Dam the Grand Canyon?

No administration has dared suggest it since 1966, when President Lyndon B. Johnson supported the idea and encountered such widespread wrath from environmentalists that he reversed course and promised publicly--and penitently--never to let it happen.

This year, during the flood season out West, rumors circulated that a Grand Canyon dam was again a possibility, but the government's chief dam-builder, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Robert N. Broadbent, vowed: "There's no way, environmentally or politically. That project just wouldn't fly."

Still, for all these years, the Interior Department has continued to classify 94 miles of spectacular Grand Canyon along the Colorado River as a dam project rather than a national park. And recent documents show that the eager beavers in the department's dam-building bureau in the West want to keep it that way.

"Although the dam, reservoir and power plant would be within the Grand Canyon National Park and the transmission lines and access roads would also traverse the park, the non-utilization of the hydro- electric potential of the dam site is in essence costing the nation 8.75 million barrels of oil or 2.4 million tons of coal each year," the bureau's regional office in Boulder City, Nev., wrote in a memo earlier this year.

"To use and develop this natural hydroelectric resource is in the best national interest."

The memo was submitted by Roy D. Gear, then the acting regional director of the bureau, to Interior Department land managers, who are now reviewing the status of all land under the department's authority.

The dam classification in the Grand Canyon will expire in 1985 unless it is extended. And even if it is extended, a Grand Canyon dam would have to clear a dozen or more other hurdles.

Congress would have to override a 1968 act, signed by Johnson, that bans hydroelectric power development on the Colorado between Hoover and Glen Canyon dams. It also would have to appropriate billions of dollars for the project at a time when projects already under way must go begging. And the president would have to approve it.

The dam, as originally conceived, would rise 736 feet and span 1,650 feet astride the Colorado at Bridge Canyon, in the southwestern part of mile-deep Grand Canyon. The river would back up behind it for 94 miles (one-third of its run through the park) and form a reservoir that would be used to generate 1,500 to 5,100 megawatts of hydroelectric power, more than Hoover Dam produces. The bureau predicts the dam would eventually bring in more than twice as much money as it would cost.

But bureau officials make clear that the request to extend the classification doesn't mean a dam is contemplated in the foreseeable future.

"This merely attempts to maintain the status quo of the land in case there is a great need for power sometime in the future," said Bill Plummer, regional director of the bureau in Boulder City.

"We are not studying the dam. We are not even authorized to study the dam. That doesn't mean Congress couldn't authorize it one day, but at this time there is no decision and no authority."

The mere suggestion of damming the Grand Canyon appears to have opened old wounds. The controversy during the Johnson administration was one of the most bitter in the history of the environmental movement. It transformed the movement almost overnight from a loose-knit coalition of outdoors lovers to a team of political operatives.

The Sierra Club placed full-page newspaper ads asking: "Should we also flood the Sistine Chapel so tourists can get nearer the ceil- ing?"

The ad contained cutout coupons to be sent to congressmen to express opposition to the project. Soon afterward, the Johnson administration revoked Sierra's federal tax status, under which contributions to the organization were tax-deductible.

David Brower, then executive director of the Sierra Club and now board chairman of Friends of the Earth, is trying to rally the environmental movement again, this time to prevent the classification of the Grand Canyon as anything other than a wild river, wilderness or national park for all time.

Brower, at 71, retains the religious fervor for conservation that has made him known to colleagues as "the archdruid:"

"I say now what I said then: It's the Grand Canyon. There's only one. It's one of the seven wonders of the world. It's an extraordinary page of the earth's geologic history.

"The free-flowing Colorado is the creator of the canyon, and it is still creating it. You watch it polishing the rocks, digging deeper. If you dam it, silt will travel down and destroy the river. The wildlife depends on the river's flow. You'd lose the river, you'd lose the creative force, you'd lose the ecosystem."

In the Interior Department's bureaucracy, the National Park Service in an official memo has expressed "major concerns" about the bureau's request. Park service director Russell E. Dickenson was quoted by an aide as saying: "Are you kidding? You can tell anybody that I'd be very, very opposed to it."

"The mandate of the park service is to look at land for purposes of preservation, and a dam is not compatible with that mandate," said Grand Canyon superintendent Richard Marks. "The bureau's mandate is to make power. They're doing their thing and we're doing ours. It's a case of the bureaucracy at work."

"The engineers just hate to give up on any dam," said a department official here. "Those boys at the bureau of reclamation never say die."