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1999 Friends of Lake Powell, Inc.
P.O. Box 7007
Page, AZ 86040 USA
(928) 645-2741  Fax: 928-353-2227

Statement before the
Subcommittee on National Parks and Public Lands and
Subcommittee on Water and Power
Committee on Resources
United States House of Representatives

Regarding the Proposal to Drain Lake Powell
or Reduce its Water Storage Capability
Robert Elliott
America Outdoors and Arizona Raft Adventures

Flagstaff, Arizona

September 23, 1997


Chairman Hansen, Chairman Doolittle, and illustrious members of the subcommittees, thank you kindly for inviting me to testify on the proposal to drain Lake Powell or reduce its water storage capability.

My name is Rob Elliott. I am testifying on behalf of America Outdoors, a national trade association comprised of 600 small businesses which outfit back country trips for the public on lands managed by government agencies across the nation and on behalf of Arizona Raft Adventures, my river outfitting business in the Grand Canyon.

Glen Canyon and David Brower have influenced my world view in profound ways. I earn my living outfitting the public through the Grand Canyon and for over a decade I have represented the outfitting industry in the development and passage of the Grand Canyon Protection Act and the Glen Canyon Dam Environmental Impact Statement. I am also a student of the emerging debate over the proposed draining of Lake Powell.

Knowing what we know today, and on balance with all the myriad considerations, I am adamantly opposed to the draining of Lake Powell and I will document my position in a few moments.

I am an advocate for an immediate governmental risk analysis of the competency of Glen Canyon Dam and the flood control role and capacity of Lake Powell. I am also an advocate for increasing our commitment to scientific inquiry at Lake Powell so as to better understand policy options in the future.

Chairman Hansen, you are to be commended for giving the Lake Powell discussion exposure as I believe much good can come from elevating the debate. And Chairman Doolittle, thank you for scheduling hearings on El Nino, as I believe there is a close correlation on these issues as you will see from my testimony.

Background and credentials

Spiritually, I grew up in Glen Canyon, I have lived and worked and played on the Colorado Plateau most of my adult life, and I have outfitted over 30,000 people on river trips through the Grand Canyon. I also participated in countless meetings debating, and in the end, helping determine how Glen Canyon Dam should be operated to protect downstream environmental, recreation, and cultural resources. I represented the outfitting industry in the Transition Work Group for several years, working directly with the Bureau of Reclamation and the dozen or so cooperating agencies in the development of the Glen Canyon Dam Environmental Impact Statement.

I was twice blessed in the spring of 1962 when I floated through Glen Canyon with David Brower. Before dawn one morning I left alone for the 6 mile hike up Aztec Creek to see Rainbow Bridge and on returning to camp I had an epiphany. I cried out loud and apologized to God for sacrificing Glen Canyon. That experience forever annealed the environmental ethic to my soul.

The second blessing was meeting and coming to know David Brower, a personal hero of mine. David Brower compelled Americans to talk around their dinner tables about big dams, wilderness, and air and water quality. David Brower taught me that one person can make a monumental difference in the world, and to question conventional wisdom.

With that walk down Aztec Creek in Glen Canyon, I vowed to do whatever I could to save the Grand Canyon from a similar fate and chose to act on that commitment as a river outfitter in the Grand Canyon for the ensuing 32 years. Thanks to David Brower and many others, there are no dams in the Grand Canyon. Thanks to Senator McCain, the Grand Canyon Trust, and other notable individuals and organizations there is a Grand Canyon Protection Act, an Environmental Impact Statement, and a Record of Decision that mandates Glen Canyon Dam be operated to minimize adverse impacts on the environmental, recreational, and cultural resources downstream from Glen Canyon Dam. I am proud to have represented the outfitting industry for over a decade in the amazingly complex processes which led to those historic documents and decisions.

Lake Powell should not be drained for habitat restoration

My first reaction to the notion of draining Lake Powell and freeing the Colorado River to its predam condition was, "Wouldn't it be wonderful to turn back the clock ... and what a preposterous idea!" I understand the emotional and philosophical arguments that since our generation drowned Glen Canyon, it's our obligation to undo it. Glen Canyon Dam provides a fine example of not thinking through all the implications of our actions and if we were to debate the decision today, we probably wouldn't build it. Barry Goldwater and Stewart Udall have expressed this same opinion. Beyond the many lessons for other big dams elsewhere on the planet, to continue flogging this issue is not productive. The fact is, the dam already exists and we're not debating building it again.

