22 December 2012


In yesterday's NYTimes energy/environment blog "Green", Felicity Berringer described an about-face in the often-critical attitude displayed by the environmental group Save The Colorado toward U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.  The Secretary has often voiced support for policies which are at odds with sound wilderness conservation, but in recent months he has partially redeemed himself.  First, a little background ~

"Dams and other controls have changed the Colorado River's ecosystem in the cavernous reaches of the Grand Canyon, and have helped to dry up its delta in Mexico (see image above, click to enlarge).  Misreadings of flow data have routinely ensured that pledges for its contents [to U.S. and Mexican states and cities] have been overstated.  And all the while, more than 33 million people in the two countries have been drawing on its water supplies as states jostle or greater shares of it."

Regular readers at this forum are familiar with my antipathy for the over-abundance of dams in the U.S. ~ especially in the West ~ built for flood control, hydroelectric power, and irrigation for agriculture.  Big money interests are behind this grotesque disruption of nature's cycle, as previously reported here and here and here and here and here.  So you will understand the filter of irony through which I view the following news ~

  • An agreement has been reached with Mexico to share the impacts of both dry and wet years.  The accord includes a pledge to help Mexico with the difficult job of rewatering the river delta.  (Such an agreement could have been achieved decades ago, but the U.S. balked.)
  • For the second time in four years, the Bureau of Reclamation, working with the National Park Service, released a large volume of water from the Glen Canyon Dam in the hope it would stir up the river bottom and replenish the sand bars worn away since the bureau's last such experiment.  (Glen Canyon Dam is situated just upstream from the Grand Canyon, and has had harmful effects on the Canyon's ecology for many years, not least of which was taming and chilling the waters which feed into the Canyon, thus altering the habitat for native species.  Bureau of Reclamation "experiments" can only be described charitably as trying to re-create what natural spring floods were already doing, before the advent of dams.)
  • The bureau released a long-awaited study on the Colorado's future.  More than anything, the report affirmed the science-based prediction that the river's water supplies, never as plentiful as early planners had figured, are likely to diminish as climate change brings more, and more severe, droughts.  (Think of it ~ less water to share, less water to store behind dams ~ ultimately those monuments to human design and interference may stand alone spanning former river channels, with only a trickle of water to regulate.  Shades of Ozymandias.)
Where's the irony, you ask?  Precisely here ~ after so many years of pillaging resources which don't belong to us in the first place (forests, grasslands, fisheries, oil, coal, natural gas, water, air), it seems pitifully little, pitifully late to righteously adopt an air of enlightenment.  Perhaps I'm just hard to please.  Or perhaps this is how we humans operate ~ consuming without foresight, failing to think and plan ahead, and reaching some modest level of wisdom only in response to catastrophe.

Further, our hard-won wisdom is far from permanent.  Witness the obliteration of gray wolves from the continental U.S. in the early 20th century, symbolically redeemed by wolf reintroduction starting in the 1990s.  Now Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, the three states where wolves have just begun to successfully establish sustainable numbers, have returned to wolf hunts which threaten to reduce their population to endangered status once more.  

So while I applaud any effort to listen to science rather than myth, and any effort to look beyond immediate profit to the greater good, I remain skeptical.  I hope I am proven wrong.  But if anthropogenic climate change does torpedo all that flood control, hydroelectric power, and irrigation for agriculture, we will have failed on so many overlapping levels that we won't deserve a second chance.

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