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Glen Canyon Dam: “Dinosaur of the Dam World”

October 18, 2019

“In an era defined by widespread climate disruption and increasing water scarcity, the future of the Colorado River and its ability to provide for abundant wildlife, remarkable scenery, and shared water resources, depends upon the sound, scientifically driven management of the River and its various impoundments, including Lake Powell and the Glen Canyon Dam.”

So reads the first paragraph of the complaint filed by Earthrise attorneys Tom Buchele and Jamie Saul on October 1, 2019 against the U.S. Department of the Interior in a lawsuit challenging the Long-Term Experimental Management Plan (LTEMP) and associated environmental impact statement (EIS) for the Glen Canyon Dam. The suit, filed on behalf of Save the Colorado, Living Rivers, and the Center for Biological Diversity, seeks to force the Interior Department to reassess the impacts the dam has on the diverse ecosystem downstream, including the foreseeable future impacts of continued dam operations in the new age of climate change.

Few man-made structures are as symbolic of the struggles of the modern conservation movement as the Glen Canyon Dam, a 710-foot behemoth near the Arizona-Utah border that flooded the majestic Glen Canyon and created Lake Powell upon its completion in 1966. Although its proponents say it has aided the “taming” of the West through power generation and water resources management, “Glen Canyon Dam is the dinosaur of the dam world,” says Dan Beard, former Commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and a member of Save the Colorado’s Board of Directors. “We need to prepare for unprecedented low flow conditions on the Colorado River in the coming years that would drain Lake Powell.”

Multiple federal laws and interstate compacts—collectively known as the “Law of the River”— govern the management of Glen Canyon Dam and the Colorado River, and they require the Department of the Interior to balance human demands like water delivery and hydropower production against the scenic, natural, and cultural resources provided by the Grand Canyon and the river corridor downstream. Recent studies, however, show that continued operation of the dam under the Department’s LTEMP, which puts hydropower generation on equal footing as other river values, is simply not sustainable; extreme drought conditions have increased the likelihood that Lake Powell water levels will decline to levels that make hydropower generation impossible and water storage and delivery ineffective. In short, a radical new management strategy that reflects the new “climate reality” is desperately needed.

The lawsuit, filed under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), alleges among other claims that the Department of Interior failed to consider a full range of alternatives based on predicted climate change-related impacts on the flow of water in the Colorado River. The suit specifically asserts that since projections from the best available climate science indicate there likely will not be sufficient flow in the Colorado River to keep Lake Powell and Glen Canyon Dam operational in the future, the agency must include an alternative that incorporates the decommissioning and removal of Glen Canyon Dam.

The case is captioned as Save the Colorado River v. U.S. Dept. of the Interior, D. Ariz. No. 19-cv-08285 (filed October 1, 2019). Read the complaint here. Watch a fantastic video about the new lawsuit and the history of Glen Canyon Dam, produced by Save the Colorado, here.