Interior Dept. Ignored Science When It Limited Water Flows to Grand Canyon

Last March, Interior experimented with high water flows from Glen Canyon Dam to rebuild beaches on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon.
Last March, Interior experimented with high water flows from Glen Canyon Dam to rebuild beaches on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. (By Matt York -- Associated Press)
By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Interior Department officials ignored key scientific findings when they limited water flows in the Grand Canyon to optimize generation of electric power there, risking damage to the ecology of the spectacular national landmark, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post.

A Jan. 15 memo written by Grand Canyon National Park Superintendent Steve Martin suggests that the department produced a flawed environmental assessment to defend its actions against environmentalists in court. The Grand Canyon Trust, an advocacy group, has sued Interior for reducing the flow of water from Glen Canyon Dam at night, when consumer demand for electricity is low, on the grounds that the policy hurts imperiled fish species such as the endangered humpback chub and erodes the canyon's beaches.

"The government's brief as presented continues to misinterpret key scientific findings related to the humpback chub, status of downstream resources in Grand Canyon, and the need for the Secretary to acknowledge [National Park Service] authorities and responsibilities to protect resources under [National Park Service] administration," Martin wrote in a memo that The Post obtained from the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. Martin added that his agency continues to fear that the current policy "will significantly impair Grand Canyon resources."

The behind-the-scenes skirmish, which took place just days before President George W. Bush left the White House, highlights the sort of challenges Interior Secretary Ken Salazar will face in his new position. While Salazar declined to comment specifically on the Grand Canyon case because it is the subject of an ongoing legal battle, he said in an interview yesterday that he would emphasize "the need to have sound science in all decision making in the Department of Interior."

"Science should not be shoved under the table in order to deal with special interests that are knocking at the door," said Salazar, adding that he will be looking at several last-minute decisions made by Bush before he left office. "My point of view is, nothing is sacrosanct in terms of being reexamined."

The federal government has spent about $100 million studying water flows on the Colorado River, and the studies indicate that the ecosystem would benefit from occasional short bursts of massive amounts of water along with more regular flows during the day and night. This pattern would mimic the river's natural fluctuations and deposit sediment on canyon beaches while also sustaining fish populations.

Last February, however, Interior approved a five-year "experiment" in which it would allow only one river surge, in March 2008, and afterward would control the water and prohibit any high flows through 2012. Martha Hahn, chief of science and resource management for Grand Canyon National Park, said the power and water industry representatives belonging to Interior's advisory committee on the plan "didn't want to see a high flow" on the Colorado River.

Leslie James, executive director of the Colorado River Energy Distributors Association, said the utilities that use the power generated by the dam do not see why federal authorities would change the water flows, because the number of humpback chub in the river has increased recently.

"Hey, it's a good thing, so let's not make any radical changes," James said, adding that timing the water flows to meet public demand saves money for the 4 million customers using electricity generated from the river.

Hahn, however, said the canyon's humpback chub population is still struggling. The fish's numbers had dipped from 15,000 in the mid-1980s to 2,000 before rising to 5,000 recently, she said: "That's hardly a recovery."

Bureau of Reclamation spokesman Kip White said he could not discuss the controversy in detail because it was "under litigation," but he noted that a federal judge had already ruled that Interior had not violated any laws in drafting its operating plan for the Colorado River.

Mike Snyder, the Park Service's intermountain regional director, received Martin's memo this month. He said yesterday that he concurred with the superintendent's analysis and had tried to petition the Interior Department's top officials to reexamine the Colorado water experiment.

"I think we have some really good science. My concern is we're not using that science to make our decisions," Snyder said. "This is an issue of protecting the resources and values of the Colorado River and Grand Canyon National Park."

When asked whether he had been cautioned by political appointees to mute his criticism of the water plan, Snyder responded, "I was counseled on the importance of having a single Department of Interior family response [to environmentalists' criticism], particularly as it relates to lawsuits."

Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, challenged Salazar to change the policy and allow for a more natural water flow. "If Secretary Salazar really means to clean house at Interior, he needs to start right here," Ruch said.

In the interview, Salazar said he had made it clear to his department's 64,000 employees that "the ethical lapses of the past will be no more" and that he will push for greater accountability at Interior. On Thursday, he plans to travel to Lakewood, Colo., to address Minerals Management Service employees. In September, the Interior Department inspector general accused more than a dozen MMS employees of engaging in unethical and criminal behavior.

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