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.

At first GCES was given an improbable 24 months to do its work, to experiment with releases from the dam and gather its data. Two years then grew into five years, and Wegner, who had grown into a very vocal environmental advocate doing things his own way, was falling from favor with the Bureau.

"They were trying to fire him for years," says Rob Smith of the Sierra Club. "He was doing things that were revolutionary inside the Bureau. Typically, the Bureau came from a culture of building new dams and managing water projects and having a cozy relationship with water and power users and, I think, saw the environmental community as a problem."

But Wegner had strong supporters in Congressman Miller and Secretary Babbitt and in then-Reclamation commissioner Dan Beard, who came from Miller's staff and was actively trying to shift the Bureau away from building dams and toward environmentally managing the water projects it already had. It would have been difficult to drown Wegner without making waves in Washington. And so hard feelings lurked just below the surface.

The Glen Canyon EIS was not only the first undertaking of its kind, it was expensive. The final tally came to about $70 million (of which $39 million is attributable to GCES), and perhaps more when the lost generating capacity is factored in.

Not everyone was convinced that the money was being spent wisely.
"Every year, Glen Canyon Environmental Studies would simply get a whole lot of proposals and then they'd fund them without any clear goal of what they were looking for when they were doing the research," says Dave Sabo of Western Area Power Administration, the government entity that markets the power generated by federal dams. "So we've got a lot of duplicate studies. I don't think there's been any integration of the science. So that's pretty costly. Plus the changes in the dam have forced the power industry to go out and replace what was lost in the energy that wasn't available."

The major outcome of the EIS, after all, has been a change in the way water is released from the dam. The low levels could never be as low, the highs as high, and rate of flow from one to the other have to be made gradually. And the flood event, from the power industry's point of view, is water wasted because it's not water working.

Between 1991 and 1995, Sabo asserts, the cost of meeting the power demand that the dam was not allowed to produce was $19.5 million.

Both the environmentalists and the power interests agree that the EIS cost grew because of the Bureau of Reclamation's trying to placate all sides at once.

"This EIS wasn't big because Dave Wegner was in charge of it," says Rob Smith. "It was big because the water and power interests didn't want to change a damn thing. Their interests were well-served by the status quo--even if the status quo was washing the Grand Canyon into Lake Mead. They spent so much money to prove the obvious: If you create two tides a day, you're washing away beaches without putting anything back to build them up again. It took so long because you need for scientists to agree. And there wasn't any science to begin with. They had to learn all these techniques the first time. Knowing what we know now, it should be cheaper and easier to make these changes at other dams if the goal is to protect what's downstream."

And Wegner was also trying to be politic. "Trying to please everyone and pleasing no one," as Sabo says. "What he did was he irritated everyone and that sort of set it in an avalanche course. Yes, he was trying to do the right thing, but he was honking people off while he was doing it."

In his 14-year run of the river, Wegner was perceived as building a fiefdom.
Wegner's old boss, Dan Beard, former Reclamation commissioner, says, "Suddenly, Dave became the largest source of funds for research on the Colorado River and incurred the wrath of other federal agencies, because there was a significant amount of intense jealousy."

That jealousy may not have been limited to other agencies. Wegner's big political allies--Babbitt and Miller and Beard--would call him directly with questions, bypassing layers of Reclamation bureaucracy.

Dave Sabo from WAPA continues, "I'm assuming that Dave is so well-connected that he scares people. I mean, Newt Gingrich stopped by and had dinner with him in Flagstaff. Bruce Babbitt talked to him on a pretty regular basis. It's the kind of thing that makes managers nervous."

And finally, others theorize, he had in fact changed the status quo.
"Dave was a biologist trying to restore the river and he took away their peaking power," says Phil Doe, a former environmental compliance officer for the Bureau. "You cannot raise red flags in that agency. They'll get even. I knew this was going to happen to him. I would have taken book on it."

As Bruce Babbitt pointed out in a speech to scientists last May, even the big experimental flood had been delayed by all the warring interests below the dam. The hydroelectric power users and the water users in several states opposed the plan. Trout fishermen worried that their unnatural and non-native trout fishery below the dam would be wiped out. Environmentalists fretted about threatened snails. The Fish and Wildlife Service wanted to protect willow flycatchers. Indian tribes talked about petroglyphs and cultural sites in the canyon. And even a week before the flood, the Hualapai tribe threatened to get a court injunction against it. GCES had to soothe all those concerns and all those egos before the flood could take place.

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