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Grand Canyon, Petty Bureaucrats

First impressions can be deceiving.

In 1861, as America entered its first year of civil war, the Government Printing Office published the report of Lieutenant Joseph Ives on his expedition up the Colorado River from the Gulf of California.

Chapter VIII of his report describes an area he called "Big Canyon." While he proclaimed the scene from the Canyon’s south rim "marvellous," he wrote off the area as a worthless wasteland, unlikely to be visited again except by the Indians who lived there:

The region last explored is, of course, altogether valueless. It can be approached only from the south, and after entering it there is nothing to do but to leave. Ours has been the first, and will doubtless be the last, party of whites to visit this profitless locality. It seems intended by nature that the Colorado river, along the greater portion of its lonely and majestic way, shall be forever unvisited and undisturbed… Excepting when the melting snows send their annual torrents through the avenues to the Colorado, conveying with them sound and motion, these dismal abysses, and the arid table-lands that enclose them, are left, as they have been for ages, in unbroken solitude and silence.

Less than 50 years later, President Teddy Roosevelt created the Grand Canyon National Monument to protect this "valueless" spot.

Made a national park by Congress in 1919, the Grand Canyon attracts millions of tourists each year who come to see the iconic landscape that helps define a region, a nation and America’s commitment to protecting its scenic and natural beauty.

One of the inhabitants of the Grand Canyon—or, more precisely, of the river that made the astonishing landscape—might also be misunderstood at first. The humpback chub is not much of a looker. If it’s lucky, it might live to grow to a foot or so in length. It’s valueless as a sport fish. But it is a critical indicator of the health of the Colorado River flowing through the Canyon. And what it’s telling us isn’t pretty.  

The Colorado once flowed unimpeded to the sea, pulsing with spring runoff that built sandbars and shallow, warm-water areas where the chub flourished for millions of years. (Shallow backwaters around sandbars provide key habitat where young chub find food and avoid predators.) No more.

Since the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam—the one Ed Abbey’s Monkey Wrench Gang plotted to bring down—the wild Colorado has been tamed. The dam itself blocks sediment flows needed for sandbar development. Fluctuating flows of cold water released by the dam from the bottom of Lake Powell have destroyed the sandbars, making it impossible for chub to breed.

In the mid-1990s, the Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the dam largely for electricity across the southwest, changed the flow regime in an attempt to help the dangerously dwindling chub population. It hasn’t worked. The chub is now functionally extinct in the Grand Canyon; it hangs on almost exclusively in a tributary (the Little Colorado River). The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is responsible for protecting the endangered chub, in the mid-1990s found the dam operations were likely to jeopardize the chub’s continued existence, but hasn’t done much to protect the fish since then.

There is a way to modify the Colorado’s flows from Glen Canyon Dam to protect the fish. It would have a tiny impact on electricity ratepayers. But that’s apparently too much for BuRec and Ken Salazar’s Department of the Interior. They have fought tooth and nail to justify the current flow system, which is a death sentence for the chub, while Park Service officials, ever champions of the river, have gritted their teeth in compelled silence on the sidelines.

Those hoping to see President Obama break from the anti-environmental policies of the Bush Administration on this issue will find only unbroken continuity in apathy for the living Colorado as it runs through the Grand Canyon.

Earthjustice attorney McCrystie Adams has worked for years with attorney Neil Levine at Grand Canyon Trust to push the federal government to restore the Colorado to a semblance of a natural system, as opposed to using it as exclusively a plumbing system for power. They’ve won some victories along the way. But the Interior Department is still doing all it can to protect the current flow regime instead of the chub. The legal battles may last for years to come. In the meantime, the chub must cling to life.

Let’s hope those bureaucrats controlling the dam have underestimated the tenacity of both the lawyers and the chub.

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unEARTHED is a forum for the voices and stories of the people behind Earthjustice's work. The views and opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily represent the opinion or position of Earthjustice or its board, clients, or funders. Learn more about Earthjustice.