www.phoenixnewtimes.com/issues/1997-03-27/feature2.html/page1.html

 

03/27/1997

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.

By Michael Kiefer
Phoenix New Times

 

A year ago this week, on March 26, 1996, Dave Wegner and Secretary of the
Interior Bruce Babbitt were standing at the base of Glen Canyon Dam,
giving simultaneous interviews with competing national morning TV news
shows, shouting over the roar of the torrent that rocketed 100 yards out
of the dam's bypass tubes before it fell into the Colorado River below.

Wegner, 45, resembles the late hippie-laureate poet Richard Brautigan:
long and lanky, with shaggy blond hair and a brush of a mustache, round
wire-rimmed glasses over a weather-beaten face. He's got the
straightahead earnestness of a scientist and the lolling twang of a river
runner. In a sense, he's both.

As manager of the Bureau of Reclamation's Glen Canyon Environmental
Studies, Wegner had spent 14 years scientifically wandering the Grand
Canyon, trying to catalogue the damage wreaked on the world's most famous
park by the dam just upstream. The Grand Canyon Protection Act of 1992
came directly out of his research. And the team he managed changed the
way the dam's hydroelectric plant does business, restricting the high and
low flows that washed away the canyon's beaches.

The much-ballyhooed flood was planned by Glen Canyon Environmental
Studies, or GCES, as an experiment to see if a simulated spring flood
could scour sediment from the bottom of the river and redeposit it on the
banks to create beaches and backwaters for river runners and other canyon
critters. The first water ever spilled intentionally from a federal dam,
it would run for 10 days, lowering Lake Powell by three and a half feet.

Just the day before, Wegner and Babbitt had floated with three rafts full
of reporters and government muckamucks for the 16 miles from the dam down
to Lees Ferry, a historic river crossing. Then, when the reporters
scurried off to file their stories, Babbitt took Wegner aside, saying "We
need to go talk," and the two strolled through the cemetery where the
ferry's founders are buried. Wegner might have taken the location as an
omen.

Even though he knew more about the Grand Canyon than any other scientist
alive, Wegner had already been excluded from the monitoring team that
would take over the watch in the Grand Canyon. Wegner was annoyed at
first, but then had been assured that the Secretary had bigger plans for
him, which were reiterated, Wegner claims, during the cemetery chat.

"He asked that I please make an effort to help the new organization get
started," Wegner says. "But my impression in talking to him was that if
we did this, we would be allowed to market [GCES] as an entity to take
what we learned and apply it elsewhere. We had been given guidance, not
only from Secretary Babbitt, but from the Denver office [of Reclamation],
as well, to take a year and see if we could make it on our own as a
consultant within the Bureau of Reclamation."

And indeed that thinking fit in with Babbitt's election-year set-piece
speech about the big gush: Take the technology and apply it elsewhere, to
the Everglades, to the Columbia River, and elsewhere on the Colorado.
Wegner assumed he'd be a player in that application.

And so did others. Duncan Patten, who recently retired from ASU, was
senior scientist on the Grand Canyon research, and he talked with the
Secretary on the day of the flood.

"When Babbitt opened the bypass tubes, I went up to him and thanked him
for being there," Patten says. "The first thing that came to his mind
was, 'You know, we've got to do something with Dave's group. We've got to
find something for them.'"

But by late summer, it became clear that that was not to be, despite the
good work done, despite the great public relations coup that the flood
had provided for Babbitt, and, by association, for President Clinton. The
media painted the event as "fixing" the Grand Canyon, as if a week's
worth of water could undo the ravages of 30 years. And they depicted
Babbitt as the best thing for environmentalists since Birkenstock sandals.

Wegner had the support of environmentalists.

"He does not match the typical profile of the Bureau of Reclamation
employee," says Rob Smith of the Sierra Club. "Most of us expect a
burr-cut engineer. He was a passionate biologist who really cared about
the Grand Canyon and who really wanted people to know as much as possible
about what was happening."

He had the grudging respect of the power industry, too, even though his
research had forced it to scale back its generating capacity.

"I think he was a worthy adversary," says Joe Hunter, executive director
of the Colorado River Energy Distributors Association. "People unfairly
viewed Dave as being 'on the other side.'"

Barry Wirth, a Bureau of Reclamation spokesman, says, "Dave had a very
strong view of the Grand Canyon and its role in the world ecosystem, and
he worked passionately for it. He was at the forefront of an effort to
move the agency into a far more environmentally sensitive operation than
it had been."

And he had friends in high places, not just Babbitt, but California
congressman George Miller, and former Reclamation commissioner Dan Beard,
as well. None of them could save him.

GCES was closed down anyway, and the Bureau has transferred much of its
staff to the new Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center. Wegner was
offered a transfer to California.

The bureaucrats at Reclamation and Interior view the personnel shuffle as
standard operating procedure, just more water over the dam.

