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.

And Dan Beard: "If you're looking for a ghost in the closet, there are a lot of ghosts. The frustrating thing about this is that he was basically abandoned by his own organization. The organization he worked for got a lot of benefit from this effort and a lot of kudos, and they just let it drift away.

"There's a million questions here," Beard continues. "We've got 75,000 dams in this country and the Bureau of Reclamation has dams all across the western United States, and you can tell me that only once in its entire history has it ever looked with great detail at the environmental impacts associated with the operations of its facilities? There is no other instance. I felt as commissioner that the Glen Canyon Environmental Studies program was worth 10 times what we were spending on it, because what we were doing is developing information, knowledge and expertise about downstream impacts. And that information was making its way into the policy arena."

But Wegner was not completely abandoned by Reclamation. In November, the agency flew him to Sacramento to interview as a project manager in restoring the San Joaquin River, which runs fitfully across California from the Sierras to San Francisco Bay.

Wegner describes the job as "sitting down with farmers and trying to keep them from protesting over water deliveries and such."

In fact, the scope of work for the project included improving floodplain management, groundwater recharge, and negotiating with all of the various factions on that river, from farmers to fishermen.

"We thought it would have been a good fit," says Ronnie Cohen of Natural Resources Defense Council, the environmental group that is spearheading the restoration work.

Wegner, instead, took the offer as an insult and a deliberate attempt to make him quit.

"They can say whatever they want, but when it was characterized to me, the job was in Fresno, which is not where the restoration program is run from," says Wegner. "The program is run from Sacramento. Secondly, it was working with farmers to see what the potential might be. You'd go out there and work with the farmers, and we'll give you an opportunity to plant some trees to see if you can develop some ideas that might be used for restoration in the future."

Whether he overreacted to the new assignment is moot. Dave Wegner quit the government after 21 years and set up shop as an environmental consultant.

He raised enough of a ruckus that as late as January, he was not allowed into the GCES offices in Flagstaff, and was told that he had to call ahead to pick up his mail and then wait for someone to bring it down to him in the lobby.

All through Dave Wegner's years with Reclamation, his work was bordered by the existence of Glen Canyon Dam. The dam would stay there, and Wegner's science had to be calculated around that obstacle.

Now Wegner has gone over to the other side and sits on the board of the Glen Canyon Institute in Salt Lake City, whose main premise is that Lake Powell should be drained, and the drowned Glen Canyon resuscitated.

Dams do wear out, and Congress has already laid the groundwork to remove two dams on the Elwha River in Washington's Olympic Peninsula because they are having such a negative impact on salmon populations.

The Glen Canyon Institute wants to drain Lake Powell, as it explains in its literature, because it does not do what it was intended to do, namely provide a reservoir for the upper states of the Colorado River Basin. Except for the city of Page's water supply and a conduit to a power plant on the Navajo reservation, there are no "straws" in Lake Powell. The water is in fact delivered downstream to Arizona, Nevada and California.

The lake, they contend, loses about a million acre feet per year to evaporation and seepage into the canyon's porous sandstone walls.

"That's enough water to supply Salt Lake City or Tucson for five years," says Dr. Richard Ingebretsen, the institute's president.

So instead of impounding the water in an inefficient reservoir, it should just be sent immediately downstream to where it will be used, he argues.

Chief among the institute's board members is David Brower, the environmental archdruid himself, who fought so hard to keep the dam from being built 40 years ago.

Brower wants to empty the lake, and leave the dam "as a monument to the folly of time."

And when asked how long that would take, he flippantly replies, "I think it could happen next June if they continue the stupidity."

Given the season's snow melt, he thinks the river may replay 1983's horrendous high waters, and Brower wonders if the dam will hold this time. If it goes, he theorizes, it will take out Hoover Dam, the Central Arizona Project canal, and every other dammed lake between Glen Canyon and the Gulf of California, seriously affecting the water and power resources of Nevada, Arizona and California.

"Las Vegas would have to look somewhere else for neon," he quips. "Flashlight batteries."

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