The EIS: Past and Future
The crowd impatiently shuffled its feet as the
BuRec official slowly got up from his folding chair and made his way to the podium. Once
there he stared for a moment at the audience, cleared his throat, and slowly addressed the
"Would you repeat the question."
The young woman dressed in river shorts and sandals patiently rephrased her
question. How will these changes affect the beaches of the Canyon?", she
"It is our opinion that the proposed rewind will have little effect on
the river below Glen Canyon Dam, he replied. The capacity will be raised by
only about 5% over present levels. Its simply a routine maintenance procedure."
The young woman was not satisfied. But why are you increasing the
maximum discharge if its just routine maintenance?," she said in exasperation.
But the official had already left the podium to return to his seat. The
moderator moved to the podium and turned to the freshly seated official. Can you
answer that Bill, or is that better addressed by Jim?." Glances were exchanged
between the five seated officials and the first slowly made his way back to the podium.
The crowd seated in the auditorium of Flagstaff High School was getting
tired. The public meeting on the proposed upgrading of the generators at Glen Canyon Dam
had already stretched to three hours and a long line of those with comments stretched back
behind the young lady at the microphone. The mood was confrontational and not pleasant.
The BuRec officials looked as though they felt their only hope was to wear down the
antagonistic audience; they never expected to have this kind of turnout. But the crowd
came away from that meeting anything but worn out. Instead, that meeting and more like it
galvanized opposition. Public involvement in the operation of Glen Canyon Dam and the
effects on the Colorado River through Grand Canyon had just begun.
That meeting took place in the early 80s and
a lot has taken place since that time. Interestingly enough without the debate over the
upgrading of those generators, there might never have been the opportunity to question the
operation of Glen Canyon Dam itself. Built before the 1969 National Environmental Policy
Act (NEPA) the dam needed no Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and no mechanism existed
for the public to criticize or affect its release of water through Grand Canyon.
That fortuitous opening set us on a path of 13 years of study and political controversy.
From the beginning, the public has been a driving force. Today we stand at
the other end of that process. In the next few months the draft Environmental Impact
Statement and its Preferred Alternative will be issued by the Bureau of Reclamation for
public comment. Public comment, your comment, is very important at that time. But to be
involved you must be informed. This article is intended to summarize the process from that
meeting to the present; to bring all interested in the issue up to date. When the draft
EIS is issued, the news will print a detailed analysis so that we can generate well
As the public outcry over Glen Canyon Dam grew in the early 1980s,
pressure increased on the Bureau of Reclamation (BuRec) to make changes in the operation
of the dam. The loudest criticism was voiced over the high range of fluctuations that
caused the river to rise and fall many feet on a daily basis. On December 8, 1982 in
response to this outcry, the Secretary of Interior James Watt directed BuRec to initiate a
series of scientific studies looking at alternative ways to operate the dam. The studies
were deemed the Glen Canyon Environmental Studies Phase 1 (GCES I) and a young BuRec
biologist named David Wegner was put in charge.
From the beginning, GCES was strapped by the lack of a well-defined goal. The
Studies were never designed to lead to a decision. As stated in the Final Report of GCES
Phase 1 they were directed to answer two questions. Are current operations of the dam,
through control of the flows in the Colorado River, adversely affecting the existing
river-related environmental and recreational resources of Glen Canyon and Grand Canyon?
Are there ways to operate the dam, consistent with Colorado River Storage Act (CRSP) water
delivery requirements, that would protect or enhance the environmental and recreational
The water delivery requirements were few; deliver 8.23 million acre-feet of
water annually, maintain minimum flows of 1,000 cfs in winter and 3,000 cfs in summer, and
stay within the designated powerplant capacity of 31,500 cfs. Outside of these
constraints, releases were based on power demands from customers spread across the western
states. Many environmentalists complained that the studies were completely controlled by
the Bureau, who had no obligation to act on its recommendations. They demanded
instead that a full blown EIS be done, a document that would force the Secretary of the
Interior to make changes. In the midst of the debate, the studies began.
