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!

   I’ll 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; we’re in the Canyon and the ride has its wild moments.

   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 C!

   From here on we’ll 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 aren’t 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 won’t 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 doesn’t have much chance with him, but everyone is hopefully educatable.

   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 management policies.”

   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 we’re paying all these scientists and most say that the low fluctuating flow alternative is all right, isn’t 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 Canyon’s 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, Flagstaff’s 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 stop?

   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. Don’t 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.

Jack Schmidt