The Colorado River of our Dreams

Via Moldy Chum, I read that the Feds are making another effort to restore a losing species in a lost ecosystem. I’ve watched our efforts to try and restore a “natural” balance to the Colorado River in hopes of aiding native fish with great interest. I do this partly because, like all conservationists, I hope the effort works. Primarily I watch because I find the entire undertaking to be loaded with meaning regarding our relationship with the natural world.

I’ve spent some time in this part of the world. Page, Arizona is home to Glen Canyon Dam, a source of clean hydropower, behind which backs up the Colorado River, renamed Lake Powell. Below the dam is a famous tailwater fishery, where I have spent many days fly fishing to Rainbows gorged fat on the nutrients in the unnaturally cold and clear river.  Just East of town is the Navajo Generating Station, a massive coal fire power plant that provides the main source of jobs and income for the Navajo Nation, power for energy hungry southern Arizona and California, and a dull yellow smear across the desert sky due to the sulfate emissions exuded from the plant stacks.

The entire scene is the source of an ongoing political/environmental/governmental feud which goes something like this: The Bureau of Reclamation holds dearly to its mission to manage the dam for clean hydropower energy, and does not like these high flow releases; the National Park Service, which manages Lake Powell and shares management of the Colorado River, struggles with a guild-ridden sense of the need to restore the balance to the ecosystem with high “test” dam releases; the environmentalists hate the dam as well as the power plant and work to tear down one while shutting down the other; the Navajo Nation are largely ignored in all the comings and goings of power players.

All the while everyone ignores the big elephant in the room: it’s no longer 1956, the year construction started on Glen Canyon Dam. We should have had these discussions 56 years ago, for now it’s too late. We’ve altered this ecosystem, perhaps irrevocably; certainly it cannot be changed back without a massive and costly undertaking. So why do we continue to waste time and political capital and precious resources on this debate? Do we regret the mistake we made 50 years ago? Are we nostalgic for the Colorado not one of us remembers? Are we so full of conceit that we believe through our genius we can force the Colorado to work regardless of all the impediments we have placed in its way?

We have made this place what we wanted it to be: the dam provides clean energy and a huge recreational playground. The consequences are the loss of habitat for native fisheries. Why can we not understand that we created this, and therefore we must accept it? The constant struggle to create our modern Eden – a perfectly natural world that provides us with the conveniences of modern life – prevents us from making sound decisions about environmental policy, for we cannot have both, no matter our genius.

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