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RISING WATERS AND MISMANAGEMENT ON THE COLORADO
Heavy runoffs from winter snows have created an ominous buildup of water behind Arizona's Glen Canyon Dam, just above the Grand Canyon. The rising water level calls into question how well the series of dams that dot the Colorado River are fulfilling their ofttimes contradictory purposes of storing water, generating power, controlling floods and providing for the recreational activities the majestic Colorado offers in abundance. Senior writer Robert H. Boyle reports:
Completed in 1966, the Glen Canyon Dam created Lake Powell, a 186-mile-long reservoir that receives snowmelt runoff from Utah, New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming. As of last weekend the runoff was nearly double normal levels, and in an effort to find room for it, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation was discharging lake water at the rate of 43,000 cubic feet per second. But water was surging into the lake at 101,000 cubic feet per second, raising the level 10 inches a day. On Sunday the level was just 13 feet below the top of the 710-foot-high-dam.
Anyone interested in flow conditions—river rafters, fishermen seeking the huge rainbow trout to be found in the Grand Canyon, casual tourists—can call a toll-free number provided by the bureau, 1-800-624-5099, for a daily update. One report last week said, "The National Park Service has been advised of the increased flows and indicates that rafting through the Grand Canyon below Lees Ferry, Ariz, should not be adversely affected." But Dr. Larry J. Paulson, director of the Lake Mead Limnological Research Center at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, was skeptical. "That's what the bureau said last year," he said. "I think they're being very optimistic."
Last year, severe flooding occurred below the dam after the bureau and the Upper Colorado River Commission decided to keep Lake Powell as high as possible. Flood control supposedly has priority over water storage and power generation on the Colorado, but the individual states jealously hoard water, and there's money to be made selling electricity. Every little bit of water the bureau adds to the lake and sends through the eight turbines in Glen Canyon Dam means more money is on the way to Washington. Before the dam was finished, the flow through the Grand Canyon varied only an inch or two from day to day, but according to Martin Litton, the owner of Grand Canyon Dories, which runs float trips on the Colorado, the bureau now changes the water level of the river by as much as 15 feet in 24 hours. At times the Colorado is practically bonedry downriver, with harmful consequences for fish and other wildlife; at other times heavy flooding is the problem. These man-made ups and downs needlessly erode beaches, doing incalculable damage to what Litton describes as "the most celebrated natural wonder on this planet, the Grand Canyon."
Early last June, Lake Powell was so high that it couldn't contain the runoff, and the bureau began dumping water through the spillways on either side of the dam. The thundering water tore huge chunks out of the concrete-lined spillways and ate into the surrounding sandstone, which is more sand than stone. According to one published report, bureau officials were concerned that the sandstone would give way and cause an "uncontrolled release" of water from Lake Powell.
Fortunately, the runoff eased without dire results. Interior Secretary James Watt was exultant: "I'm thrilled. The system worked beautifully." But people as far away as Yuma, Ariz., near the Mexican border, didn't join in the huzzahs. The bureau had dumped water on them with virtually no advance notice. There was more than $50 million in property damage, and the effect on beaches and rapids in the Grand Canyon was frightening. As many as 11 rubber rafts flipped in one day; one man drowned in Crystal Rapid; and the park service had to use helicopters to pluck stranded rafters from the river.
The damage to the spillways is still being repaired. Whether the work will be completed in time to handle all of this year's anticipated runoff is uncertain. It could be a photo finish. Downriver on Lake Mead, Paulson says, "Everyone here is rooting for the bureau, because no one wants trouble, but I am very, very concerned." Even if the kind of serious trouble Paulson has in mind is averted, the lesson is clear: The yo-yo-like lake-level fluctuations and wholesale hoarding of water at Glen Canyon and other dams on the Colorado must give way to a more evenhanded approach to water management, one that puts as much emphasis on flood control and recreation as it does on water storage and the generation of electricity.
The International Olympic Committee celebrated its 90th birthday last week with ceremonies in the grand amphitheater of the Sorbonne in Paris, the room in which Baron de Coubertin founded the IOC in 1894. The defection of the Soviet Union and 13 (so far) other countries from the L.A. Olympics cast a pall over the festivities. Reflecting fears that the U.S.S.R., which doesn't recognize the South Korean government, might also boycott the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul, Nelson Paillou, the president of the French national Olympic committee, seized the occasion to suggest that those Games be held instead in Barcelona. Although the IOC's official line is that the '88 Games will not be relocated, the organization's director, Monique Berlioux, sounded less than convincing on that point. "There is no problem with Seoul," she said, and then added, "for the time being."