Sunday, February 22, 2009

At Grand Canyon, water battle rages anew

A long, worthwhile piece by Shaun McKinnon in the Arizona Republic covers a recent wrinkle in the ongoing conflict over water and land use in the western region of the US: Nearly a year after the federal government flooded the Grand Canyon in a test of resource restoration, questions persist about whether the agency in charge watered down the experiment to protect power providers and ignored high-level critics of the operation.

The allegations resurfaced with a January memo written by the superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park, who accused his bosses of disregarding science in preparing for the flood designed to reverse some of the damaging effects of Glen Canyon Dam on the canyon and on the Colorado River. He also described the environmental review of the experiment as one of the worst he's seen.

Conservation groups say the Interior Department tailored the experiment, a four-day flush of water from Lake Powell down the Colorado River, to appease providers whose power is generated by Glen Canyon Dam. The providers have long complained about the money lost whenever changes are made in the way water is released from the dam.

The episode further feeds a long-simmering feud between environmentalists and power interests and raises the issue yet again of whether a dam and a fragile riparian ecosystem can coexist. A sustainable solution would require each side to yield some ground, which seems unlikely anytime soon: Conservationists have sued the federal government to force changes even as the Interior Department defends its five-year plan.

Both sides share the rocky but unbreakable link between water and energy in the arid West, a connection that will grow more critical if climate change reduces water flows or leads to surcharges on fossil fuels used to produce power.

Federal officials, under pressure from Western lawmakers to keep power prices from rising, insist they must balance the often-competing demands on the river. Environmental groups fear what would happen if those demands force the government to choose between cheap electricity and a vulnerable natural resource…..

Sunset at the Grand Canyon, shot by Tobias Alt, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0, Attribution ShareAlike 2.5, Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 and Attribution ShareAlike 1.0 License

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