Conservation groups offer constructive suggestions for mitigating impacts to cherished global icon
*Read a related story on other threats here
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — Grand Canyon National Park, an American and global icon, faces serious threats to its most important resources from uranium mining, air pollution and stream depletions, according to the National Parks Conservation Association.
The nonprofit, formed by Stephen Mather in 1916 as a citizen’s auxiliary to the National Park Service, released a new report Monday that identifies critical concerns and offers some strategies to address them.
“We’re trying to speak directly to the American people about how serious these threats are,” said David Nimkin, the organization’s Southwest regional director.
Nimkin said the Grand Canyon provides physical and spiritual recreation for millions of visitors, and also contributes more than $1 billion annually to the regional economy.
Along with other conservation experts, Nimkin outlined the top issues during a teleconference Monday morning, highlighting flows in the river itself as being a threat to the very thing that formed the Canyon in the first place.
Eons of geological and biological processes were stopped short with construction of Glen Canyon Dam, he said, explaining that periodic controlled releases down the Canyon aren’t not enough to sustain threatened and endemic plants and animals — or the recreational values enjoyed 25,000 rafters and countless hikers.
“We desperately want to see the adaptive management process work to protect the river,” he said, referring to a science-based process showing that some changes in the flow regime would go a long way toward sustaining natural resources and recreation.
The legal framework for better management already exists, the group’s report points out. What’s lacking is the political will to implement changes. Large southwestern power companies that generate electricity from Glen Canyon’s turbines are especially reluctant to give up the status quo.
Generating electricity during peak demand hours drives revenue up fractionally, but extolls a great biological cost by raising and lowering flows in an unnatural rhythm.
The river needs sustained flows in between the periodic high flows to remain functional, said the University of Utah’s Dan McCool, who directs the school’s environmental study program and specializes in river restoration studies.
“The Colorado River is in danger of becoming a sterile, man-made channel filled with non-native invasive species. That doesn’t sound much like a national park, does it?” he asked rhetorically.
“We’re going to have to make some fundamental changes in the way we let water out of Glen Canyon Dam,” he said, adding that the “fake floods” have only temporary benefits for the canyon environment. “The kind of changes that need to be made will have a very modest impact … only pennies per customer … on generation of hydro-electric power,” he said. “Some changes with minimal financial impactscould have huge benefits for the river,” he added.
At issue is the sediment that’s being trapped in Lake Powell. In the pre-dam era, huge floods would roar down all the way from the Rockies, scouring out sheer rock, along with non-native plants like tamarisk, and creating rich riparian habitat for lizards, frogs, birds and mammals. McCool said the best available science shows flows could be adaptively managed to recreate a hydrograph that’s somewhat more natural, mimicking the ancient cycle of flood and ebb.
There’s absolutely no reason we can’t restore some of the natural features and health and vitality of river through Grand Canyon National Park,” he said. “It can all be done within mandate of 1992 Grand Canon Protection Act.”
Adaptive management strategies also give the park ecosystem the best chance of surviving potential global warming impacts, the conservation experts said.
Filed under: Environment, Summit County Colorado Tagged: | Colorado River, Environment, Glen Canyon Dam, Grand Canyon, Grand Canyon National Park, Lake Powell, National Park Service, Summit County News, United States