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.

GCES was closed down anyway, and the Bureau has transferred much of its staff to the new Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center. Wegner was offered a transfer to California.

The bureaucrats at Reclamation and Interior view the personnel shuffle as standard operating procedure, just more water over the dam.

"Just because they had built one of the finest projects didn't guarantee that they'd have a job waiting for them," Wirth continues. Besides, "There isn't another Grand Canyon to move to that will be that kind of high-profile job."

Nor even a place at the existing Grand Canyon.
"He has an incredible gift for being an advocate," says Dan Beard, who left the commissioner's job in August 1995 to become vice president of the National Audubon Society, "and yet the Department of Interior or the Bureau of Reclamation let it all go away and no one knows why."

And no one will admit making the decision.
Paul Bledsoe, a spokesman for Secretary Babbitt, when asked repeatedly about the decision to close GCES and transfer Wegner, would only say, "I'm not going to get into that issue."

Wegner resigned from the Bureau, effective last December 31.
He was angered over Babbitt's immediately touting the flood as a scientific success, when in reality it would take years to calculate the effects on fish and fauna. In fact, this spring's high water flows are already undoing the riparian repair, he says.

He mouthed off to the press before he resigned. He refused to travel to Phoenix in October to stand on the dais next to Babbitt at the Desert Botanical Garden to gush over the big flood.

"When I found out that the intent was to close down the [GCES] office here in Flagstaff, that to me indicated that there really wasn't the support to take what we had been spending all this hard time and effort and money on and applying it elsewhere," he says.

The sour grapes, perhaps, clouded his judgment, because the Bureau, in fact, offered him a chance to apply his skills elsewhere, as project manager of a restoration project on the San Joaquin River in California, working with the respected environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council.

He turned it down in a huff and instead tendered his resignation.
As one career government scientist said with a shrug and a sigh, "The Grand Canyon does things to people."

Dave Wegner was sent to the Grand Canyon to fail, and then screwed up by succeeding.

In 1982, he was a junior scientist for the Bureau at Salt Lake City, with two small sons, a bachelor's degree in aquatic ecology and a brand-new master's degree in environmental engineering. In short, not the man to take on a major project at a politically unpopular dam site.

Nonetheless, he was called to Washington, D.C., and ushered into the office of then-secretary of the Interior James Watt.

Watt looked him over, as Wegner recalls, and said, "You're the guy who's going to keep me out of trouble with the environmentalists. Just go down there, keep them quiet so we can continue to do the job of government in the Department of the Interior."

Glen Canyon Dam, just outside Page, Arizona, on the Utah border, has been the subject of many environmental and political battles. It was authorized by Congress in 1956 as part of the Colorado River Storage Act. The Colorado River Compact of 1922 had split the Colorado River water evenly in two, with half the water allocated to the upper basin states of Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico and Colorado, and the other half allocated to lower-basin Arizona, Nevada and California. Glen Canyon Dam was supposed to ensure that the upper states of the Colorado River Basin would actually get their water (which they have never used). As a secondary consideration, the dam would provide peaking power; when electricity was in high demand in the West because everyone was turning on an air conditioner, the Bureau could open the tap and fire up the turbines to meet the extra power needs. And furthermore, the new dam would extend the life of Hoover Dam downstream by catching the majority of the river's prodigious sediment load.

But there was no consideration done of the effects downstream. The National Environmental Policy Act was signed into law by Richard Nixon in 1970, mandating environmental impact statements before such construction can begin. All but one of the major federal dams on the Colorado had already been built before that time.

Glen Canyon Dam was completed in 1963 and by 1964 had enough water in it to start cranking out voltage. Glen Canyon, which it inundated, became a watery memory and a shimmering literary voyage.

Edward Abbey floated the doomed canyon for his book Desert Solitaire, finding it obscene that the resultant lake would be named after John Wesley Powell, the first explorer to navigate the length of the Colorado River. He fantasized about "some unknown hero with a rucksack full of dynamite strapped to his back" who would blow it up. "The splendid new rapids thus created we will name Floyd E. Dominy Falls, in honor of the chief of the Reclamation Bureau," he wrote.

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