Up Ahead the Channel Divides
An enjoyable aspect of reading the news
is the persistent use of river metaphors that permeates much of the writing. Picking the
right route through a rapid is like picking the right EIS alternative: Moody says send one
boat down the other run!
Ill push the river analogy one more time.
Many folks with differing perspectives about rivers, nature, and society have
been brought together in the past decade, unified in the resolve to find a more
environmentally appropriate way to manage Glen Canyon Dam. More recently, all these folks
have joined, willingly or not, with power interests and consumptive water users to develop
a set of alternatives to be analyzed in the EIS. In this sense, each interest has floated
downstream from its own headwater stream, and the different boats have become one flotilla
now that the small streams have joined. Maybe this combined flow is moving us along at a
faster pace. Now we run together; were in the Canyon and the ride has its wild
Just when it seemed that the flotilla had reached its full size, a new
tributary with new boats has joined the flow. Native Americans have joined the flotilla
when we thought the Canyon trip was well under way guess they came down the Little
From here on well float as one group, with one unified decision before
us. After all, the dam can only be operated one way; water can only be released
into one channel. But will our river full of increasingly diverse boats necessarily
stay together for the entire course to the sea? Nature suggests perhaps not, at least not
without trying. Up ahead, we approach the delta, the channels divide, and only if we
anticipate far enough downstream will we be able to keep most of us on course. One thing
is for sure how the waters, and the craft upon them, redivide ahead will not
necessarily be how they had originally joined upstream. Nor should we expect that to be.
Nature and river politics arent that simple.
Here are some of the decisions and issues up ahead which may divide us in
unanticipated ways. Each of these questions are ones which citizens concerned about river
management must answer. None of these questions are ones that ought to be delegated to
scientists or bureaucrats, although both groups can provide useful information. Each of
these are questions of value, and such questions must be left to the democratic process in
which we all participate.
1. For what values should Grand Canyon be managed?
This issue has been around for a long time, and it wont go away. What
do we want for our canyon? Beaches? Tamarisk? Biodiversity? The old river? The new river?
Steve Carothers and Bryan Brown argue in their book The Colorado River through Grand
Canyon that we must accept the existing naturalized river, a blend of
the old and the new, a mixture of native and introduced organisms and natural and
artificial processes. Bruce Babbitt, in his introduction to the same book, writes
there is no point in romanticizing about restoring [the Colorado River] to its
former, pre-Glen Canyon condition. Leave it to the monkey wrenchers to fantasize about
blowing up the dam or re-creating the old muddy Colorado by scooping up silt from the
bottom of Lake Powell and mixing it back into the water releases. I guess the
sediment augmentation idea doesnt have much chance with him, but everyone is
There is a compelling case to argue for the new river, and the river corridor
is certainly far more biologically diverse than it was before dam closure. The aquatic
food base has completely changed, and poorly conceived notions of restoring the old river
might have profound negative biologic impacts. But even in a naturalized river, we must
know what the resource priorities are. Are river banks covered with tamarisk such as along
the lower Green what we want? Is regular destruction of marshes an acceptable trade-off if
high discharges can build larger and higher beaches? Why not consider some dredging in
Lake Powell if it improves the net Canyon sediment balance? Should we care about managing
the dam to assist trout spawning at Nankoweap if such management increases eagle
populations? Should we care about trout at all?
Although these questions seem scientific, at their roots they are not. These
questions are instead ones of value, and they are questions appropriate for all citizens
to answer. We can not maximize all Canyon resources at the same time. We must prioritize
the values of resources; we must decide which ones are most important. We must decide how
much of the old river we want back.
2. How sure is sure?
Everyone has learned much from scientific research results, and the Canyon is
managed far better now than it was 20 years ago. Scientists have also learned that some
earlier ideas about the river ecosystem were wrong or incomplete. For example, we once
were sloppy in our language and suggested that all floods were erosive. We are more
accurate when we say that too many floods of too high a discharge are erosive; a few
floods would help rebuild beaches.
