BACK TO NATURE
MARCH 29, 1996
In an effort to revitalize an ecosystem altered by dams, the Department of the Interior flooded the Colorado River this past week. Tom Bearden explores the plan and how well it has worked.
TOM BEARDEN: For four days the flood gates at the Glen Canyon Dam have been wide open, releasing 45,000 cubic feet of water every second into the Colorado River. The idea is to literally flush the Grand Canyon 75 miles downstream in hopes of alleviating the environmental problems that have cropped up there since the dam was built. The whole canyon system was changed forever when construction was completed in 1963. The dam created Lake Powell, the second largest man-made lake in the country and drowned spectacular Glen Canyon beneath 500 feet of water. Some of the people who lived here at the time were opposed, like Joan Nevills Stavely.
JOAN NEVILLS STAVELY, Page Chamber of Commerce: Many of us fought it very hard to keep from having it come in because we didn't want a dam that would dam up the Glen Canyon and the San Juan River as we fought it vehemently, but this was a very sparsely populated area. Uh, there just were not that many people to even mount any type of fight.
TOM BEARDEN: But Stavely now runs the Chamber of Commerce in Page, a town that grew out of the dam's original construction camp. Today, she's quick to say the dam is directly responsible for the area's development.
JOAN NEVILLS STAVELY: Economic benefits to the local people, the Navajo, for example, have, now have schools here which, you know, might have come but not certainly as readily as they did, roads. Small business is one of the biggest benefits to this area
.TOM BEARDEN: Lake Powell attracts millions of people from all over the world who come to fish, rent houseboats and view the breathtaking scenery, but the dam also extracted an environmental toll. The quality and quantity of water in the river changed dramatically. Today, it's clear and icy cold, where once it was warm and bright red, full of sediment. For a while on Wednesday, the Colorado ran red again, thanks to 2200 pounds of dye that scientists pumped into the water. It helped them measure how the increased flow was picking up and depositing sediment. Moving sediment is an important goal. The dam eliminated the annual Spring deluge of snow melt from the Rockies that used to scour the canyon, replenishing sand bars and beaches. Without the Spring flood, some of the beaches have eroded since 1963, while backwater pools where animals breed have filled in. David Wegner manages the Glen Canyon environmental studies group.
DAVID WEGNER, Scientist: Clear and simple, it's a fact that over the last 10 years we've been filling in a lot of the critical habitats for our native and endangered fish and birds, and this experiment is necessary in order to revitalize those habitats to maintain the environments for these species. And the ones that we're obviously most concerned about are our native and endangered birds and fish and snails.
TOM BEARDEN: But not everyone is convinced all of this is such a great idea. The Glen Canyon Dam created a gold medal trout fishery in these waters, and a lot of people make their living guiding tourists here. They're afraid that flushing the Grand Canyon will also flush away their livelihood. Rick Smith is one of those guides. He was reassured to find that baby trout had moved to the river banks during the flooding. That was a good sign the fish weren't being washed downstream. But he's still worried.
RICK SMITH, Fishing Guide: I'm more concerned about the gravel bars and the, the algae on the bottom of the river that may be washed away. The algae supports the food life for the trout to feed on. And if that's gone, the trout are going to go with it.
TOM BEARDEN: Smith and others don't think the government paid much attention to their concerns when they went ahead with the experiment.
RICK SMITH: The scientists seemed to think that--or their story is that it's going to reestablish the ecosystem down in the Grand Canyon for some of the endangered species down there. Other people feel that they sold a bill of goods just to recreate some beaches for the rafters that want to go down there and spread out their sleeping bags, but they don't seem to have the room to do that now. I went down two years ago, and it seemed there was plenty of room down there for me.
DAVID WEGNER: We've had numerous opportunities to meet with the local folks, especially the trout fishermen on their concerns, and have tried to take those concerns into the studies that are going on, but you never make everybody 100 percent happy, but the fact is, is scientifically this whole effort is supported.
TOM BEARDEN: But some of Wegner's fellow scientists are concerned that an experiment designed to help the Grand Canyon might hurt wildlife upstream. Clive Pinnock is a National Park Service wildlife biologist. The day after the flood gates were opened, he found the habitat of an endangered frog species just below the dam had been more seriously affected than predicted.
CLIVE PINNOCK, Wildlife Biologist: We have let the, uh, folks that are in charge or responsible for the entire experiment aware of the leopard frog situation, and we've been given the okay to, uh, monitor them quite closely, and, umm, that's about all we can do as biologists for the Park Service at this point.
TOM BEARDEN: Other scientists said privately that with $100 million spent on scientific studies for this project over the last 10 years, there may be some pressure from above to declare it a success before all the evidence is in, and even if the evidence doesn't entirely support such a conclusion.
MARK ANDERSON, Hydrologist: In science, the outcome of an experiment is neither good or bad. It just is.
TOM BEARDEN: Mark Anderson is the project's chief hydrologist for the Geological Survey.
TOM BEARDEN: But isn't there some pressure to declare a successful experiment after investing this much time and money?
MARK ANDERSON: We'll have the measurements on the flow and sediment portion of it. We'll do our best to interpret it for the managers. They'll choose right or wrong whether it was a good thing or not to do.
TOM BEARDEN: One of those managers, Glen Canyon recreation area superintendent Joseph Alston, has no doubts that the $100 million price tag is money well spent.
JOSEPH ALSTON, Glen Canyon Recreation Area: How do you put a value on Grand Canyon National Park? I mean, if--it's so symbolic to us, uh, in terms of what it means to us as an American people and when you start putting the dollars that are associated with this, this event and experiment in perspective to where we spend other dollars, it's really not a great deal of money.
TOM BEARDEN: The increased water flow will continue until Tuesday, when the flood gates will slowly be closed and normal Spring flows restored. Then some 200 scientists in the Grand Canyon will measure the beaches, inspect the nesting areas and spawning grounds, and evaluate the impact on plants and animals. Some conclusions will be possible in fairly short order; others may take years.