Does the Obama administration have the political fortitude, let alone the political capital, to protect Grand Canyon National Park from the myriad threats facing it? That's a good question in light of a report that highlights those threats and, in the process, exposes the shortcomings of the administration.
No doubt, many of the problems -- funding backlogs, mining pressures, air-quality and sound-quality issues -- were inherited by the administration. However, the administration seemingly has lagged on its promise to see a more regular regime of high-water flows down the Colorado River through the national park and is running behind on an environmental impact statement regarding a moratorium on mining within the watershed that feeds into the park, according to conservationists.
A new report released this morning by the National Park Conservation Association's State of the Parks arm outlines threats to the Colorado River, the canyon's natural quiet, possible contamination from mining on surrounding lands, air pollution, non-native species of plants and animals, and climate change. While many of these issues have been raised in separate instances, the 84-page report weaves them all together to build a stronger context outlining the cumulative threats the national park is facing.
"Although its designation as a national park provides many protections, Grand Canyon still faces threats to its resources. Currently, ongoing external activities, such as water diversion, overflights, mining, and power generation, all can deleteriously affect park resources," reads a portion of the executive summary. "In addition, the park’s popularity continues to grow. As the second-most visited National Park in the system (Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the first), Park Service staff experience significant pressure in trying to preserve resources and provide high-quality visitor experiences. In a number of cases, many of which are documented in this report, legislation has been enacted to address complex problems involving these efforts. Unfortunately, this report also documents that legislation has often been unsuccessful at correcting the degradation of resources and the visitor experience.
In looking at the Colorado River, which struggles to maintain its flows in the face of heavy appropriations in the states it flows through and dams that mute its natural flows, the report calls for any changes in water flows to be supported by scientific evidence. The Glen Canyon Dam, which stands at the head of the canyon and holds back Lake Powell, alters not just the river's seasonal flows, but also the environment throughout the river corridor by keeping sediment levels low and water temperatures colder than normal, notes the report. How water releases from it are managed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation can have a significant impact on the health of the river corridor, the NPCA report states.
The last time the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation allowed a "high-flow event," one in which large amounts of water are released through the Glen Canyon Dam to flush the canyon and, in the process, rebuild beaches, was March 2008. In November 2009 Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, in a video-call from Copenhagen where he was attending climate change meetings, called for more high-flow releases and stated his belief that they could be done to benefit the national park's resources while also meeting energy and water needs.
However, nothing visibly has been done to move that request forward. While the government's Glen Canyon Dam Adaptive Management Working Group is meeting in Phoenix on Tuesday and Wednesday to discuss issues surrounding the Grand Canyon, high-flow releases is not among them, according to Nikolai Lash, the Colorado River program manager for the Grand Canyon Trust.
"I think the reason why we haven’t seen a high-flow protocol come from Interior is they have not developed the will to present dam operations that really do the job for Grand Canyon," Mr. Lash said during a conference call arranged by the NPCA to discuss its report. "They have received so much pressure behind the scenes from adjacent states and from hydro-power interests, pressures that are not easy to understand because they’re not the kind of trade-offs that one would expect for doing something so grand for Grand Canyon. A combination of regular high flows and steady flows that science tells us that we need will cost hydro-power merely pennies a month for the average residential user and will not change any of the water allocations upon the states.
"So, as far as timing goes, this issue will not be addressed in any substantive manner. It’s not on the agenda for the meeting this week, and it’s being put off until later this year. We need to keep putting the pressure on the Department of Interior to develop a real program for Grand Canyon, one that will better meet the requirements of the Grand Canyon Protection Act (of 1992)."
David Nimkin, the Southwest regional director for the NPCA, agreed that Interior officials don't seem to have the will to work in the best interests of the canyon and its surrounding national park.
"I think everything suggests that the science that we’ve identified and the research, that this kind of action is what’s necessary to fulfill the objectives of the Grand Canyon Protection Act, but it is really a lack of political will I think that we’re facing to really take advantage of that," said Mr. Nimkin.
Dan McCool, a political science professor at the University of Utah who long has studied not just the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon but river restoration projects across the country, said if nothing is done to address the river's problems in terms of flows and invasive species the river will, essentially, die.
“The heart and soul of the Grand Canyon is the Colorado River, and that river channel is in danger of becoming a sterile, man-made channel," said Professor McCool. "Lined with invasive species, filled with invasive aquatic species. That doesn’t sound much like a national park, does it?
