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Living Rivers Currents
February 1, 2002

Dam Re-operations: Avoiding the Inevitable

Flaming Gorge Dam needs to be decommissioned
Flaming Gorge Dam needs to be decommissioned
As citizens lament the failings of ongoing federal efforts to protect Grand Canyon from the impacts of Glen Canyon Dam, they should recognize that these problems won’t readily go away.

Instead of addressing the inevitable need to decommission the dam to restore native habitat for endangered fish, the Department of the Interior is spending millions of dollars tinkering with minor changes in dam operations, while the riverine environments that these programs are designed to improve, only worsen.

The Glen Canyon Dam re-operation program is a flagship—for a fleet of dam re-operation programs that are sinking the possibility of habitat restoration for critical environments downstream. The Bureau of Reclamation is at least a year behind in releasing its draft plan for changing Flaming Gorge Dam operations, to mitigate impacts on endangered fish in the Green River through Dinosaur National Monument. The agency is perhaps even farther behind in publishing its re-operation plan for Navajo Dam on the San Juan River. A plan for the Gunnison River dams, expected in 2001, has never yet materialized.

One reason for the failure of these efforts is the raft of antiquated laws and the overweening political interference from user groups that unnecessarily impair managers’ best efforts to apply a full range of adaptive management techniques. If these newer programs were intended to benefit from what’s being learned with Glen Canyon, there should be little wonder that they all seem to be faltering.

Dam re-operation will be one of the topics at the 2002 Colorado River Symposium in Santa Fe, however, the topic on the agenda should instead be dam decommissioning. Federal programs have yet to demonstrate any results in their hypothesis that these facilities can be operated in such a way to reverse, or even halt, the extensive habitat decline they’ve already caused.

This is why the movement toward decommissioning federal hydropower facilities is building rapidly. “The federal government requires private dam owners to evaluate decommissioning alternatives when their projects come under review,” said Dr. Patrick Diehl with the Sierra Club’s Glen Canyon Group. “Yet the politicians fight against decommissioning studies when their own sacred-cow projects like Glen Canyon and Flaming Gorge are put under the microscope.

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Last Update: October 30, 2007

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