The "Flood" of 2008
As we discussed last time, the Glen Canyon Dam, a/k/a the Damn Dam, has not been good for the Grand Canyon and many of its native inhabitants. At the end of his long, distinguished career as a United States Senator, Barry Goldwater was asked what his biggest regret had been. Without hesitating, Goldwater responded, “Voting for the Glen Canyon Dam.”
A Cottonwood drowned in Glen Canyon - Photo by Eliot Porter
Not only was Glen Canyon drowned, the interior of the Grand Canyon was neutered. Seasonal floods no longer scoured its beaches, deposited life-giving nutrients in sediments; instead the absence of flooding allowed invasive species such as tamarisk to thrive, and extirpated at least four species of fish, with a fifth, the Humpback Chubb in grave danger. All the muskrats and river otters in the Grand Canyon died. At least eighty percent of the sediment that would normally deposit in the Canyon piles up behind the dam. (It is that sediment that will eventually allow the river to overwhelm the Damn Dam.) The water that is released from the dam comes from the bottom of Lake Foul, er — Lake Powell; water which is cold. Non-native fish thrive in the colder downstream water but the natives do not.
Lake Foul, er - Lake Powell
The water impounded behind the dam is released in a daily, fluctuating flow which can vary in amounts up to 15,000 cubic feet of water per second. Known as MLFFs — no, not MILFs — MLFFs, “Modifed Low Fluctuating Flows” — these periodic releases of water from the dam are timed to provide the cheapest electricity possible for electrical customers in six states. It is these dam operations that endanger the fish, clog the beaches, and allow invasive species to thrive downstream in the Grand Canyon. Natural periodic floods necessary to build beaches for native plants and animals and to spark seed germination have been eliminated by MLFFs.
There is an alternative, SASFs. (Seasonally-Adjusted Steady Flows) Steady flows, while not affecting the total amount of water released, would avert, the worst affects of the dam. But the hydro-power interests are opposed, believing that switching to steady flows would result in higher electrical costs. (A disputed matter.)
The Damn Dam is operated by the U.S. Bureau of Wrecklamation, a division of the Department of Interior. In March of 2008, the Bureau ran a 60 hour high flow out of the dam. The results of the experiment were clear: Beaches were rebuilt, tamarisk removed, and new sediment deposited.
Hance Rapid from the South rim - Grand Canyon
But that is it for the next five years at least. For the next five years daily flows will fluctuate based solely on the desires of the sellers of electricity. MLFFs are mandated until at least 2014.
The Grand Canyon Trust recently sued the Bureau of Reclamation because of this policy, alleging that it violates the Grand Canyon Protection Act, a law that requires the bureaucrats who operate the dam, to operate it in a manner which does not impair the Grand Canyon. Barry Goldwater’s successor, Senator John McCain was one of the sponsors. On the floor of the Senate, he said, “The erratic release of water from the dam to meet peak electric power demands [has] destroyed Colorado River beaches, and harmed other natural, cultural, and recreational resources. Somewhere along the line, we forgot our obligation to the canyon and to [t]he future generations for whom we hold it in trust. In response, I introduced the Grand Canyon Protection Act to reorder those priorities—to stop the damage and legally require the dam to be operated in a manner which will protect park resources.”
Finally, we get to the cheating.
The Department of Interior’s lawyers responded to the lawsuit, denying everything. In the course of responding, those lawyers wrote briefs to the judge in the case and signed their names. Lawyers are required to have both a subjective and an objective belief that court documents they sign are true. Interior’s lawyers denied that MLFFs damage the Grand Canyon. Never mind that the Fish and Wildlife Service of the same United States government concluded in 1994 that such flows are killing the chub.
Colorado River from the Tanner Trail - Grand Canyon
The Superintendent of the Grand Canyon — Steve Martin — is not amused. He wrote a memo which subsequently found its way into the public domain. You can read the entire memo here, if you choose. In the meantime, here is a summary.
Mr. Martin wrote to Mike Synder, the Intermountain Regional Director of the United States Department on Interior on January 15, 2009. In the memo, Mr. Martin demolishes any idea that Interior’s lawyers were telling the truth in their court papers. Noting that the court documents imply that the National Park Service — which operates the Grand Canyon — agrees with an environmental assessment holding that MLFFs don’t do any harm, Mr. Martin baldly writes, “. . .this is not true.”
The five-year experiment, “… will significantly impair Grand Canyon resources.”
“The government’s brief as presented continues to misinterpret key scientific findings related to the humpback chub, status of downstream resources in Grand Canyon. . . Significant misinterpretations of our involvement, the scientific findings, the Grand Canyon Protection Act, Park Goals, and future program oversight are found throughout the document.”
The Environmental Assessment, according to Superintendent Martin, is based in a “lack of scientific veracity” that “continues to misinterpret key scientific findings related to the humpback chub [and the] status of downstream resources in the Grand Canyon”; fails to address National Park Service, “concerns that actions under the EA’s five-year plan would impair the resources of Grand Canyon”; and “falsely suggests that the NPS concurs with the five year plan.” Never, according to Superintendent Martin, did NPS agree to a five-year program that lacks more high flows and seasonal steady flows.
He concludes, “In short, this is perhaps the worst EA I have seen for an action of this importance. The EA’s lack of alternatives, the mistreatment and disregard of science, the lack of public involvement, the signing of a FONSI amidst the controversy and unresolved issues — all these actions are in conflict with standard NPS management practices and constitute poor government in general.”
In other words, the government’s lawyers lied and the Department of Interior cheated.
Even Aristotle would not be amused.
For more information, here is the Grand Canyon Trust’s page about Colorado River water.