Water Over the Dam

Dave Wegner's career with the Bureau of Reclamation seemed to be at peak flow. He had no idea it was about to run dry.

A year ago this week, on March 26, 1996, Dave Wegner and Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt were standing at the base of Glen Canyon Dam, giving simultaneous interviews with competing national morning TV news shows, shouting over the roar of the torrent that rocketed 100 yards out of the dam's bypass tubes before it fell into the Colorado River below.

Wegner, 45, resembles the late hippie-laureate poet Richard Brautigan: long and lanky, with shaggy blond hair and a brush of a mustache, round wire-rimmed glasses over a weather-beaten face. He's got the straightahead earnestness of a scientist and the lolling twang of a river runner. In a sense, he's both.

As manager of the Bureau of Reclamation's Glen Canyon Environmental Studies, Wegner had spent 14 years scientifically wandering the Grand Canyon, trying to catalogue the damage wreaked on the world's most famous park by the dam just upstream. The Grand Canyon Protection Act of 1992 came directly out of his research. And the team he managed changed the way the dam's hydroelectric plant does business, restricting the high and low flows that washed away the canyon's beaches.

The much-ballyhooed flood was planned by Glen Canyon Environmental Studies, or GCES, as an experiment to see if a simulated spring flood could scour sediment from the bottom of the river and redeposit it on the banks to create beaches and backwaters for river runners and other canyon critters. The first water ever spilled intentionally from a federal dam, it would run for 10 days, lowering Lake Powell by three and a half feet.

Just the day before, Wegner and Babbitt had floated with three rafts full of reporters and government muckamucks for the 16 miles from the dam down to Lees Ferry, a historic river crossing. Then, when the reporters scurried off to file their stories, Babbitt took Wegner aside, saying "We need to go talk," and the two strolled through the cemetery where the ferry's founders are buried. Wegner might have taken the location as an omen.

Even though he knew more about the Grand Canyon than any other scientist alive, Wegner had already been excluded from the monitoring team that would take over the watch in the Grand Canyon. Wegner was annoyed at first, but then had been assured that the Secretary had bigger plans for him, which were reiterated, Wegner claims, during the cemetery chat.

"He asked that I please make an effort to help the new organization get started," Wegner says. "But my impression in talking to him was that if we did this, we would be allowed to market [GCES] as an entity to take what we learned and apply it elsewhere. We had been given guidance, not only from Secretary Babbitt, but from the Denver office [of Reclamation], as well, to take a year and see if we could make it on our own as a consultant within the Bureau of Reclamation."

And indeed that thinking fit in with Babbitt's election-year set-piece speech about the big gush: Take the technology and apply it elsewhere, to the Everglades, to the Columbia River, and elsewhere on the Colorado. Wegner assumed he'd be a player in that application.

And so did others. Duncan Patten, who recently retired from ASU, was senior scientist on the Grand Canyon research, and he talked with the Secretary on the day of the flood.

"When Babbitt opened the bypass tubes, I went up to him and thanked him for being there," Patten says. "The first thing that came to his mind was, 'You know, we've got to do something with Dave's group. We've got to find something for them.'"

But by late summer, it became clear that that was not to be, despite the good work done, despite the great public relations coup that the flood had provided for Babbitt, and, by association, for President Clinton. The media painted the event as "fixing" the Grand Canyon, as if a week's worth of water could undo the ravages of 30 years. And they depicted Babbitt as the best thing for environmentalists since Birkenstock sandals.

Wegner had the support of environmentalists.
"He does not match the typical profile of the Bureau of Reclamation employee," says Rob Smith of the Sierra Club. "Most of us expect a burr-cut engineer. He was a passionate biologist who really cared about the Grand Canyon and who really wanted people to know as much as possible about what was happening."

He had the grudging respect of the power industry, too, even though his research had forced it to scale back its generating capacity.

"I think he was a worthy adversary," says Joe Hunter, executive director of the Colorado River Energy Distributors Association. "People unfairly viewed Dave as being 'on the other side.'"

Barry Wirth, a Bureau of Reclamation spokesman, says, "Dave had a very strong view of the Grand Canyon and its role in the world ecosystem, and he worked passionately for it. He was at the forefront of an effort to move the agency into a far more environmentally sensitive operation than it had been."

And he had friends in high places, not just Babbitt, but California congressman George Miller, and former Reclamation commissioner Dan Beard, as well. None of them could save him.

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