Draft EA – High Flow Releases
"[T]ime is running out for Grand Canyon National Park. Time is running out on the park's beaches-so many of which have been scoured away by the erratic release of water from Glen Canyon Dam. Time is running out for ancient Indian ruins and cultural sites. Time is running out for the disappearing riparian vegetation and the wildlife it supports. Time is running out for endangered fish species. And time is running out for us to do the right thing." – Senator John McCain, speaking on September 13, 1991
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (BOR), has released a draft Environmental Assessment (Draft EA) that proposes a series of "high-flow experimental releases" (HFEs) of water from Glen Canyon Dam during the next ten years. These HFEs are intended to help restore the Grand Canyon ecosystem, which has been devastated since Glen Canyon Dam was completed in 1963. Unfortunately, the BOR's proposed action falls far short of what is needed to restore the Grand Canyon. The BOR needs to be pushed to take much stronger action that will truly restore the health of this globally important ecosystem.
Glen Canyon Dam has been a disaster for the Grand Canyon. The dam traps 90 percent of the sediment that used to travel downstream, and has eliminated the huge natural floods that once flowed through the canyon. This has caused the Grand Canyon's beaches, sand bars, and wildlife habitats to gradually erode away. As a result, several native species, including the humpback chub, have become endangered by degraded habitat and predation due to introduced non-native species, such as rainbow trout.
The Grand Canyon Protection Act was passed by the U.S. Congress in 1992, to "protect, mitigate adverse impacts to, and improve the values for which Grand Canyon National Park and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area were established." However, 19 years later, little progress has been made in realizing this goal. The BOR has made several high-flow releases during the past 15 years, trying to mimic natural, pre-dam floods. However, they have been only partially successful at best. Some beaches and sand bars were enlarged by the high-flow releases, but there is not enough sediment to fully restore the pre-dam ecosystem. Moreover, due to political pressure, the BOR has continued unnatural water flows to maintain peak hydropower generation, which has significantly eroded the expanded beaches. In addition, the high-flow releases have increased the population of predatory rainbow trout.
The plan in the current Draft EA would continue the inadequate approach of the past for another ten years. This plan does not meet the intent or letter of the Grand Canyon Protection Act or the Endangered Species Act, it does not acknowledge that the Department of the Interior has initiated a comprehensive Colorado River Basin study, and it does not address the potential impacts of climate change. As a result, the Draft EA is actually a setback for the goal of a sustainable Grand Canyon.
Glen Canyon Institute believes that a dramatically new approach is needed for the operation of Glen Canyon Dam. The Secretary should initiate a Basin-wide Colorado River Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), or at the least a revision of its antiquated 1996 Glen Canyon Dam Operations EIS. This new EIS needs to take into account the failure of the current approach to achieve the objectives laid down by the law and BOR policy, the significant research that has been done in recent years, and the growing impacts of climate change on the Colorado River system.
The "Draft Environmental Assessment: Development and Implementation of a Protocol for High-flow Experimental Releases from Glen Canyon Dam, Arizona, 2011-2020" can be found on the Bureau of Reclamation website at http://www.usbr.gov/uc/ envdocs/ea/gc/HFEProtocol/index.html
Though the period for initial comments has passed, there will be future opportunities. We understand that the BOR will be issuing a more detailed environmental impact statement later this year. This will be an even more important document to comment on. Glen Canyon Institute will be submitting comments, and will give our members as much notice as possible when the EIS is issued.