Washington, DC — A fast-moving plan to finalize a five-year “experiment” controlling management of the Colorado River flowing through the Grand Canyon has set off an unusually intense clash within the U.S. Interior Department, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The fight pits the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which is pushing a plan supported by water and power interests, against the National Park Service which says the plan will harm wildlife and habitat in Grand Canyon National Park.
Reclamation proposes a single “high-flow experiment” for 60 hours beginning this March 4th followed by a two-month regime of steady flows (September – October) over a five-year period to maximize power production. No further high flows would occur during the five-year experimental period.
Since the Glen Canyon Dam was finished in 1963, the Colorado River’s volume through the Grand Canyon has been artificially regulated at the expense of its natural ebb and flow. Scientists both in and outside Interior have argued to vary water levels to more closely mimic the river’s natural rhythms, including periodic high flows to lift accumulated sediment onto beaches and aid propagation of endangered canyon fish.
Reclamation released its plan’s Environmental Assessment (EA) in early February, allowing only 15 days of public comment, and concluded that its experiment would have “no significant environmental impact” thus obviating the need for further review. The National Park Service, which was excluded from the plan’s development, is strongly objecting. In a February 19, 2008 comment letter to Reclamation’s Regional Environmental Manager Randall Peterson, Grand Canyon National Park Superintendent Steve Martin decried the lack of any scientific basis for the “steady flow periods” or for limiting options to conducting only one high-flow event in a five-year span:
- “It is not apparent where the 80 million dollars in research, conducted over the last 10 years has been used in this decision-making process. Our analysis shows that this document is not consistent with current best information.”; and
- “If this EA is to reflect an experiment over the next 5 years, inclusion of additional high flow experiments must be included…Based on current scientific information, lack of inclusion of additional high flows could lead to impairment of the resources of Grand Canyon National Park.”
This finding of “significant impairment” would trigger additional reviews that would, in effect, block the plan. Consequently, there is a furious effort to force the withdrawal of the Park Service comments, led by the Office of the Solicitor, Interior’s corps of lawyers. The Grand Canyon Trust, a non-profit group, is also suing Interior to get it to honor commitments made back in 1996 to seasonally adjust flows, including more vigorous use of high-flows.
“In its last months, the Bush administration is trying to extend its control through the term of its successor – a dead man’s hand throttling Colorado River management,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that Reclamation is using the carrot of a single high-flow experiment to soften the stick of a flow regime that favors power generation. “When engineers and lawyers wrap themselves in ecological rationales, it is time to watch out.”
Ironically, the basis for steady flows offered in the Reclamation EA is not biological but “socioeconomic” citing the issue of “environmental justice” – a concept championed under the Clinton administration that has fallen into almost complete disuse during the past seven years. The “environmental justice” argument is based upon potentially higher (but unquantified) electricity costs working a hardship on poor customers.
“I doubt that the Bush administration’s embrace of environmental justice at this late date is a genuine deathbed conversion,” Ruch added, noting that the steady flow periods will take place at times that magnify the benefits for power production at the expense of environmental benefits. “The high-flow experiment in March needs to be followed by a wholly new plan.”