The Grand Canyon is a complex place and the task was daunting. Wegner divided
the studies into three areas; biology, sediment, and recreation and the first research
trip launched from the Ferry in April of 1983. As it turned out, 1983 was not the best
year to study normal operations from Glen Canyon Dam. Lake Powell, near
capacity, was hit with a severe and sudden winter runoff in that year. Floods above 50,000
cfs raged through the Canyon that summer for the first time since the dam closed its gates
20 years before. On the rim debate raged over what exactly GCES should be studying. The
utilities that purchase power from Glen Canyon, from whose revenues the studies were being
financed, argued that the objective was to study fluctuating flows and not the flooding
that was taking place. Many scientists and the environmental community felt the
opportunity to study the floods was too valuable to pass up. Wegner and his crews pressed
on, modifying their studies to try to record the changes that were taking place. The
Colorado spent most of the next three years at or above maximum powerplant releases. This
afforded the GCES scientists only a limited period for studying the dams normal
fluctuating flow pattern. The period of flooding complicated the final results of the
studies and precipitated fierce debate over its conclusions. At the same time it
provided immensely valuable understanding of the river system at higher flows. It changed
the very way we thought about the dam and its effects. It showed us that high water
releases, in the absence of thick, rich, pre-dam sediments were the most destructive way
to send water through the Canyon. In January 1988 the GCES 1 Final Report was published.
The results were inconclusive. While the studies concluded that dam operations, especially
high, clear-water floods, did adversely affect the river downstream, they also recognized
that further study was needed.
Conclusions of GCESI
1) Some aspects of the operation of Glen Canyon Dam have
substantial adverse effects on downstream environmental and recreational resources.
2) Flood releases cause damage to beaches and terrestrial resources.
3) Under current operations, flood releases will occur in about one of
every four years.
4) Fluctuating releases primarily affect recreation and aquatic
5) Modified operations could protect or enhance most resources.
6) Our understanding of the relationships between Dam operations and
downstream resources in not complete.
The Glen Canyon EIS
The conclusions of GCES 1 did little to quell the controversy. In
its Summary and Principal Conclusions it stated, This study was not intended
nor designed to lead directly to changes in dam operations. However, if BuRec
thought that the public furor would die, they were disappointed. No sooner had GCES 1 been
completed than renewed calls were made for a full EIS on the operations of the Dam. The
Bureau of Reclamation resisted. However in August of 1989, bowing to litigation brought by
the National Wildlife Federation and the Grand Canyon Trust and to a strong grassroots
letter writing campaign, Secretary of the Interior Manual Lujan ordered an Environmental
Impact Statement. The Bureau of Reclamation was designated the lead agency with the
responsibility for writing the EIS while the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service, AZ Department of Game and Fish, Western Area Power Administration, the Hopi and
Navajo tribes were considered cooperating agencies. The core of the scientific work would
be coordinated by a newly funded GCES II with Dave Wegner again at the helm.
Grand Canyon Protection Act states:
- that Glen Canyon Dam shall be operated to protect and restore
the downstream resources of Grand Canyon National Park,
- a long-term monitoring program be implemented to measure the
health of the river system,
- orders immediate implementation of protective interim flows.
The Grand Canyon Protection Act
A timetable for completion of the EIS meandered like the stream it
studied. Initially the studies were to take only two years but the realities of the
complex job ahead led to continual revisions. Concern rose over the time needed to
complete the EIS and the ongoing damage to the Canyon prompted a call by GCRG and others
for interim flows. These flows would be designed to slow or stop damage to the Canyon
until the EIS was completed and a final decision rendered. Calls for less damaging flows
were a common part of public scoping sessions held in AZ, UT, and Washington, D.C. during
March of 1990. Late that month Senator Bill Bradley (D, NJ) sent a letter to Secretary
Lujan requesting interim flows. In early April Representative George Miller (D, CA), a
strong proponent for Canyon protection, introduced the Grand Canyon Protection Act (see
inset). Under this and the pressure of the grassroots letter writing campaign, Secretary
Lujan ordered interim flows initiated in August 1991.
Still in effect today, interim flows limit the maximum
release to 20,000 cfs, minimums to 5,000 cfs, ramping rates to 2,000 cfs up and 1,500 cfs
down, and daily changes not to exceed 5,000 cfs.
