Rearranging Deck Chairs at Glen Canyon Dam


The experimental flood releases last month from Glen Canyon Dam was merely another public relations façade staged by the Department of the Interior believing three times is a charm. Luck is not how one restores the Grand Canyon.

The first media hoopla was in 1996, then again in 2004, and now in 2008. Twelve years, three experimental floods, same results: a degraded ecosystem for this prized national park.

These experiments do nothing but rearrange the furniture and most of the shuffling occurs in Marble Canyon, which is the first 52 miles of Grand Canyon National Park.

What were the beaches like in Marble Canyon before Glen Canyon Dam? According to the USGS, as reported at the Technical Work Group meeting on April 8, 2008, the total storage of sand in Marble Canyon prior to the dam was 16,000,000 metric tons. All that is left today is 2,600,000 metric tons.Between the passage of the Grand Canyon Protection Act in 1992 and the 2008 experimental flood, 6,000,000 metric tons have been removed from Marble Canyon.

The odds are clearly against the players.

Even if Interior operated the dam with the sole intent of just rebuilding the beach and habitat conditions that existed in 1992, it would take 40 to 45 years to achieve the goal.

Why is this charade tolerated? Why does Interior continue to stage farcical media sensations instead of providing results that are tangible and real?

The scientists explained in 2005 that the sand replenishment hypothesis from the 1995 EIS is flawed. The scientists recommended that mechanical sediment augmentation may need to be implemented afterall. Mechanical sediment augmentation is physically extracting sediment that is currently being stored in the reservoir, Lake Powell.

A system of dredges and pipelines would need to be funded and built to pump a slurry of sediment into the river below Glen Canyon Dam or 15 miles downstream at Lees Ferry.

If not a slurry pipeline, the alternative would be 500 trucks a day hauling sediment over roads.It is clear: there will never be enough sediment for the ecosystem until different applications are seriously examined. Namely, mechanical sediment augmentation and restoring a free-flowing river through Grand Canyon by dismantling Glen Canyon Dam.Before the big dams of the upper Colorado River basin were built, the total annual amount of suspended sediment in the river from 1925 to 1940 was 195 million tons.

Scientists noted how a change in climate patterns (the intensity of summer storms have decreased overall) occurred around 1940. From 1941 to 1957, the annual sediment load in the river dropped to 85 million tons. After the upper Colorado RIver basin dams were completed the flow of sediment that enters Lake Powell is now 44 million tons annually.

Very few people have seen Cataract Canyon above Lake Powell. Those who have, like myself, will tell you how the sediment passing through Cataract Canyon creates ample beaches and sandbars every year. And, yes, Cataract Canyon has endangered species too, but at least they are not extirpated (regionally extinct) as they are in Grand Canyon. Scientists are not studying Cataract Canyon sediment dynamics at all, even though the National Research Council has advised they do.

Meanwhile, behind the curtain of these staged events, Interior continues their bureaucratic stalling, obstructionism, lying to the public, and wasting their revenues on useless programs. No different than a polluter paying the fine, instead of correcting the problem.

John Weisheit, the Colorado Riverkeeper, is director of Living Rivers. He can be reached at: john@livingrivers.org

This article originally appeared in On the Colorado.


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