, or blown away on the Great Plains, the faith was still not questioned but modified to acknowledge the need for technological intervention, more toward the Protestant ethos of "God helps those who help themselves." Following the example of the Mormons, hardly a secular society, irrigation became the new gospel: Turn the water into the desert to turn the desert into a garden, "and the desert shall bloom as a rose."
But who should do the work that God had somehow neglected? Many settlers didn't wait around for instructions but got right to it, organizing local ditch companies and moving the smaller, more manageable streams out onto their land. Others - God's truly chosen - played the capital game, creating large land and water developments onto which they lured settlers for a kind of indentured servitude.
But parts of the West, like the Colorado River's vast and chaotic "construction zone," were too much of a challenge even for large capital ventures - as abortive efforts to open up the Salton Sink showed. Trying to develop the Colorado at the California end of the river (where the river ran above the land) was a little like trying to drink out of a fire hose. So prophets like William Smythe of California began to hold large "revivals' calling for intercession, not from God, but from the federal government. And in 1902, the prayers of the faithful were answered with the Newlands Act and the creation of the Bureau of Reclamation.
This helps explain the Bureau's antipathy to the "imposition" of an environmental studies office. The Bureau of Redemption was not created to do science; it was created to do technological miracles. The Bureau might use science in constructing its miracles, but it didn't do science.
The incompatibility of science and religion was illustrated in the West when one strong, disciplined and dedicated scientist took on the religion of irrigation and "Manifest Destiny." That was John Wesley Powell, who launched his career with the first exploration of the Colorado River and its canyons in 1869. He parlayed that trip into a career investment in a scientific approach to life in the West, eventually in public, and generally unsuccessful, opposition to the national religion.
His dedication to the way of science and its application - the development of public policy based on the observation and experiencing of reality - led him in 1893 to Los Angeles, to attend William Smythe's "International Irrigation Congress." He knew how big the Colorado River and other rivers and streams in the West really were because he and his surveyors had measured them; he saw that the religious were deluding themselves into thinking there was enough water to spread over all the deserts of the West. So he tried to tell them what was scientifically accurate. He was booed off the stage.
In place of Powell's science, the Bureau of Reclamation was created to use technology in the service of religion, and its technology has been magnificent. Which brings us back to the dam.
It's not the first time something like that has happened to the river in the canyons. A million years ago or so, volcanic activity along one of the cracks in the Plateau uplift threw a lava dam across the canyon at least as high as Glen Canyon, probably higher. It was not, however, so cleverly constructed as Glen Canyon; the lava dam just backed up the water until the water overflowed it and started cutting it down. Lava Falls is the remains of that dam.
It may take longer for the river to turn Glen Canyon Dam into Concrete Falls - the Bureau of Reclamation estimates 700 years before the reservoir fills with silt and turns the dam into a muddy waterfall three times higher than Niagara. But it will happen, sooner or later, and the most interesting question with respect to that is whether, between now and then, we who built the dam will be telling the story of the dam as joke or tragedy or something in between.
When the diversion tunnels were closed on Glen Canyon Dam in 1963, the flow of water through the canyons was immediately affected.
Before the dam, the river had been a warm, muddy flow with tremendous seasonal fluctuations - summer highs over 100,000 cfs, winter lows less than 10,000 cfs. After the dam, the river immediately became a clear flow of cold water, drawn from deep in the reservoir behind the dam, and with a much different pattern of fluctuations. Seasonal fluctuations effectively ceased, but the river in the canyons below the dam experienced daily fluctuations sometimes in excess of 30,000 cfs, from low flows as low as 1,000 cfs to flows of 31,500 cfs when the Bureau cranked open all the power-generating turbines in response to calls for "peaking power," electricity for Sunbelters.
This sudden change to a flow of cold, clear water had a major impact on the warm-water native fish of the Colorado: humpback and bonytail chubs; razorback, bluehead and flannelmouth suckers; the Colorado squawfish and the speckled dace. All those natives are now either officially endangered or considered for listing except for the bluehead sucker and the speckled dace, both of which hang out in lower canyons where sidestream inflows increase both the turbidity and temperature to something close to old-river standards.
