Deciding what kind of river we want

  • Jack Schmidt maps sand deposits on banks of Colorado River

    Barbara Rusmore

Note: This article is a sidebar to one of this issue's feature stories: Glen Canyon: Using a dam to heal a river

It is too early to predict whether the river now will be run in peace and harmony. The Glen Canyon environmental impact statement recommends to the secretary of the Interior that an "Adaptive Management Program" run the dam. That means "we do not pretend to know exactly what will work to maintain and enhance the environmental and recreational quality of the canyons, so we will keep trying out ideas until we figure it out." This is surprisingly honest; it is good science. It is going to drive crazy the bureaucrats and politicians and all others who "just want to know what the hell we're supposed to be doing!'

This kind of management is bound to require more patience, altruism and humor than we usually see in our public affairs. And as if just the process itself were not complex enough, there is at least one more significant complexity to consider: the need to determine what kind of river we want.

In a recent essay for Currents, the journal of the National Organization for Rivers, canyon hydrologist Jack Schmidt of Utah State University outlined some of the trade-offs. One choice is "managing the river as the cold, clear, "naturalized" and biologically diverse place that it is now," with a "blue-ribbon trout fishery that attracts anglers from throughout the world." This is a river with smaller sandbars and beaches but with more flourishing plant, bird and animal ecologies due to the absence of the annual flood flows.

The other choice is to attempt to "return the river corridor toward the pre-dam condition," necessitating larger floods to "build more abundant and larger high-elevation sandbars' scoured of exotic streamside vegetation. To really do this, Schmidt says, especially if we want to help the endangered warm-water fish, we may have to ultimately invest in more technology, from temperature modification (by pulling water from nearer the surface of the reservoir), to huge slurry pipelines or railroads to transport large quantities of beach-building sediment past the dam. This would be very expensive but would permit "wider ranges in daily fluctuations for peaking power, and thereby generate more revenue."

Scientists, Schmidt concludes, cannot decide such value-laden issues. Value-laden issues, in fact, tend to lead back toward religion - the church of "man shall have dominion," which favors a blue-ribbon trout fishery over a river full of chubs and suckers, vs. the church of biocentrism, which gives the razorback sucker equality with an engineer.

John Wesley Powell would have loved these attempts to decide what the Colorado River should become, and how to nudge it in the desired direction. But he might have also agreed with the chairman of the canyon-dwelling Hualapai Indians, who saw it as a typical white-man situation: trying to figure out how to live with something that it might have been better to have learned to live without in the first place.

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