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.

The immediately visible aftermath was indeed spectacular. The rushing waters scoured up what sediment still comes into the river through washes and the remaining downstream tributaries--most notably the Little Colorado River--and put it where it should be. Fifty-three percent of the beaches increased in size; sandbars created ponds that could develop into marshes.

In October, when Babbitt signed the record of decision approving the EIS, there was a great feeling of closure surrounding the dam and flood. But in fact there were major questions left unanswered, and nothing had really been done about the major problems with the dam: The water coming through the turbines was still too clear and too cold to restore the canyon's ecosystem. The EIS worried aloud that even if some way were found to draw water from shallower water, there was little hope of raising the temperature significantly enough to help endangered fish. It recommended that someone look into the feasibility of a sediment slurry pipeline around the dam.

As for the restored beaches, with the heavy run-off from the mountains this spring, the bureau has had to release much water from Lake Powell to avoid a near catastrophe as happened in 1983. And the increased flow is already eroding the beaches.

The administrative portions of the EIS effectively wrote GCES out of the long-term monitoring program that it mandated to continue the scientific study of the Grand Canyon.

As Richard Quartaroli, the research librarian for GCES, puts it, "They were so busy looking at flows that they never paid attention to that part of the EIS. No one asked, 'Why do you want to change agencies?'"

Quartaroli goes on to say, "Dave Wegner would be the logical person to be in charge of this."

But Interior wanted to keep the monitoring program away from the jealousies among the various agencies in the canyon--Reclamation, the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Park Service. The new monitoring program reports directly to Interior.

"When an opportunity came to develop the structure post-EIS," says Dan Beard, "there was a unanimity that we'll have a structure that does not include Dave Wegner and the Bureau of Reclamation in a leadership role in any way."

Interior instead appointed Dave Garrett to head the new center; the generally respected Garrett has spent 20-some years with the Agriculture and Interior departments and was a dean at Northern Arizona University.

Wegner was at first upset that he was to be separated from his life's work and passion. But he felt Babbitt was promising that GCES would be kept intact to do other research. It was perhaps naive on his part to assume that his GCES would be parachuted into other river environments to repeat the work done in the Grand Canyon. Federal resource management agencies usually don't enter into EIS projects unless forced to by threat of litigation or congressional mandate.

But both commissioner Beard and Secretary Babbitt had assured him that GCES would contract for other government work. So Wegner had GCES work up an elaborate marketing brochure and line up Reclamation projects in Klamath Falls, Oregon; and Flaming Gorge, Utah; and another job for Native American tribes on the lower Colorado River.

Beard, however, was long gone from Reclamation by the time the EIS work was done. John Lease in the Denver office of Reclamation, who was Wegner's direct supervisor, claims that there wasn't enough work to justify keeping GCES open; Wegner claims he had already lined up more than $650,000 in commitments.

In late July, a letter from George Miller and John McCain arrived at Babbitt's office, questioning whether the new monitoring center was going to duplicate the work of GCES and whether it would satisfy the original intention of the Grand Canyon Protection Act. Wegner thinks that letter was the final straw.

Word came down in September, always indirectly and namelessly from "the highest sources" in Reclamation and Interior, that GCES would close at the end of the year. Much of the staff was transferred over to the new monitoring center. Wegner applied for a position as a physical scientist there and claims he was told that he was one of three finalists for the position--before the position was canceled altogether.

Bruce Babbitt's spokesman refuses to discuss Dave Wegner--other than to refer obliquely to "unfortunate" things that Wegner said about the Secretary--before shifting the conversation to a vague list of other environmental projects that Reclamation intends to take on. That list was still in progress and not yet available for release.

Wegner had gone on a media tear, denouncing the flood event as a hype fest, questioning Bruce Babbitt's integrity and otherwise acting like a jilted spouse--which, in effect, he was, after 21 years of loyal government service.

His supporters offered theories on the messy divorce proceedings:
"I don't think Reclamation likes to admit that he had to drag them kicking and screaming to do the right thing," says Gail Peters, formerly of the American Rivers environmental group. "And I don't think Reclamation likes to admit that he worked closely with the environmental community and the Native American community to do the right thing, because Reclamation did not do the right thing willingly."

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