Sierra Club moves to fortify its 'drain Lake Powell' campaign

  • Pull the plug?: Lake Powell

    Jack McClellan photo

The only people who love the idea of draining Lake Powell more than Sierra Club board member and former executive director David Brower are in the West's congressional delegation.

They jumped on the idea with glee, holding a House hearing in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 23, issuing press releases, and generating hundreds of letters to the editor and more than a few "moderate" editorials asking if environmentalists had lost their heads, or at least their sense of priorities. Competition to say bad things about the drain-Powell idea was so intense that two House committees joined to hold the hearing.

Typical of the comments at the hearing was one from Colorado Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R, who went all the way over to the House to say, "This is a certifiably nutty idea." And Ted Stewart, head of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, said, "It is irresponsible to make such a proposal without having done the work necessary to answer the vital questions on how the major impacts on citizens' will be mitigated.

It turns out that the Sierra Club itself, a bottom-up organization driven by 600,000 members to a remarkable degree, quietly agrees with Stewart. The November 1996 decision by the group's board to seek the draining of Lake Powell violated the club's policy that major decisions should start at the ground and work their way up. The board's decision was an emotional one, prompted by Brower and passed after a brief discussion.

Now the Sierra Club is attempting to build a floor under that vote by appointing a Colorado River Task Force, made up of Sierra Club members from six of the seven Colorado River Basin states (the New Mexico chapter declined to send a representative) and two at-large members.

Chairman Steve Glazer of Crested Butte, Colo., said the task force's "goals are defined more broadly than just the draining of Lake Powell. This is an opportunity for the Sierra Club to develop a watershed approach to management of the Colorado River." Glazer said the idea originated with him: "Since the board deviated from its normal policy-making process, I requested formation of this task force."

Meanwhile, fallout from the drain-Powell campaign unsettled the club's Utah state chapter. Chapter chairwoman Ann Wechsler of Salt Lake City said, "The timing for the proposal was bad. We have a lot of issues we're dealing with - a new highway for the Wasatch Front, clean air, and, of course, a Utah wilderness bill. But we're not being distracted from our agenda by this (Lake Powell) proposal."

For Richard Ingebertsen, the agenda is the draining of Lake Powell. Ingebertsen, an M.D. and physicist, heads the tiny Glen Canyon Institute, a group of scientists and public-policy types who voted to study draining Lake Powell a month before the Sierra Club made its vote.

Now, Ingebertsen said, his group will spend $350,000 to study the proposal. But it won't be just another study, he said. It will be an environmental assessment, carried out under the National Environmental Policy Act, and the report will be submitted for approval to the Council on Environmental Quality, the federal body that oversees environmental assessments and environmental impact statements. Ingebertsen said, "The CEQ thinks this is the first environmental assessment to be done by citizens."

He won't say which foundations will fund the study, but he said the interest is both national and international. "A lot of people are especially concerned about the reservoir's influence on the Sea of Cortez," and that is attracting international funding.

The study will be shepherded by David Wegner, who spent 16 years directing an immense examination of Glen Canyon Dam's impacts on the Grand Canyon for the Bureau of Reclamation. Ingebertsen said that initially it appeared that the flooding of the Grand Canyon (HCN, 7/22/96) had restored the ecosystem. But then the new beaches and plants were swept away, he said, and it became clear that the flooding hadn't helped. "So we decided that we needed to study draining Lake Powell. And since the federal government won't do that study, we're going to do it."

*Ed Marston, HCN publisher

You can ...

* Call Steve Glazer of the Sierra Club Colorado River Task Force, 970/349-6646; or,

* Call Richard Ingebertsen of the Glen Canyon Institute, 801/322-3979. The institute also has an informative Web site, complete with a copy of the 1922 Colorado River Compact, at

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