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 questioner.
   "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 demanded.
   "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. It’s simply a routine maintenance procedure."
   The young woman was not satisfied. “But why are you increasing the maximum discharge if it’s 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 80’s 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 it’s 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 informed commentary.


   As the public outcry over Glen Canyon Dam grew in the early 1980’s, 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 resources?

   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 it’s 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 dam’s normal fluctuating flow pattern. The period of flooding complicated the final results of the studies and precipitated fierce debate over it’s 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 resources.
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 it’s 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.

Interim Flows

     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 Canyon’s 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, here’s 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 dam’s 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. That’s 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.

Tom Moody