Glen Canyon Dam and the pill from MIT

Posted on | April 22, 2010 | 7 Comments

This one is strictly for water wonks. Now that I’ve cleared the room, Richard Spotts of the Great Basin Water Network alerted me to this paper from the Columbia Journal of Environmental Law. “Collaborative Planning and Adaptive Management in Glen Canyon: A Cautionary Tale” looks at the impact of changing environmental regulation on the operations of the second largest dam on the Colorado River. It then wades through the on-going efforts to resolve the succession of shit storms that followed the 1956 construction of Glen Canyon Dam.

The authors, two from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the third from the University of California, Irvine write, “The Glen Canyon Dam Adaptive Management Program should not be considered a success because it has failed to address effectively the concerns that led to its creation in the first place, including:  (1) developing a stakeholder-supported operating plan responsive to increased understanding; (2) averting litigation and other attempts to resolve conflict outside of the AMP context; and (3) protecting the downstream ecology, including endangered species.”

Strong stuff in the dullest possible terms. But bear with me/them.

The beauty of this paper is in its rounding up of people, places and animals impacted by construction of the dam. Read the acronym-studded account and the source of the “concerns” become obvious. Glen Canyon Dam was built in the middle of nowhere (Page, Arizona) to supply power and water to the arid West. But in Lake Powell, the body of water impounded behind it, the dam also created a recreation playground. Nowhere became somewhere. Tourist dollars made it a mixed blessing for the local Navajo and other tribes. As boat rental companies moved in, environmentalists rallied around a local fish, the humpback chub. Cliffs note hint: The dam was not good for the chub.

Once the authors add the issues of climate change, the population explosion in the dry West and massive evaporation from Lake Powell, the “concerns” grow so exponentially that a haunted 1997 quote from an early dam-backer, Barry Goldwater, almost makes sense. “I have to be honest with you,” said the five-term senator and presidential candidate from Arizona, “I’d be happier if we didn’t have the lake. I’d vote against it. I’ve become convinced that, while water is important, particularly for those of us who live in the desert, it’s not that important.”

Reading the 54-page paper was worth it for that quote alone, never mind the footnote to the excellent 2007 Arizona Republic piece that provided it.

All that said, I’m not sure that I agree with the paper’s conclusions, starting with the assertion that the adaptive management would have gone more swimmingly had Congress not “abdicated its responsibility to provide clear guidance regarding the relative priority of competing resource goals and the importance of various program components.”

It merits mentioning here that the lead author, Lawrence Susskind, is also co-author of “The Cure for our Broken Political Process: How We Can Get Our Politicians to Resolve the Issues Tearing Our Country Apart.” Once the nation’s voters and politicians read his book, and reform, he may have a point about how Congress simply failed to task everyone adroitly while divided by regional interests and dancing on the moving ball of history. Until then, I, personally, am not counting on Congress to lead Interior as to how to best manage water.

Nor am I sold on the assertion from Susskind et al that Interior failed on the stakeholder mollification front. Having checked in on a posse of Reclamation people as they sought public comment by lugging a draft Environmental Impact study for the Colorado’s current operating procedures around the Southwest in 2007, I could not fault them for outreach. These Interior ambassadors took water studies to the public, but the public did not drink. These highly caffeinated Interior consensus builders could have been home with their significant others, but instead they were on the road and the meeting rooms set up for them in Las Vegas, Albuquerque, Salt Lake City and so on were so empty that they could have cleared chairs and played tennis.

Other games would have been difficult for lack of numbers.

That’s not to say that there aren’t enough people in the seven states on the Colorado River system with opinions about water to fill an auditorium. It’s just that these varied stakeholders don’t necessarily show up for presentations by the Bureau of Reclamation when they think their best chance of getting what they want is a lawsuit, or some other way of remote-bitching. And they might be right.

But back to this paper. I’m also particularly unconvinced that, as the authors suggest, closer attention to the Consensus Building Handbook (which happens to be co-authored by Susskind), would have resulted in a better outcome for the Glen Canyon Adaptive Management Program. The ironic aspect is that one of the things that leads me to believe this is how thoroughly Susskind himself catalogs the number of conflicts that pile up behind the concrete when a dam is built.


7 Responses to “Glen Canyon Dam and the pill from MIT”

  1. Ron Parry
    April 23rd, 2010 @ 9:51 am

    Thanks for the concise summary of what sounds like a turgid document. As far as I am concerned, the Glen Canyon dam is an obscenity that should never have been built. It not only has massive, negative environmental consequences, but it also dishonors the name of John Wesley Powell.

  2. Jo Anne Garrett
    April 23rd, 2010 @ 1:17 pm

    The fruitless evaporation of water in support of petroleum-based recreation is an outmoded scheme. “Fill Lake Mead First,” as advocated by Glen Canyon Institute, can be the beginning of enlightened management of tbe Colorado River.

  3. Michael Keenan
    April 23rd, 2010 @ 4:02 pm

    Want to see the Glen Canyon in 3D before the dam was built? Hold an all you Avatars!

  4. David Zetland
    April 23rd, 2010 @ 5:52 pm

    1) Beautiful: “Other games would have been difficult for lack of numbers.”

    2) Thanks for pointing out Susskind’s CV-pimping

    3) People sleep thru water presentations b/c they are rarely the special interests who will benefit. They lose $0.02 in taxes and x thousands of wetlands that they’ve never heard of, so they don’t care — as individuals.

    It’s that old collective action problem…

  5. delert grady
    April 23rd, 2010 @ 7:56 pm


    Great post as usual. Loved your end statements about the empty auditorium. Classic. How true.

    Ironic that we’re discussing Glen Canyon Dam. It’s father, Floyd Dominy died today.


  6. EmilyGreen
    April 23rd, 2010 @ 9:20 pm

    Delert, I owe you one. Dominy death linked. David, Beautiful: “that old collective action problem.” Everyone else, bloody interesting.

  7. Earl Caffner
    September 28th, 2010 @ 10:05 am

    Edward Abbey was right about Lake Foul.

Leave a Reply

  • After the lawn

  • As you were saying: Comments

  • As I was saying: Recent posts

  • Garden blogs

  • Contact

    Emily Green by e-mail at [at]
  • Categories