Lessons for the Colorado

  • BUOYANT: David Wegner and Richard Ingebretsen on the Colorado River

    photo courtesy Glen Canyon Institute

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

The power of place worked wonders in the fight to fund Elwha restoration. When visiting congressmen were taken to the old dam, they saw the few remaining salmon rolling in the waters below, and they made a connection that no amount of beltway lobbying could have achieved.

Glen Canyon Institute founder Richard Ingebretsen is using the power of place in his efforts to decommission Glen Canyon Dam and restore the Colorado River. Every year he and Institute science director Dave Wegner organize a river trip from Moab to Hite, so that people can see a still-living portion of the Colorado.

He brings together water lawyers, agency staffers, river rats, powerboaters, children and elders, allowing people to discover this place together and to discuss the science, policy and law that have made it what it is. Invariably, a few skeptics on these trips come to believe that an undammed river is worth more than houseboating on Lake Powell.

I joined the most recent trip on Labor Day weekend, hoping to understand how far the movement has come, and what the Elwha story might mean for these activists.

On the last night of the trip, while cold moonlight creeps across the walls of Cataract Canyon, Ingebretsen tells the story of how a living river and a hauntingly beautiful canyon were drowned. He argues that the damage didn't stop with the submersion of Glen Canyon.

"Below the dam, the Grand Canyon has been altered, and the Colorado River Delta is dying. All the tributaries above the dam will fill up with silt. Eventually, Lake Powell itself will be destroyed."

Ingebretsen wants us to see what he sees: that sediment is the real law of the river. For centuries, the river measured time in the desert, as it moved sediment from the canyons of the Colorado Plateau to the delta in the Gulf of California. But what would have been delta now fills the canyons below Cataract Canyon, at the bottom of Lake Powell.

In the morning, the river is red, as if to remind us that the wet hourglass of the Colorado is still keeping time. But later, floating on the still, startling blue of Lake Powell, it's easy to forget that there is a river here at all. As we putter along, a Jet Skier runs circles around our six lashed-together rafts. Time almost stands still.

The scale of Glen Canyon Dam dwarfs the Elwha. The Elwha had few players, a charismatic fish and a few megawatts of power for one company. Activists on the Elwha also had legal clout to drive other stakeholders to the bargaining table.

But where the Elwha story is discrete, and economic interests few and small, the pieces of the Glen Canyon Dam puzzle are immense and scattered across seven states.

Lake Powell, 186 miles long, holds two years' flow of the Colorado River. Without it, the lower basin states of Nevada, Arizona and California could force Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico to stop using water in dry years. As part of the Colorado River Compact of 1922, these upper basin states must guarantee flows to the downstream states. Lake Powell also generates some $350 million annually in recreation, and hydropower from Glen Canyon Dam can pump 1,340 megawatts into the Western power grid (HCN, 11/10/97: Drain Lake Powell? Democracy and science finally come West).

If this isn't enough, new dependencies are in the works - communities in southern Utah and northern Arizona are pushing for reservoir water for their thirsty developments.

It's unclear how Ingebretsen and Wegner could ever force these enormous economic interests and different groups of stakeholders to the table. I ask Tom Jensen, the Senate lawyer who helped build consensus on the Elwha, if he's thought about the odds.

"It's going to be a very heavy lift for them," he tells me. "Regardless of whether they are right or wrong, a successful advocacy for a change of that magnitude is very difficult in our system of government, because the burden of proof falls upon the proponents of reform. They need to persuade the majority of the stakeholders that removing the dam and its associated resources is in the collective interest."

But Jensen also recalls that in the 1960s and 1970s, taking out the Elwha dams was equally inconceivable. Social and political changes created opportunities, and strategists jumped at the chance to drive reform.

That's what Ingebretsen, Wegner, and a growing number of believers have on their side: Even on the Colorado, with Hoover, Glen Canyon, and other dams in place, time is slowed but not stopped. Charismatic leaders, new strategies, and social change may eventually uncover some small crack or hole in the political structure that holds up Glen Canyon Dam. The wedge may be one, or a combination of legal, scientific or political arguments. Only the fullness of time will reveal whether activists can succeed before the river's sediment does the work for them.

And though Ingebretsen and Wegner are still grasping for that wedge, they carry an idea that's as exciting as building a great reservoir in the desert was 50 years ago. Dave Wegner seems to know this in his bones.

"Restoring Glen Canyon will take years because of its size and its political importance," he says. "Does that mean we shouldn't try? Absolutely not. It's for those very reasons that we must move forward."

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