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Op-Ed: Climate change forces us to rethink Glen Canyon Dam and its releases
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The Bureau of Reclamation began a high-flow experiment from Glen Canyon Dam Monday. These experiments began in response to the Grand Canyon Protection Act.

This act, introduced by Sen. John McCain, sought to remedy the critical environmental problems in the Grand Canyon caused by Glen Canyon Dam.

In support of this bill, McCain cited, "The degradation of natural resources within the canyon" and the "adverse impact(s) on a variety of downstream environmental and recreational resources ... including Colorado River beaches, endangered fish species, a blue-ribbon trout fishery and white water river rafting."

The introduction of high-flow experiments was an admirable accomplishment. Building on the science and research dedicated to rescuing the Grand Canyon, these experiments seemed like our best hope.

While this effort has been commendable, it has not produced any long lasting recovery to the Grand Canyon. Beaches are temporarily restored, only to be eroded away within months. Food webs in the Grand Canyon remain unstable, and endangered fish populations are still grasping for stability.

So far, High Flow Experiments are only providing temporary benefits to the Grand Canyon and doing nothing to reverse the long term trend of decline.

This HFE solution was created under the assumption that the status quo of Colorado River management was stable and unchangeable. The new normal of climate change has shown that this system will not be able to continue unchanged.

Next year, it may be impossible to conduct a high flow experiment if, as expected, we experience another low water year. What will happen to the Grand Canyon then?

As we seek innovative solutions to the impending water crisis in the Colorado River basin, it is time to question the faulty assumptions that led us to this point. A central question that we must ask is whether or not Lake Powell is a good place to store water.

There are currently only two straws into this reservoir, – both of which could pull water directly from the river. Recent peer reviewed research shows that storing water in the porous basin of Lake Powell results in net losses of 300,000 acre feet of water each year.

Attempting to balance out reservoir levels, Lake Powell will release less water this year to the Lake Mead than ever before. This lowered release is escalating the water crisis of Nevada, and increasing the probability of shortage conditions in the lower basin by 2016.

So why do we store water in Lake Powell?

Faulty and inflated assumptions of annual river flows and territorial water grabbing led to the development of Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell storage.

In the 50 years since Glen Canyon Dam was built, our scientific understanding has increased dramatically. Yet, we continue to rely on 50-year-old thinking in our water management decisions.

We have the ability to make a real and lasting impact on the health of the Grand Canyon if we are willing to look at new and innovative solutions that reflect current circumstances and science. A growing body of science states Lake Powell and Lake Mead will likely never fill again.

The water crisis in the Colorado River basin will lead to a 3.4 million-acre-foot shortage by 2060. Water storage in Lake Powell will continue to wreak havoc on the ecosystems of the Grand Canyon.

The status quo is dysfunctional. High flow experiments, while an important step in the right direction, will not remedy this dysfunction.

It is time to bring our water management into the current decade – and discover solutions that will adequately address the decline of the Grand Canyon.

Christi Wedig is executive director of the Glen Canyon Institute.

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