On the other hand, non-native cold-water species - primarily rainbow, brown and cutthroat trout - have thrived, more so the closer one gets to the dam. The Glen Canyon stretch from Lees Ferry to the dam has, in fact, become a renowned trout fishery.
The dam also changed the aquatic food base - but not necessarily negatively. Before the dam, the food base in the canyons was mainly decomposing plant and animal life carried down from the whole drainage basin; after the dam, all of that was deposited in Lake Powell above the dam. The 16 miles of unprecedented clear water from immediately below the dam to the inflow of the muddy Paria River at Lees Ferry, however, now let enough sunlight into the water to grow an abundant crop of Cladophora glomerata, a stringy green algae that, in turn, feeds an array of diatomic life and aquatic invertebrates that become what some of the biologists call "the supermarket for the Grand Canyon."
The absence of the seasonal high, dirty flows of the past has probably had its greatest impact on the plant and animal and human communities on the sandbars and side beaches deposited by the silty pre-dam floods. The good news is that the general absence of beach-scouring flows higher than 30,000 cfs has been a boon for much of the plant life in the canyons, which grows much closer to the water than it could in the past. The bad news is that the exotic tamarisk, a water-loving shrub, now dominates the beach-plant system, undermining its diversity. Small animal life - amphibians, lizards, snails, birds and small mammals, and at least one endangered bird, the southwestern willow flycatcher - thrive in the moderated environment.
The plants are not enough to hold the beaches and sandbars against persistent erosion. Sediment to replace eroded material continues to come into the canyons from tributaries below Glen Canyon, like the Paria and Little Colorado rivers, but only about 20 million tons per year. Missing is the 66 million tons a year that came down the main stem before the dam - and missing also are the high and heavy flows that built up the bars and beaches.
The overall trend has consequently been a shrinking of these sandbar-beaches, with the sand and silt not moving out of the canyons as on the old cut-and-carry express, but slumping down to the bottom of the channel. Projecting ahead, there will eventually be no place left for the endangered Kanab ambersnail, the little leopard frogs, the troublesome tamarisk and its nesting flycatcher, the archaeological and contemporary artifacts of indigenous Indian cultures, and the 22,000 annual overnight campers from the multimillion-dollar canyon rafting and river-running industry.
That is the situation, then, in what remains of the natural environment below the dam. The challenge laid on Dave Wegner, and the small army of scientists whose work he helps fund and coordinate through the Glen Canyon Environmental Studies, is to figure out how the dam should be operated to maintain or enhance that culturally impacted natural environment for the short term. This means the seven centuries that the dam is expected to be operational.
In what BuRec nostalgitarians might consider a happier time, the presence of beaches and sandbars in the Grand Canyon below Glen Canyon Dam would not have been a worthy concern. They had dams planned for those canyons that would have put beaches and sandbars at the bottom of reservoirs. But Glen Canyon Dam stands on the border of a major change in the cultural environment; it marks the border, and in the opinion of many, including Dave Weg-ner, was instrumental in creating it.
The dam stands at the end of the old religion, the breaking-up of the irrigation myth on the shoals of its inconsistencies. As Powell predicted, there was not enough water to do what was promised. An agrarian democracy did not spring up in the desert any more than it had in Massachusetts or Virginia, where water was taken for granted.
Even the technology which the dam represents began to break down. The quantity of water "developed" was smaller than the prophets had foretold, and the quality of the water, as it was used over and over on the alkaloid and saline soils of the desert, became increasingly problematic. Historian Donald Worster:
Reclamation ... is a technological stunt that, as the experience of other irrigation societies shows, cannot be indefinitely sustained. As the irrigation system approaches maximum efficiency, as rivers get moved around with more and more thorough, consummate skill, the system begins to grow increasingly vulnerable, subject to a thousand ills that eventually bring about its decline. Despite all efforts to save the system, it breaks down here, then there, then everywhere.
All this began to come home to the Bureau, and the rest of the brotherhood of the water buffalo when in 1968 they had to give up two big Grand Canyon power dams to get the Central Arizona Project through Congress. The other shoe fell in 1976 when some relatively low-level functionaries in President Carter's government simply scratched about half of the approved (but unfunded) water development projects along the Colorado River for their dismal cost-benefit analyses.
