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.

John McPhee actually put Floyd Dominy, then commissioner of Reclamation, and David Brower, who had recently been ousted as head of the Sierra Club, into a raft and let them argue about dams in general and Glen Canyon Dam in particular the length of the Grand Canyon for his book Encounters With the Archdruid.

Brower had fought viciously against several dams that Reclamation wanted to build along the Colorado and its tributaries, and he had been largely successful--until the Sierra Club balked when he tried to extend his winning streak to Glen Canyon. Brower and the Sierra Club parted company on that note.

McPhee called Glen Canyon "one of the two or three remotest places in the United States." Brower called it "the place no one knew."

Furthermore, Brower argued, its hydrology was faulty.
And in fact, to prove him right, in 1983, the flooding river damn near cut itself a new course. To keep the river from overtopping the dam, Reclamation custodians opened the diversion tunnels that served as spillways, long drains dug through the canyon walls to the river beyond the dam. The suddenly raging flow tore through the concrete of the tunnels and began to eat away the sandstone, threatening the dam's very foundations. Brower thinks the same could happen in the near future and is still preaching the merits of draining Lake Powell before it drains itself.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, as James Watt was busy stepping up logging in the national forests and otherwise boosting productivity in the Garden of Eden, he turned his attentions to Glen Canyon Dam. Watt wanted to add new generators to boost hydroelectric capacity--which unleashed a buzz saw of public protest. Environmentalists did not want to further change the canyon below, and they threatened lawsuits and mayhem.

In one memorable event, Dave Foreman and his nascent Earth First! cohorts bought 300 feet of black plastic tape at a Babbitt's department store in Flagstaff and unfurled it from the top of the dam; from below it looked as if there were a giant crack descending the front of the dam.

Watt backed away from the new generators. But the dam was now 20 years old and needed general maintenance, and even that work required National Environmental Policy Act compliance. And that's where Dave Wegner floated in.

"Watt had given us very clear marching orders," Wegner recalls. "This was not to be an EIS [environmental impact statement]. We were not to come up with conclusions of how reclamation should change the operation of the dam."

Instead, Wegner and the contract scientists he hired were to see if what the river runners and environmentalists were saying--that the beaches and the fish were disappearing--was true, and then, if it were, to figure out what had to be done under the law.

Wegner did the first studies alone, and then, as years rolled on, he was able to hire grad students from Northern Arizona University and get funding for bureau and other agency personnel. Wegner's earliest observations did not match Watt's pipe dreams. Dam operations were going to have to change.

He published his findings in 1988.
"Colorado" means "colored red," and the river takes its name and its color from the red sandstone that it washes through. Early Mormon settlers to the area said the river was "too thin to plow, too thick to drink." The sediment replenished the beaches and created the eddies where the native fish lived, but it was all being stopped by the dam. "Running the dam like a toilet," as Bruce Babbitt later described it, was flushing away all the existing beaches downstream. And what water flowed out of the turbines was clear. And cold.

The pre-dam Colorado would warm to 80 degrees in the summertime when the native fish spawned. The water issuing from the turbines came from 248 feet deep in Lake Powell and spewed forth at a constant 48 to 54 degrees year-round. The clear water and 30-degree temperature drop made for an excellent trout fishery right below the dam, but it virtually wiped out the native fish.

"There were four species of endangered fish that existed in the canyon before they closed the gates of the dam," says Wegner. "Of those four, two were gone immediately--the bonytail chub and the Colorado squawfish. There are a few razorback suckers left." And, apparently, some humpback chubs as well, living in the warmer waters at the mouths of the few tributaries running into the river downstream from the dam.

Wegner's findings created a political stir. The National Academy of Sciences reviewed his research and found it essentially sound; the academy even held a symposium on the topic.

Congressman George Miller of California seized on the report, and he and Senator John McCain of Arizona began in 1989 to force the Grand Canyon Protection Act through Congress. It did not pass until 1992.

Meanwhile, the Bureau of Reclamation decided to set in motion the administrative process that is known as an environmental impact statement, or EIS. The final passage of the Grand Canyon Protection Act cemented the timetable for the EIS.

Although the preparation of the actual legal document would come from elsewhere in Reclamation, Glen Canyon Environmental Studies, with Wegner at its helm, would navigate the flow of science that would dictate policy. His staff had swelled to 35, both contract workers and government employees from a number of agencies; Wegner himself had little time to go out in the field, instead staying in Flagstaff at the GCES offices to manage operations.

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