My more studied reaction to the proposal to drain Lake Powell is that the riparian habitat in Grand Canyon downstream from the dam is today amazingly vibrant, rich in biodiversity, none the less legitimate because it is a highly managed ecosystem, and it is threatened by both the prospect of draining Lake Powell and the possibility that nature may act first to blow out Glen Canyon Dam, with or without the authorization of Congress.

The downstream environment in Grand Canyon is rich in biodiversity and a happy place to go boating

The post dam riparian conditions in the Grand Canyon are neither better nor worse than before the darn, but certainly vastly different. Post dam conditions are richer, more vibrant. With the control of annual flooding, there has been a dramatic increase in riparian vegetation with a corresponding increase in biodiversity, including supportive habitat for threatened and endangered species. With considerably less sediments in the water, natural light penetrates to the riverbed, producing chlodophera, a food base for gammeris (tiny little invertebrates) which support fish and an increasing number of waterfowl and birds of prey such as peregrine falcon. By accident, we have created a refuge for neotropical birds of regional significance. And the cold, clear water below the dam supports a blue ribbon trout fishery. A highly regulated river has produced high biodiversity and new recreational opportunity.

Recreationally, river running in the Grand Canyon took off at the end of the decade in which the dam was built. Early Bureau of Reclamation managers like to think the dam made river running possible. Although the fight to keep dams out of Grand Canyon may have brought early popularity to river running, from a flow perspective, there is no correlation between flows moderated by the dam and ability to run the river. Modem day river running has experienced 90% of the median range of pre dam flows from 3,000 cubic feet per second to 92,500 cubic feet per second. We have the water craft, safety systems, and training to handle most any flow the river can throw at us.

Recreationally, the difference comes in the sediments and water temperature. Pre dam, or post draining Lake Powell, the water temperature in August would be 80 degrees and 10% of it would be mud. There would be lots of flies, no way to get clean, and no cold water to help our perishable foods make it through the canyon for two weeks. Not a pretty picture. As an environmentalist and a river runner who regards the Grand Canyon as home, I and my customers rather like the river environment and species diversity which has evolved downstream from the dam the way it is today.

What are the environmental consequences of draining Lake Powell?

With the draining of Lake Powell and the freeing of Glen Canyon from beneath megatons of presumably toxic sediments, restoration would begin immediately ... and take a millennium for nature to restore Glen Canyon to ... to what? We don't know. We know relatively little about the predam natural condition of either the Grand Canyon or Glen Canyon. We certainly don't know the capacity of the earth's ability to heal itself, especially when over 80 more dams upstream from Glen Canyon will continue to affect downstream conditions in Glen Canyon and the Grand Canyon.

Glen Canyon would be an unstable environment for a very long period of time and the first species to reclaim the land would very likely be invasive, non native species such as tamarisk. Restoration to a natural condition may neither be possible nor desirable.

We know very little about the environmental consequences of draining Lake Powell, but we do know some things about river sediments in delta deposits elsewhere. As river sediments accumulate, various naturally occurring compounds concentrate to toxic levels. One reason the cooperators and the Glen Canyon Dam EIS team debunked the notion of transporting sediments around Glen Canyon Dam and did not include that option in the EIS, was because of requirements contained in the Clean Water Act. The likelihood was high that the lake sediments had become the repository for heavy metals and other toxins.

What do the proponents of draining the lake suggest we do with these toxic sediments? The Colorado River flowing into Glen Canyon would carry the same sediments it does today. Upon entering the former Lake Powell the river would pick up newly exposed lake sediments. At best, the mix of lake sediments with upstream sediments is a black box scientifically. If the sediments flow through Glen and Grand Canyons, then Lake Mead will fill all the more quickly ... and then are we to decommission Hoover Dam as well? Is the only ultimate answer to let the sediments run through to the Sea of Cortez? To use the water, we must remove the sediments and I admit, that fact poses very tough questions for future generations. It's not too soon to start looking for the answers today.