Handwriting was already on the wall in the mid-1950s, when Glen Canyon Dam was still just a proposal, part of the water buffaloes' effort to get for the Upper Colorado Basin the kind of federal commitment the Lower Basin had received through the first half of the 20th century. This Colorado River Storage Project involved a number of "cash register" dams generating power that would create dollars to pay for a host of smaller water delivery projects, involving all manner of Rube Goldberg-like systems of aqueducts, pipes and tunnels and siphons to bring lots of water to - it seemed - every acre of land flat enough to be settled in the southern Rockies.
Glen Canyon was the keystone "cash register," but as the vast scheme moved into the legislative process, attention focused on a smaller proposed dam in a valley on the edge of Dinosaur National Monument in far northwestern Colorado: Echo Park Dam. The Sierra Club, under David Brower, and other national preservationist organizations chose that dam for their first real national challenge to the Bureau, and the theretofore unchallenged mission the Bureau was charged to carry out. They walked all over the Bureau, in large part because the Bureau was simply not used to having to defend its figures.
CRSP made it through Congress in 1956, minus the Echo Park Dam, and within a decade all of the remaining "cash register" dams were either built or under construction - Glen Canyon, Flaming Gorge on the Green River, Navajo on the San Juan, and the three dams of the Wayne Aspinall unit on the Gunnison.
But it was not like the old days. Glen Canyon Dam began to back up water in 1963 and cracked slightly as the river began to lean into it. Nothing serious, but still ... Before the reservoir was full, the nation had: a) denied the two downriver Grand Canyon dams that would have alleviated all the pressure on Glen Canyon by essentially eliminating Grand Canyon river-running, and b) passed a National Environmental Policy Act that mandated federal analyses of impacts, thus pretty well precluding realization of the vision of water systems totally rationalized around human needs and desires. The "Carter hit list" red-lining most of the CRSP water delivery projects was never seriously challenged by Congress.
Bureau reaction to these setbacks was to preach the gospel a little louder. In the mid-1970s it began to roll the log for an upgrade of the power-generating facilities at Glen Canyon. The nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund took the Bureau to court demanding an environmental impact statement on the impact of power generation and fluctuating flows on the river in the canyons below the dam. The courts supported EDF.
The water-buffalo brotherhood kicked in at that point, and got a rider attached to an appropriations bill prohibiting the funding of a Glen Canyon environmental impact statement. But there was no formal opposition to the creation of the Glen Canyon Environmental Studies office as a compromise, just the informal flak that Wegner had to put up with in the ranks.
Wegner kept his cool: He spread around what money he could garner to the scientists working on Grand Canyon studies, and he built networks of support for good river science within and outside the Bureau.
An important supporter was Democratic Rep. George Miller of California. Miller badly wanted an EIS to be done on the impact of the dam on the Grand Canyon region, and in a semi-legendary shouting match with Bureau officials right on the river during a raft trip, he promised that if the Bureau didn't do that EIS, he would introduce legislation to have Congress do it. It was a successful threat: in 1989 Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan administratively ordered a Glen Canyon EIS, to be prepared by Wegner's team. That was given more priority when Congress passed the Grand Canyon Protection Act in 1992.
The EIS was completed in March 1995. "You can go around the world," said Dan Beard, BuRec Commissioner from 1992-95, who now works for National Audubon Society, "and no place will you find such a detailed study of the downstream impacts of a dam."
Beard should know. In 1993 President Clinton appointed him - George Miller's former staffer - as Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, and Beard wasted no time in "standing up and saying what most people in the Bureau knew we had to do." The Bureau had to "become an environmental agency," Beard said, "moving away from dam-building and into water-resource management." Under his two-and-a-half years of leadership, the Bureau decentralized the management impetus from top-down Washington bureaucracy to an emphasis on field-level operation. New hires are as likely to be biologists and ecologists as engineers, although there are not that many new hires: the organization has downsized by about 25 percent.