We must also recognize that one of the ends of scientific inquiry is more
questions. Scientists have answered some questions but others will always remain. There
will always be another scientist, or continuing ones among us, who claim that their newly
proposed work will resolve matters and finally lead to scientifically sound
The question before all of us is how much uncertainty can we live with and
how much uncertainty is acceptable in developing a management plan. What is the trade-off
between resolving more uncertainty and acceptable levels of expenditure and resource
impact? Scientists can prioritize their own work and peer review their own results.
Managers can demand better models and engineering designs. But citizens and Canyon users
must ultimately take a stand. It is the obligation of scientists and engineers to clearly
lay before the public the trade-offs of uncertainty and its elimination. It is the
obligation of citizens to decide whether the costs and impacts inherent in resolving these
uncertainties are acceptable. Otherwise, scientific questions and research will expand to
fill all available money, boats, and beaches.
3. How much monitoring is sufficient?
This question is similar to the previous one. There is much in nature to
measure, and agencies are lined up to do just that for the LONG TERM. How much of
this is enough? Ecosystem scientists can list many interrelations of this wonderfully
diverse Canyon, but do all these relations need to be measured? Every season? Every year?
Every time they change? Again, citizens and not just scientists need to address this
issue. You, as boatmen and Canyon citizens, need to provide some guidance to the
development of the Long Term Monitoring Plan. Do we err on the side of a spartan, low
impact plan and risk not measuring critical variables? Do we err on the other side?
4. To compromise or not?
The current debate on the preferred EIS alternative is symptomatic of issues
to come. Most scientists generally find that the low fluctuating flow alternative is sound
and reasonable for maintaining humpback chub populations. Doubt remains, however, in the
minds of a few, and the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service has stood by what they feel is a
better approach seasonally adjusted steady flow. The projected lost power revenue
costs of this latter alternative are high. What are we to do or think? If were
paying all these scientists and most say that the low fluctuating flow alternative is all
right, isnt that enough? Unfortunately, no. Is the answer to pay less attention to
science because scientists always disagree? Should we spend more time thinking about the
politics of the Grand Canyon Protection Act which seems to mandate that power production
be ignored in the development of the most environmentally sound operating scenario? If we
fall back to raw politics when the thinking gets tough, then why fund so much science?
Well intentioned people on the environmental side of these issues may divide (see the last
issue of the news). The chub management issue seems a clear case where further research is
mandated, but nevertheless every Canyon citizen needs to form their own opinion about the
merits of this, and other, technical issues.
5. Can we separate the Canyons interest from our own?
It is easy to say I just care about the Canyon, not myself. But
the fact is that lots of lives have been made very different by the existence of the
present environmental concern and big money that is associated with Grand Canyon
management. Scientific and bureaucratic careers have been launched and maintained,
Flagstaffs economy and many personal economies have been boosted, environmental
groups find it easier to raise money. Do we know when to slow down? Do we know when to
The point of all this is that much of our course lies ahead. And ahead the
issues may not divide us by any traditional stereotypes of boatmen versus WAPA-types. The
objectives of biodiversity, maximum beach area, or a low-impact canyon are all bound to
create alliances of unusual sorts. Do we want more sand if that would also give us less
trout, less vegetation, and perhaps more flexibility in hydropower operations? Do we want
maximum biodiversity and a clear river if that limits beach erosion but also constrains
hydropower operations? Are we all agreed that survival of the humpback chub is the highest
value for river management? I suspect that the future alliances that resolve these issues
will not be those that one would expect based on where each boat first launched.
But that is just what we would expect on a real river. It has been a long
trip, we have gotten to know each other, but up ahead the channels divide. Now is the time
for all citizens to take control of the boats. Dont just leave the rowing and
motoring to the scientists and bureaucrats. Talk it out, forget about where we each came
from. If we do, most of the boats, maybe all, will get to the sea.