Whether anyone seriously believes in the prospect of draining Lake Powell, we need answers to all of these questions. What is the composition of the lake sediments and how fast are they accumulating? Do the lake sediments pose a health and safety concern for our or future generations? While we are studying Lake Powell, let's find out how much water is really lost to evaporation and percolation. And what about meromixis, the accumulation of deep water conditions with high salinity and very low oxygen levels which some day could kill fish and corrode turbines. Scientists can help answer these questions, but the Glen Canyon Dam ElS mandated long term monitoring for Grand Canyon only, not Lake Powell and its sediments, except in circumstances where it could be documented that sediment disturbance will have an impact on downstream resources. I suggest a broad view on scientific correlation between Lake Powell and the downstream environment in Grand Canyon.

There are important economic factors to consider as well. Do we build another Navajo or Mojave generating station to replace Glen Canyon Dam's power production? Because of upstream habitat loss and the accumulation of toxic sediments in reservoirs such as Lake Powell, hydropower is not the clean energy panacea some would think. But it doesn't make any sense to walk away from the present benefits of Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell without understanding a very great deal more than we do today. Wisely or unwisely, the investment has been made and the dam plays an important role in the mix of water, power, flood control, and recreational benefits today.

You also asked about the reduction in water storage capability of Lake Powell

We must begin risk analysis to determine the competency of Glen Canyon Dam and flood control capacity in Lake Powell to withstand a 500 year flood. How long did the engineers design the dam to last? Was it smart to put it in sandstone in the first place? There is a lot of speculation as to how long the dam will be there. We almost lost it in 1983 when E1Nino produced 210% of normal snowpack in the early spring and a warm June brought it all down in the first ten days of the month. Engineers added plywood flash boards to the spillway gates to increase the capacity of the lake. After the flood danger had passed, an inspection of the bypass tubes revealed significant damage. Repairs were made and a cavitation problem was fixed. I, and many others, feared that a few more days of inflow to the Lake beyond what we experienced may have made the Glen Canyon Institute's idea of draining the lake a reality.

With all tubes and spillways flowing, Glen Canyon Dam can release somewhere between 220,000 and 270,000 cubic feet per second (I have heard both figures) and might be able to handle that for a few days. Bill Duncan, the manager of the dam, says the 1983 problem with the bypass tubes has been fixed and the tubes are competent to handle full volume. A 500 year flood event runs about 250,000 cubic feet per second and sedimentologists with the Bureau of Reclamation point to evidence of prehistoric floods of up to 400,000 c.f.s. Meteorologists tell us that El Nino event building off the coast of South America is expected to be the biggest of the century.

The Adaptive Management Work Group just decided to run a flood test of 33,000 c.f.s. this October and the Bureau plans to release flows in the mid 20's (23,000 to 28,000 c.f.s.) around the clock this winter to create adequate flood capacity in Lake Powell. My view is that the subcommittees can productively focus time and resources on assuring that the risk analysis of managing a 500 year flood event is addressed. Whether the lake is drained by man or the dam is blown out by nature, the riparian resources in both Glen Canyon and Grand Canyon will recover in a few hundred years. Whether we have a choice, or no choice, if we fail to accommodate the eventuality of a 500 year flood, we may have created a situation with unacceptable risks to society.


Thank you for legitimizing this very necessary debate. I believe dam removal in some river systems may increasingly be a credible and necessary management alternative over time, just not Glen Canyon Dam and not now. If you want to broaden the scope of critical inquiry on the operations of Glen Canyon Dam, including its vital role in controlling floods, then you are doing a very responsible thing by having this hearing. What we learn from assessing storage capacity, the quantity and quality of lake sediments, and downstream impacts of a 500 year flood event at Glen Canyon may provide invaluable scientific data and understanding against which to evaluate long range management options at other aging facilities.

Habitat restoration in Glen Canyon by draining Lake Powell is a very bad idea on all counts, environmentally, recreationally, socially, and economically.

The damming of Glen Canyon was a wrong that cannot be righted in this way. It is counterproductive to outfitted river trips and other forms of recreation, counterproductive to local economies, and counterproductive to the environment. Habitats can, and in many instances such as wetlands, must be restored. But the restoration of Glen Canyon is far too problematical and of too great a cost to society and to other environments.

We must all be open to evaluating the draining of reservoirs as a viable management option that may make sense in some cases in the future. But in the case of Glen Canyon, I do not believe the restoration of Glen Canyon is either doable, or a net benefit for anyone or any natural, cultura or recreational resource involved.

Thank you very much for the opportunity to testify.

For more information contact. friends@lakepowell.org