Magazine article Earth Island Journal

Let the Colorado River Run Free

Magazine article Earth Island Journal

Let the Colorado River Run Free

Article excerpt

Most of the free-flowing rivers in the Western states have gone the way of the bison, tall grass prairie, condor and wolf -- exterminated on the path of progress. Along the Colorado River basin -- ranging through Colorado, Utah, and Arizona -- no fewer than 60 dams now clog the river's oxbows, channels and canyons, wreaking havoc on native species, traditional water users, and the Colorado River delta ecosystem that carries the river's brackish waters into the Sea of Cortez.

Just as intact primary forests are essential to the biodiversity and balance of terrestrial ecosystems, free-flowing rivers form the lifeblood of riparian systems. But today, most of the Colorado River's endemic species have been destroyed by decades of water diversion and impoundment. Sediments that once replenished shoreline habitats and delta ecosystems now lie on the stagnant floors of the flooded canyons they once helped carve.

An irreplaceable wilderness filled with forgotten treasures -- Dove Canyon, Little Arch, Cathedral in the Desert -- now lies hidden beneath 25 million acre feet of water trapped within 186 miles of reservoirs.

Hydrologists and dam planners knew that large reservoirs in the arid West would loose significant amounts of water to evaporation and seepage into banks of porous sandstone, but the scale of Lake Powell's water loss has shocked dam supporters and opponents alike. With water becoming the West's most valuable resource, the average 1 million acre feet of water lost each year at Lake Powell is a cost few can justify. (An acre foot would approximately cover a football field with 1 foot of water.)

Nearly four decades after the gates closed above Lee's Ferry in 1963, damming the Colorado River and flooding Glen Canyon, a campaign is growing to drain Lake Powell and to allow the Colorado River to again run free through these canyon lands.

Earth Island founder David Brower and the Glen Canyon Institute in Utah have jointly advocated draining Lake Powell for many years, but it was not until this past November that Brower successfully returned the debate to the national level. Securing a unanimous vote by the Sierra Club board to advocate draining Lake Powell (while keeping the dam standing) was a crucial first step. Conservation groups throughout the southwest and California now are following suit.

Brower's resurrection of the campaign to drain Lake Powell was aided by Grand Canyon river guides Jerri Ledbetter and Brad Dimock and by Flagstaff, Arizona, hydrologist Dave Wegner.

For 12 years, Wegner was employed by Glen Canyon Environmental Studies (GCES), a Department of Interior/Bureau of Reclamation venture. GCES conducted studies on the 1983 floods that nearly toppled the dam and advocated the test releases of stored water during the spring of 1996 that successfully restored downstream habitats.

But Wegner grew increasingly frustrated with stonewalling by the Interior Department and Bureau of Reclamation when it came to pursuing studies and publishing findings on the true downstream impacts of Glen Canyon Dam. In January, Wegner tendered his resignation.

Now, as an independent researcher, Wegner heads Ecosystem Management International, dedicated to the research and study of the Colorado River system. …

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