The dam complicates everything

  Dear HCN,


The jet tubes of Glen Canyon Dam have been opened, the dye dumped, the posturing of politicians and politician-scientists is over. As I write this, a bunch of real scientists are down in Grand Canyon poking, prodding and monitoring the Colorado, its beaches and residents to determine if this "flood" will restore a semblance of balance to the Grand Canyon's tattered ecosystems.


As a resident of Marble Canyon, a Grand Canyon boatman and a fishing guide in the 15 remaining miles of Glen Canyon below the dam, I have watched the entire carnival this week.


A few things have become clear.


First, this event will not be allowed to fail. Watching news reports, it dawned on me that our head of the Department of the Interior, the head of the Glen Canyon Environmental Studies and members of the Grand Canyon Trust were not talking about this event as a test, which it is, but were referring to it definitively as "what we need to restore the ecosystems in Grand Canyon." The "flood" waters hadn't even reached Lake Mead and the thing is a success.


The arrogance of these guys is astounding, but understandable when you observe the ludicrousness of the arena in which they operate. Go to an ecosystem drastically altered by a dam in 1963 and on which there is no data on virtually any component of the system prior to the alteration. Decide what it was like pre-dam and then operate a dam to satisfy the requirements of that prior ecosystem, even though any remaining pre-dam species and systems have been adapting for 30 years to the new regime.


Second, we are throwing Glen Canyon to the wolves for the second time in 30 years. This 15-mile stretch of river supports a world-class tailwater trout fishery and is the most accessible and therefore utilized portion of the canyonlands below Glen Canyon Dam. But there are no scientists monitoring impacts here this week, to watch sand banks and vegetation wash away, to monitor armoring of the river bottom or displacement of newly hatched trout fry. Those in charge do not really want to hear what goes on in this reach, because they know these floods could possibly trash it. There is no sediment bank in deep water to be redeposited, the remaining beaches in this reach are heading for Lake Mead. No humpback chubs either, only a bunch of lousy introduced trout that support a fishery valued at an estimated $4 million-$5 million annually and provide a recreational opportunity that cannot be quantified in dollars and cents.


The entire enterprise is incredibly complex. We have worked our way into a corner where the environmental bad guy is no longer so easy to spot. To what degree do you attempt to mitigate an environmental disaster such as Glen Canyon Dam? Because of the dam we have trout which provide food for eagles which have changed migration patterns to take advantage of this easy food source. We have a river producing 47 species of midges that provide food for native and non-native species alike. These benefits and others are jeopardized by manipulations designed to benefit other aspects, in this instance redepositing beaches in Grand Canyon, improving habitat for native fish and employing scientists.


The concept is wonderful: Technology and the environment waltzing hand-in-hand into the sunset. But don't be fooled, it is also a dangerous concept. This "you can have your cake and eat it too" attitude smacks of the same kind of arrogance and disregard for the environment that allowed the building of Glen Canyon dam in the first place.





Dave Foster


Marble Canyon, Arizona


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