Looking at dams in a new way

  • Exercise in Power: Hoover Dam

    Michael Collier photo, US Geological Survey
  • The upper Salt River in central Arizona

    Michael Collier photo, USGS
  • Tom Knudson, tw

    ime Pulitzer Prize winner

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 book.

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.

Survey 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 Survey.

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 downstream.

"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 its reservoir."

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 it.

"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 option.

"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 "acknowledgements' section.

"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 critical paragraph.

"Moreover, 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.

But that 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, government soil?

Months later, I would track down the answers from Collier, a family practice physician in Flagstaff, and Webb, a Survey hydrologist in Tucson.

"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 Collier's.

"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 my life."

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 prose.

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 government science.

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 bureaucrat.

"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 different.

"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."

Outside government, though, reaction has been different. Dams and Rivers has hardly been noticed.

"The Survey 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 heard.

"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.

"The golden 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 me.

"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 canyon.

"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 Rivers.

"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 shared.

"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 80225.

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