If It's Not One Dam Thing...

Big hydroelectric projects under attack

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Nestled among the huge turbines and concrete buttresses of Hoover Dam on the lower Colorado River lies a marble map of the stars. The map is intended to show future inhabitants of the Southwest that the New Deal?era builders of the dam knew their place in the universe. Their unspoken assumption was that the gigantic dam, completed in 1935, would stand for countless generations ? long enough that visitors might no longer speak anything recognizably like English, but might be able to read a celestial chart. The builders of Glen Canyon Dam, 350 miles upstream in northern Arizona, also assumed that the massive concrete-and-steel structure would stand for centuries. Completed in 1963 as part of a federal program to control the flow of the Colorado River and irrigate the surrounding region, the dam created 200-mile-long Lake Powell, one of the largest artificial bodies of water on the planet.

Now, 35 years later, the Sierra Club has sounded a call for Glen Canyon Dam to be dismantled and Lake Powell drained. The club's leadership argues that, among other things, Lake Powell is an inefficient reservoir that loses an unacceptable amount of water to evaporation ? about 1 million acre feet a year, nearly enough to meet the annual water needs of Los Angeles ? and the dam's hydroelectric-generating capability is unnecessary at a time when the West enjoys a surplus of electrical power. Glen Canyon has long been a symbol of everything wrong about giant development projects. Edward Abbey based his famed novel The Monkey-Wrench Gang around a plot to blow up the dam, and former Arizona senator Barry Goldwater and former Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, who both helped push through the project in the 1960s, now say it was a terrible mistake. Other environmental groups, including the National Audubon Society, have expressed support for the idea, which was originally proposed by the Glen Canyon Institute. There is plenty of opposition as well. But the debate currently swirling over Glen Canyon is only part of an increasingly noisy dialogue over the future of dams worldwide.

Large hydroelectric projects are under attack as never before, writes G. Pascal Zachary in In These Times (Nov. 2, 1997). The government of Malaysia recently halted construction of the massive Bakun Dam; the U.S. Export-Import Bank has refused to guarantee American contracts for Three Gorges Dam in China (see Utne Reader, July/Aug. 1996); and Germany has withdrawn financing for a major hydroelectric project in Nepal, effectively killing another major dam. And in the United States, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission recently approved for the first time the removal of an operating hydroelectric dam, the 160-year-old Edwards Dam on Maine's Kennebec River. 'Once icons of progress,' Zachary writes, 'big dams now symbolize waste, inefficiency, and corruption.'

Dam projects traditionally have overestimated economic returns while underestimating social and environmental costs, according to an Environmental Defense Fund study. As EDF senior scientist Deborah Moore put it, dams displace native people and steer power to cities at the expense of rural land, which ultimately has the effect of widening the gap between rich and poor.

Last September a group of representatives from various aid agencies and the dam industry convened in Washington to create a World Commission on Dams. The commission has been charged with drafting a set of environmental, economic, and social standards to govern the actions of international financing agencies, such as the World Bank, and set reparations for people harmed by dams already in operation. But the commission is not likely to be of much help in Glen Canyon, the site more than 40 years ago of one of the Sierra Club's most bitter defeats. The group, under then-president David Brower, had loudly protested the project, organizing a national campaign to save Glen Canyon and citing the area's beauty and accessibility. But when the federal Bureau of Reclamation agreed to cancel proposed dams in Dinosaur Park and Echo Park on the upper reaches of the Colorado River system, the Sierra Club's leadership capitulated. They reasoned, Brower recalls in his 1990 memoir For Earth's Sake, that a partial victory was better than no victory at all. It was a decision the Sierra Club would forever regret.

As controversial as the project was in the '50s, the plan to restore Glen Canyon to its original state is generating an even more heated debate. Many residents of the Lake Powell area, of course, oppose the plan, arguing that jobs and ways of life would disappear along with the dam. Colorado Republican senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell has called the Sierra Club's proposal 'a certifiable nut idea'; other Western politicians, Ed Marston writes in High Country News (Nov. 10, 1997), have similarly 'offered no intelligent or constructive critique' but have loudly denounced the plan all the same. And some environmentalists, Jason Zengerle reports in The New Republic (Nov. 24, 1997), believe restoring Glen Canyon is an environmental impossibility. They fear that the delicate network of small seeps and springs that fed the long-drowned canyon will never return, that toxic sediments supposedly now resting on Lake Powell's floor would create a public-health nightmare if they were to become airborne, and that the lake's saline water has whitewashed the canyon walls to create what Zengerle calls 'the world's largest bathtub ring.'

Zengerle maintains that the Sierra Club has called for the destruction of Glen Canyon Dam largely to garner publicity and attract new members. The organization, under its 25-year-old president, Adam Werbach, is aggressively recruiting a younger, more activist constituency by assuming a more militant public stance. Trouble is, most of the major battles have already been fought and won. 'If the Sierra Club is going to be a crusader, it's going to need a crusade,' Zengerle writes. 'And that's where draining Lake Powell comes in.'

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