Colorado River adaptive management program needs overhaul, critics say

After 13 years of experimentation, a collaborative program aimed at reversing some of the ecological damage wrought by Glen Canyon Dam in the Grand Canyon's stretch of the Colorado River has failed to live up to its congressional mandate, critics within the program say.

And even as the science on the river's health points in the direction of flow changes that would mimic natural conditions, members of the 25-member Adaptive Management Work Group remain entrenched along old battle lines that pit power producers and Colorado River Basin states against environmental groups and wildlife agencies concerned about the river's ecological decline.

The result is a policy stalemate that has effectively kept Glen Canyon Dam operating under the same conditions as in 1992, when Congress passed the Grand Canyon Protection Act, calling on the Interior Department and stakeholders to figure out ways to "protect, mitigate adverse impacts to, and improve" conditions within Grand Canyon National Park's river corridor.

The construction in the 1960s of Glen Canyon Dam and its reservoir, Lake Powell, has drastically altered historic downstream flows on the Colorado River. Among other things, the dam captures sediment that once gave the river its signature murky reddish color, and water releases from the bottom of the reservoir have substantially cooled river temperatures, creating adverse conditions for federally endangered humpback chub, a native fish, and other species.

Yet despite the continued impacts on the Grand Canyon ecosystem, the Glen Canyon Dam Adaptive Management Work Group, or AMWG, has never reached sufficient consensus to execute its primary charge -- recommending a new dam operations policy to the Department of Interior.

"My frustration with this process is that it's not an adaptive management program," Rick Johnson, who represents the Grand Canyon Trust on the work group, said during a break of a meeting of the work group last week in Phoenix. "We've never changed policy."

Battle over flows

Since the mid-1990s, the Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the dam, has conducted three high-flow experiments aimed at mimicking spring surges of snowmelt that historically inundated the Grand Canyon, scouring sediment from the Colorado River's channel and depositing it downstream in sandbars and beaches.

In studying those three controlled floods, scientists have found that a large surge, carried out after spring thunderstorms have stirred up sediment, followed by low summer flows to reduce erosion of new sandbars and beaches, appears to benefit the humpback chub, which needs backwater habitat created by the sandbars, and improves conditions for recreational rafters, who use the beaches as campsites.

Last month, the U.S. Geological Survey issued a report that found the humpback chub population in the Grand Canyon had increased by 50 percent between 2001 and 2008, partly due to such flow experiments.

While some questions about the effects of the experimental flows remain unanswered, federal biologists and some advocacy groups say there is sufficient evidence from the 13-year, $80 million research program to suggest a flow regime change.

"I think that there's enough data that we could propose that," said Sam Spiller, a biologist and Lower Colorado River coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and an AMWG member. "There seems to be a consensus among scientists that that's what the resources in the Grand Canyon need."


The National Park Service also would like to see more high flows. Last year, Grand Canyon National Park Superintendent Steve Martin said in an interview that "the science is clear" and justifies regular surges from Glen Canyon Dam (Land Letter, April 10, 2008).

But while the work group has voted for three high-flow experiments in recent years, all seven of the Colorado River Basin states -- Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming -- along with power utilities that sell hydropower to some of those states, have resisted recommending permanent changes to the dam's operating regime, citing concerns about lost power and reduced revenues.

Currently, the dam is operated under a "modified low fluctuating flow" regime, under which releases vary throughout the day. While that prescription is ideal for power generation, it has proved problematic for the humpback chub and other Grand Canyon resources.

Two reports, a biological opinion from FWS in 1994 and a USGS analysis of the effect of 10 years of dam operations issued in 2005, concluded that modified low fluctuating flows have not restored sediment transport or helped native fish recovery in the Grand Canyon.

"There's going to be a huge debate if there's a management action to alter flows on a regular basis," John Shields, interstate streams engineer for the state of Wyoming who represents Wyoming on the AMWG, said in an interview after the meeting.

