A Coronary Bypass


   Only thirty years ago the Colorado was as young and athletic as any river in the world. Flows varied from a trickle of 1,000 cfs in the winter to raging floods of over 100,000 cfs in the spring. She carried an average of half a million tons of sediment each day. In other words she not only exercised regularly, she frequently ran marathons. We all revel in the thought of running the old river. Today she lies sedate with many of her resources; beaches, fish, aquatic communities, struggling for survival. At the conclusion of this EIS we may find that she needs more than careful attention, that she needs more positive rejuvenation. In that case we should look at a couple of structural solutions.

   The alternatives of the nearly completed Environmental Impact Statement focus on operational measures to help our patient. Rightly so. The notions of building another dam above Lees Ferry or sending barges down to pump sand up onto selected beaches addressed the symptoms, not the cause. We wanted to learn the extent of her injury and do all we could to comfort her in hopes that she will get back on her feet. Perhaps enough sediment can be stored by dampening releases from the dam to rebuild beaches. Perhaps lowering flows in the summer will warm the waters and help the Humpback Chub prosper.

   But what if the medical bills soar and the patient fails to repond? What if the beaches don’t build and low, steady flows breed mosquitos and send boats on the rocks? And the warm, clear backwaters turn out to be more to the liking of exotic predators than juvenile chub. And the power bills rise as peaking power is reduced. And we spend more and more on a search for finer and finer ways to help the system.

   Then I think we should consider a couple of other solutions, solutions that we have catagorically rejected until now. We should step back from the Canyon and consider ways to restore the blood and circulation to the Colorado before it reaches the Lees Ferry. We can consider giving the Colorado River a coronary bypass.

   Warm, muddy water was the lifeblood of the Colorado. While we cannot (and may not want to) restore the predam floods, we can partially restore the warm, muddy waters. We should seriously consider structural means of warming the river and adding sediment. The first may be accomplished by building multiple intake structures on the upstream side of the Dam. These would allow warmer water to be drawn off the upper levels of the lake during periods critical to native fish. Warmer water may even benefit the trout fishery above Lees Ferry as it has below Flaming Gorge Dam in Wyoming.

   The second could be a sediment slurry line to transport Colorado River mud from the base of Cataract Canyon to the head of Grand Canyon. Technically such a pipeline is challenging but not outlandish. A similar slurry line now carries coal from Black Mesa across northern Arizona to a power plant in Nevada, a distance 50% greater. The pipe need not be blasted into the solid rock surrounding Lake Powell, but could be floated underwater down the center of the reservoir along the existing navigation bouys. Sediment transported directly from Cataract would be free of the dangerous buildups of uranium and heavy metals in the bottom of the lake. In order to preserve the Lees Ferry fishery the sediment could be brought to the Colorado at the mouth of the Paria River. Operated seasonally such a pipeline may add enough sediment to rejuvenate the natural processes in the Canyon.

   Blasphamy you say. The engineers have done enough damage! It’s true that each of these will cost money to build and operate. But these costs should be weighed against the alternative costs of maintaining a close and intensive vigil over our patient. It may be that these are solutions are not needed and that’s fine. But they should be considered as we search for long-term solutions to the effects of Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River through Grand Canyon.

Tom Moody