by George Sibley
It is too early to predict whether the river
now will be run in peace and harmony. The Glen Canyon environmental
impact statement recommends to the secretary of the Interior that
an "Adaptive Management Program" run the dam. That means "we do not
pretend to know exactly what will work to maintain and enhance the
environmental and recreational quality of the canyons, so we will
keep trying out ideas until we figure it out." This is surprisingly
honest; it is good science. It is going to drive crazy the
bureaucrats and politicians and all others who "just want to know
what the hell we're supposed to be doing!'
kind of management is bound to require more patience, altruism and
humor than we usually see in our public affairs. And as if just the
process itself were not complex enough, there is at least one more
significant complexity to consider: the need to determine what kind
of river we want.
In a recent essay for
Currents, the journal of the National Organization for Rivers,
canyon hydrologist Jack Schmidt of Utah State University outlined
some of the trade-offs. One choice is "managing the river as the
cold, clear, "naturalized" and biologically diverse place that it
is now," with a "blue-ribbon trout fishery that attracts anglers
from throughout the world." This is a river with smaller sandbars
and beaches but with more flourishing plant, bird and animal
ecologies due to the absence of the annual flood flows.
The other choice is to attempt to "return the
river corridor toward the pre-dam condition," necessitating larger
floods to "build more abundant and larger high-elevation sandbars'
scoured of exotic streamside vegetation. To really do this, Schmidt
says, especially if we want to help the endangered warm-water fish,
we may have to ultimately invest in more technology, from
temperature modification (by pulling water from nearer the surface
of the reservoir), to huge slurry pipelines or railroads to
transport large quantities of beach-building sediment past the dam.
This would be very expensive but would permit "wider ranges in
daily fluctuations for peaking power, and thereby generate more
Scientists, Schmidt concludes, cannot
decide such value-laden issues. Value-laden issues, in fact, tend
to lead back toward religion - the church of "man shall have
dominion," which favors a blue-ribbon trout fishery over a river
full of chubs and suckers, vs. the church of biocentrism, which
gives the razorback sucker equality with an engineer.
John Wesley Powell would have loved these
attempts to decide what the Colorado River should become, and how
to nudge it in the desired direction. But he might have also agreed
with the chairman of the canyon-dwelling Hualapai Indians, who saw
it as a typical white-man situation: trying to figure out how to
live with something that it might have been better to have learned
to live without in the first place.