'Who pays?'

Part of the problem, said Shane Capron of the Western Area Power Association, who heads the adaptive management program's technical working group, is that it is unclear who would shoulder the economic burden of tweaking flows to more closely mimic historic conditions.

"We don't know right now how to transition from science to management," he said at the meeting. "There are big implications of moving these things into management: Who pays? Who implements?"

The inherent difficulties of balancing resource protection and power and water needs were on display at last week's meeting, when Andre Potochnik, who represents Grand Canyon river guides on the work group, floated a motion calling for consideration of a new high-flow test within the next couple of years.

That motion was rejected on a 10-8 vote, with three abstentions. The seven Colorado River Basin states voted no, while three American Indian tribes, along with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the National Park Service, two environmental groups and Potochnik, voted yes.

Leslie James of the Colorado River Energy Distributors Association, which distributes power from Glen Canyon Dam to customers in the Colorado River Basin, said the association supports high-flow tests. But James emphasized conditions have to be right to conduct them, and that the science is not yet solid enough to determine what those conditions are.

"So I think it's premature" to recommend a new high-flow test, James said.

Shields, the Wyoming representative, noted that under a 2008 Bureau of Reclamation plan, the working group cannot recommend a new high-flow test until scientists complete their evaluation of the 2008 test, which is not due until next year.

Furthermore, the Bureau of Reclamation's plan calls for an annual "steady flow" experiment each fall through 2012. And before a new high-flow experiment can go forward, Reclamation would have to undertake an environmental review of its effects under NEPA, a process that could take one to two years.

"We've committed to five years of those fall steady flows," said Larry Walkoviak, Reclamation's regional director for the Upper Colorado region, who is serving as the Interior secretary's acting designee to the work group. "I think it's probably too early to tell" how the flow regime should be changed, he added.

Voting blocs

But environmental advocates said there are other considerations driving the panel's reluctance to call for another high-flow experiment.

"It's all about money," said John Weisheit of the nonprofit group Living Rivers, which has advocated breaching the dam. "They're doing the minimal things to be compliant."

Since power distributors have to purchase replacement power from more expensive sources during flow experiments, they incur a loss with every test flow. The 2008 high-flow experiment, for example, cost power contractors $4 million in lost revenues.

"The optimal flow for sediment -- keeping it in the channel -- is a constant steady flow [after a high flow in the spring], but we realize that's not really an option because of power needs," Ted Melis of USGS's Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center said during a presentation at last week's work group meeting.

Johnson of the Grand Canyon Trust said that according to his group's estimates, power customers would have to pay only an additional 10 cents a month under an altered flow regime.

He suggested that the very makeup of the adaptive management work group favors electric power interests over ecological ones, since group members tend to vote in blocs, with power contractors and the states voting together against environmental groups, natural resource agencies and tribes.

"The secretary should say, 'This group isn't doing what I need,'" Johnson said.

The Grand Canyon Trust has carried that frustration into the courtroom, where a pending lawsuit against the Interior Department charges that the government has failed to protect the Grand Canyon's resources downstream from the dam.

Privately, some federal officials speculated that the program -- and perhaps the controversial flow regime -- might change under the Obama administration.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar nominated Deanna Archuleta to be deputy assistant secretary for water and science last month. If confirmed, Archuleta would become Salazar's designee at the AMWG meetings.

Archuleta, the board chairwoman of the Bernalillo County Water Utility, which serves the Albuquerque, N.M., region, formerly served as the Southwest regional director for the Wilderness Society. She is considered an expert in developing water policy and has extensive experience in dealing with Western water issues, including drought, climate change and population growth.

But Weisheit of Living Rivers said a change in senior leadership will make little difference in the direction of the program. "The administration might change, but the voting bloc never changes," he said. "It's designed to make sure that hydropower has precedence over Grand Canyon restoration."

April Reese writes from Santa Fe, N.M.

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