Grand Canyon flood postponed

  • Fluctuating flows have damaged beaches in the Grand Canyon

    Dugald Bremner

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, The fight for Reclamation.

Biologists and Colorado River raft guides alike thought it was a sure thing: For one week in the spring of 1995, floodwaters from Glen Canyon Dam would roar through the Grand Canyon as they hadn't since the high water summer of 1984.

The raging waters would scour 225 miles of river bed, lifting beach sand and redepositing it on the depleted beaches downstream. The new beaches would buffer Anasazi ruins along the river corridor and the high water would improve spawning habitat for native fish - replicating the flood environment in which they evolved.

But the Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that built and now manages the dam, recently pulled the plug on the one-week flood proposed for sometime in April.

The agency says it needs more time to study the effects of the "beach habitat-building" flows on the dam and the environment. This decision reverses the recommendation of its draft environmental impact statement on the operation of the Glen Canyon Dam.

"The flow is still on the books," insists BuRec spokesman Barry Wirth. "It's delayed, not scuttled."

But conservationists worry that BuRec is capitulating to hydropower interests that stand to lose revenue if the experimental flood proceeds. The delay may also signal years of legal disputes over the issue.

"I hope this isn't the final stamp of disapproval," says Cameron Staveley, a field manager with Arizona Raft Adventures. Rafters and several other conservation groups, including the Grand Canyon Trust, urged the agency to reschedule the flows for later this year. BuRec, however, says the flows must happen in the spring to reduce impact on fisheries below the dam, which sidelines the research until at least spring 1996.

The Western Area Power Administration, marketer of the dam's power, isn't sure the weeklong test is worthwhile, anytime. WAPA, which sells the electricity to various grids serving cities in the West, has not publicly opposed the flood flows, but "questions the value of such a test flow when compared to its high cost," says spokesman Eric Wright.

WAPA estimates that the weeklong higher flows, which must in part bypass the hydropower turbines, would cost the company about $4.5 million in lost revenue. A more vocal opponent of the plan is the Upper Colorado River Commission, representing four states with Colorado River entitlements in the upper basin.

Commission Director Wayne Cook says the issue is the precedent-setting nature of the flood release, not the lost revenue. Cook says the Commission fears that similar situations will arise in the future if the Bureau simply declares a need to bypass hydropower turbines solely for research purposes.

In any case, Cook says, BuRec can't legally allow water to exit the dam without generating hydropower unless it's an emergency.

"Reclamation's operating criteria absolutely prohibit such a thing," according to Cook. He says hydropower generated by the dam must pay back taxpayers for money that the federal government borrowed to build other water projects.

In response to the River Commission's challenge - and in anticipation of a potential lawsuit - BuRec has asked the Interior Department's Solicitor General, John Leshy, to rule on the legality of bypassing the turbines in this one instance. Wirth says BuRec's lawyers believe the turbines can legally be bypassed. Leshy has yet to issue an opinion.

Most conservationists consider BuRec's delay a smokescreen. They maintain that its soon-to-be-released EIS, which already contains provisions for spring high-water research flows, gives BuRec authority to proceed with the flood.

"Power interests are afraid of losing control of the river. That's what is at stake here," says Rob Smith of the Southwest office of the Sierra Club. "The river has always been controlled for water and power interests, but the water belongs to us, the public. Even the power generated belongs to us."

Conservationists are frustrated with the delay because damage to the Canyon has been so long in the making and a solution seemed close at hand. Since the mid-1960s, boaters and guides have raised the alarm about disappearing beaches and shrinking habitat.

Their concerns finally received scientific confirmation in 1989 when a BuRec study found that the clear, sediment-free waters emerging from the dam were indeed crumbling beaches along the Grand Canyon corridor. Much of that eroded sand has collected underwater, on the river bed itself. The study also found that the clear water and its cold temperature threatens native fish, which prefer warm, silty water that floods in the spring and trickles in the winter.

Based on the findings and increasing public pressure to slow beach erosion, former Secretary of the Interior Manuel Lujan ordered interim flow regulations in August 1991 (HCN, 8/26/91). The measure decreased beach erosion but failed to rebuild beaches, which is why the Bureau included an experimental beach-building flood in its EIS.

To Shane Murphy, director of Grand Canyon River Guides, the delay is maddening. "Politics don't have any place in this issue," he says. "Flood flows used to happen every year." For this year, however, it appears that politics will continue to prevent the Colorado River from healing itself.

For more information, or a copy of the three-volume EIS, contact the Bureau of Reclamation, Colorado River Studies Office, 125 S. State St., Room 6107, Salt Lake City, UT 84138-1102 (801/524-4099).

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