“And something’s going to have to be done. There’s going to have to be some fundamental changes in how the river is managed if we are going to restore the Colorado River to even a semi-natural state."
Not only will the ecosystem suffer without immediate attention, he said, but the rafting industry that guides upwards of 25,000 people down the Colorado each year will suffer.
"This river is part of a national park and it needs to be protected. There is also a very vibrant rafting industry, something like 25,000 people raft the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon every year," he said. "And without beaches, without sediment, there will be no rafting of the Grand Canyon. That will go by the wayside. So there’s going to have to be some changes to protect the integrity of the park, the naturalness of the river, and also the rafting industry that depends on having beaches and having a quasi-natural flow.”
According to the NPCA's report, "(S)cientific research demonstrates that modification of water flows from Glen Canyon Dam would help restore natural and cultural resources within Grand Canyon National Park. However, since the implementation of the 1996 Record of Decision for the Operation of Glen Canyon Dam, no significant modifications have been made to these water flows. Furthermore, although the Secretary of Interior is required to review operating criteria for the dam, at least every five years, based upon the work of the Adaptive Management Program, this review has not occurred since 1997. Economic analysis indicates that restorative flows would not require reallocation or redistribution of basin waters. Restorative flows could result in deferral and/or acceleration of water releases but would likely require only infrequent reductions in hydropower that would impact electricity bills of end users by, on average, zero to ten cents per month."
Regarding the other threats, the report puts forth the following recommendations:
• To provide for natural soundscapes largely free of noise caused by aircraft overflights, the Park Service must have the ability and authority to manage noise within the park’s boundaries, including prohibiting flights in certain areas and capping air tour numbers.
• The Secretary of the Interior has temporarily barred the filing of new mining claims — including those for uranium — on the nearly one million acres of public land surrounding the Grand Canyon. Permanent protection of park waters, natural resources, visitor experience, and local communities from the impacts of uranium mining on lands near Grand Canyon National Park could be achieved by an act of Congress to permanently withdraw sensitive public lands from mineral extraction.
• Protecting Grand Canyon National Park’s air quality and scenic vistas, as well as the health of its visitors, from air pollution depends to a great extent upon the actions of state and tribal authorities and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, because the National Park Service does not have direct authority over external sources of pollution that affect the Grand Canyon. The Park Service needs to communicate concerns about emissions to regulators, who then must fully enforce laws aimed at cleaning up existing sources of pollution and preventing air quality degradation from new sources of emissions.
• To ensure the protection of water sources within the park, aside from the Colorado River, better accounting and tracking of groundwater pumping is needed so that groundwater extraction to support municipalities and industries does not deplete seeps and springs critical to plants and wildlife. In addition, the park should continue to support and conduct research on regional aquifers and the effects of groundwater pumping on the unique seep and spring habitats within the park.
• Avoiding impacts from trespass grazing can be addressed by continued work with federal agencies that manage nearby land where grazing is permitted and with private individuals who graze their cattle on these federal lands. Maintaining or building fences to exclude cattle from the park would greatly improve the protection of park resources.
• Preventing the introduction of non-native plants and animals is the best way to avoid negative impacts from these species. If they are already established in the park, support for removal and restoration efforts is essential to prevent non-native species from degrading native habitats.
• To address the park’s main challenges in the frontcountry, which include providing visitor services, ensuring visitor safety, and safeguarding the historic structures and cultural resources of the North and South Rims, the park needs resources to complete necessary historic structure reports and address fire concerns. In addition, the park requires significant funding for maintenance as well as funding to address concessionaire interest and thus allow continued generation of adequate franchise fees for building improvements and visitor services.
• The small percentage of visitors who venture beyond the park’s frontcountry still represents thousands of people. Official wilderness designation by Congress and the resources to update the park’s backcountry management plan would assist the park with managing visitors and resources in this area.
• Continuing to strengthen relationships with the 11 American Indian tribes affiliated with the park is essential and can be fostered through more frequent consultations with these groups. Topics of discussion could include ideas for increasing the role of tribal history, contemporary arts, and cultural significance in visitor education. A lack of funding has prevented park staff from extending the scope of such efforts.
• Grand Canyon National Park is not an isolated island shielded from activities occurring outside its borders. In the same way, it is not immune to the effects of climate change, some of which are already apparent, and a research program is needed to examine how this global phenomenon is affecting park resources.