It would be naive to think that the old-time religion has simply disappeared, and isn't just lying low in pockets and enclaves, hoping for better times. Meanwhile, there's the flood to consider - and the Bureau's participation in that. In a historical context, what happened last March wasn't really a flood by old Colorado River standards. The official designation was "a habitat-building test flow" since most of the problems in the river below the dam come down to the problem of erosion. Some of the river scientists hypothesized that the high daily fluctuations in power-generating releases from the dam were a major factor. As a result, the preferred management alternative proposed in the EIS restricts the daily fluctuations between low flow and high flow to 8,000 cfs or less, depending on total monthly flows. While the quantity of electricity generated will not change, adhering to the preferred low-fluctuation alternative will cost the Bureau a full third of its marketable power capacity, mostly because it will no longer be able to run its turbines flat out when power is most needed and when prices are highest.
That is a significant cost for a strategy that might not work very well anyway. Following passage of the Grand Canyon Protection Act, the Bureau began experimenting with reduced fluctuations, and has already discovered that it doesn't seem to make as much difference in erosion as everyone had hoped it would.
"We're learning that erosion in steep narrow canyons can't really be stopped by regulating the flow of water in the canyon," said Utah State University hydrologist Jack Schmidt, who has been studying the canyon sandbars since 1985. Down in Glen Canyon, Wegner pointed out how even the gentle slapping against the beaches of bow waves created by the big river rafts caused river sand and silt to slump into the water.
So what might work instead? The scientists hypothesized that a sustained "floodflow" (a flow in excess of the 33,200 cfs that can go through the power plant) might help to stir that sand and silt off the bottom of the main channel and get it up onto the beaches and bars again.
The "flood of 1996," then, was a "habitat-building test flow" of around 45,000 cfs - what could pass through the power plant plus the four big river-outlet tubes at the base of the dam. If it could redeposit the sand and silt that had slipped to the bottom of the river channel onto the bars and beaches, it would help achieve an array of other objectives: restoring the backwater breeding pools (below the bars) needed by the endangered native fishes, preserving or restoring the camping beaches, protecting cultural artifacts on the beaches, and watering the mesquite, acacia and other native vegetation in the high-water zone.
Two months after the flood, Wegner says he's encouraged: A lot of sand and silt - especially from two large flash-flood deposits at the mouths of the Paria and Little Colorado rivers - was definitely stirred up and redeposited on beaches. He notes, however, that they won't know for months how stable the new deposits are. Or whether they will help the endangered warm-water fish species that need warm backwater pools for breeding.
The test flow was not large enough to do some things they'd hoped it might: It did not wash out any of the exotic tamarisk that is edging out a lot of the native diversity, and it was not large enough to wash any of the non-native fish that are not flood-adapted out of the canyons. On the other hand, it also did not do any significant damage to the non-native trout fishery which is popular with fishermen, and it did not disrupt the "algae factory" that feeds the canyon's life.
But all those very explicit scientific objectives notwithstanding, the flood of 1996 achieved something else that may be very important in the unfolding story of our involvement with the river - and of the dam that stands in the middle of the story: For a change, virtually everyone at the dam and below was doing science, rather than just using science to do religion.
For the week of the flood - and for weeks, even months before and after - more than 150 hydrologists, biologists, geologists and other earth scientists convened to spread out through the 250 miles of the Grand Canyon below the dam in 10 base camps, interconnected by satellite links and supplied by helicopter. More scientists on rafts rode the wave of the flood through the canyons. The last I saw of Wegner, he was leading a class of Northern Arizona University graduate students down into the canyon to help with the sampling and measuring that was going on everywhere. Not only had 10 fish been fitted with radio transmitters to see how they negotiated the flood - 10 rocks had been fitted with radio transmitters to see how far the water might roll them.
According to one scientist, "It was the hydrological event of the century." "It was a media circus," another said. But what it might really have been, in the larger historical picture, was a changing of the guard, at least on that part of the river: science replacing the oldtime religion as the management imperative. And everyone, including the BuRec managers of the dam, seemed to be responding with unfaked interest. Technology was very much there, but serving science rather than religion, from the radio transmitters in the rocks all the way up to that largest technological device of all: the dam.
George Sibley teaches journalism at Western State College in Gunnison, Colorado, where he is also developing a regional studies program. He has spent most of the past 30 years in the Upper Basin of the Colorado River.