The Grand Canyon Protection Act passed both houses of Congress in late 1991
but differences within the bill were not reconciled before the end of the Congressional
session and the bill died. These differences focused on who would pay the bill for the
studies and long term monitoring programs. The House version placed that burden on the
users of power from the dam while the Senate tapped general treasury revenues by forgiving
repayment of loans that financed construction of the dam. The bill was reintroduced by
Rep. Miller and Senator McCain (R, AZ) in January of 1992. Throughout that year GCRG and
other environmental organizations pushed hard for passage, feeling that the bill would
settle once and for all the question of whether power or downstream resources had priority
in dam operations. Finally, on the night of October 30, 1992 during the heat of the
Presidential campaign, George Bush signed the Act into law.
Meanwhile, scientific research intensified in the Canyon. More than 150
research trips floated the river during 1992 and 1993 collecting data for the EIS. On the
rim, public meetings were held while a BuRec writing team worked to come up with
alternatives for the draft EIS. Native American interest and involvement increased as the
Bureau of Indian Affairs, Hualapai, Zuni, Havasupai, and San Juan, Kaibab, Shivwits, and
Utah Paiute joined the Navajo and Hopi tribes as cooperating agencies. These agencies met
on a bimonthly basis to discuss issues and provide an ongoing public forum for this
important process. In the winter of 1992-93 the EIS writing team issued several draft EIS
alternatives. These alternatives were designed to provide a wide range of scenarios for
future operation of Glen Canyon Dam. Because of mounting evidence of damage to Canyon
beaches due to severe fluctuations in releases from the dam, attention focused on two
alternatives in particular. These are the Low Fluctuating Flow and Seasonally Adjusted
Steady Flow alternatives. In February 1993 the cooperating agencies agreed to support the
Low Fluctuating Flow alternative for inclusion into the draft EIS. The lone
dissenting cooperating agency was the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). Mandated to
enforce the Endangered Species Act, the USFWS felt that fluctuating flows, especially
during the warm summer months, would jeopardize the nursery habitats for the Canyons
endangered Humpback Chub. It appears that a recent compromise has been reached that will
propose the study of experimental steady flows during the summer months to allow further
study of Chub habitat, while allowing low fluctuating flows the remainder of the year.
EIS Draft Statement:
What to look For:
The draft EIS will be composed of three important parts, heres a
quick look at each:
Preferred Alternative: This section will make a concrete
recommendation to the Secretary on the future operations of Glen Canyon Dam. In keeping
with the wording of the Grand Canyon Protection Act, the thrust of the preferred
alternative will be to protect, enhance, and restore the resources of Grand Canyon
National Park. The alternative will establish operating criteria for the dam, probably a
combination of low fluctuating and steady flows, and set maximum up and down ramp rates,
maximum and minimum releases, and daily maximums on fluctuations.
Long-Term Monitoring: The GCPA stipulates that a long-term
monitoring program be established to evaluate the effectiveness of changes in the
dams operations and monitor the health of the river ecosystem. This section will
determine the degree and scale of future research in the Canyon.
Adaptive Management Program: Given the dynamics of the
system and the gaps in our understanding of it, this may be the most important piece of
the EIS decision. This program will be designed as the management tool to take information
gathered by the monitoring program and make further changes in dam operations to benefit
downstream resources. Look for who will make future decisions on dam operations and how
they will do it.
The Draft EIS
That is the trail we have followed to this point. Any Environmental Impact
Statement terminates in a decision. In the end, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt will
decide on future operations of Glen Canyon Dam. To make this important decision he will
depend on two separate opinions, one scientific and one public. Within a couple of months
the Bureau of Reclamation will issue the Draft Environmental Impact Statement. Then there
will be 6-8 weeks for public comment. Thats where you and I come in.
The EIS is essentially a public process. While it guarantees that a decision
will be made, it provides none of the judgements necessary to make it a sound decision. It
tries to provide the information necessary to make a wise and measured decision, and
relies heavily on the input of citizens like us to help show the way. It is therefore
important that we who are interested in the Grand Canyon take advantage of the opportunity
to learn as much as possible about this complex issue, and then make our judgements known.