"Just because they had built one of the finest projects didn't guarantee
that they'd have a job waiting for them," Wirth continues. Besides,
"There isn't another Grand Canyon to move to that will be that kind of
high-profile job."

Nor even a place at the existing Grand Canyon.

"He has an incredible gift for being an advocate," says Dan Beard, who
left the commissioner's job in August 1995 to become vice president of
the National Audubon Society, "and yet the Department of Interior or the
Bureau of Reclamation let it all go away and no one knows why."

And no one will admit making the decision.

Paul Bledsoe, a spokesman for Secretary Babbitt, when asked repeatedly
about the decision to close GCES and transfer Wegner, would only say,
"I'm not going to get into that issue."

Wegner resigned from the Bureau, effective last December 31.

He was angered over Babbitt's immediately touting the flood as a
scientific success, when in reality it would take years to calculate the
effects on fish and fauna. In fact, this spring's high water flows are
already undoing the riparian repair, he says.

He mouthed off to the press before he resigned. He refused to travel to
Phoenix in October to stand on the dais next to Babbitt at the Desert
Botanical Garden to gush over the big flood.

"When I found out that the intent was to close down the [GCES] office
here in Flagstaff, that to me indicated that there really wasn't the
support to take what we had been spending all this hard time and effort
and money on and applying it elsewhere," he says.

The sour grapes, perhaps, clouded his judgment, because the Bureau, in
fact, offered him a chance to apply his skills elsewhere, as project
manager of a restoration project on the San Joaquin River in California,
working with the respected environmental group Natural Resources Defense
Council.

He turned it down in a huff and instead tendered his resignation.

As one career government scientist said with a shrug and a sigh, "The
Grand Canyon does things to people."

Dave Wegner was sent to the Grand Canyon to fail, and then screwed up by
succeeding.

In 1982, he was a junior scientist for the Bureau at Salt Lake City, with
two small sons, a bachelor's degree in aquatic ecology and a brand-new
master's degree in environmental engineering. In short, not the man to
take on a major project at a politically unpopular dam site.

Nonetheless, he was called to Washington, D.C., and ushered into the
office of then-secretary of the Interior James Watt.

Watt looked him over, as Wegner recalls, and said, "You're the guy who's
going to keep me out of trouble with the environmentalists. Just go down
there, keep them quiet so we can continue to do the job of government in
the Department of the Interior."

Glen Canyon Dam, just outside Page, Arizona, on the Utah border, has been
the subject of many environmental and political battles. It was
authorized by Congress in 1956 as part of the Colorado River Storage Act.
The Colorado River Compact of 1922 had split the Colorado River water
evenly in two, with half the water allocated to the upper basin states of
Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico and Colorado, and the other half allocated to
lower-basin Arizona, Nevada and California. Glen Canyon Dam was supposed
to ensure that the upper states of the Colorado River Basin would
actually get their water (which they have never used). As a secondary
consideration, the dam would provide peaking power; when electricity was
in high demand in the West because everyone was turning on an air
conditioner, the Bureau could open the tap and fire up the turbines to
meet the extra power needs. And furthermore, the new dam would extend the
life of Hoover Dam downstream by catching the majority of the river's
prodigious sediment load.

But there was no consideration done of the effects downstream. The
National Environmental Policy Act was signed into law by Richard Nixon in
1970, mandating environmental impact statements before such construction
can begin. All but one of the major federal dams on the Colorado had
already been built before that time.

Glen Canyon Dam was completed in 1963 and by 1964 had enough water in it
to start cranking out voltage. Glen Canyon, which it inundated, became a
watery memory and a shimmering literary voyage.

Edward Abbey floated the doomed canyon for his book Desert Solitaire,
finding it obscene that the resultant lake would be named after John
Wesley Powell, the first explorer to navigate the length of the Colorado
River. He fantasized about "some unknown hero with a rucksack full of
dynamite strapped to his back" who would blow it up. "The splendid new
rapids thus created we will name Floyd E. Dominy Falls, in honor of the
chief of the Reclamation Bureau," he wrote.

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.

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.

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."

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."

Twice in the past month, Wegner has shared the podium with Brower to talk
about Lake Powell and the Grand Canyon. And though Wegner does not share
Brower's dire prediction of doom--"It would take several years in a row
of high water"--he does think the dam will inevitably be breached, and
the sooner the better.

"At some point, dams are going to wear out and you're going to have to
take them down," he says. "We did the best science that we could, but any
one of us would say if you want to restore that river to what it was, the
best thing you could do is take out that dam. We weren't allowed to ask
that question. Today it's the logical extension."

The river cut its mile-deep channel without the interference of man and
his issues.

Dave Sabo of WAPA sums it up best.

"What you've got down there in geologic time is a temporary obstruction
in the middle of the river and not the first one," he says. "All we're
trying to do is satisfy the human ego. Eventually, Mother Nature will
take care of anything placed in the middle of the river.

 

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