Water Lines: The Grand Canyon & Hydropower — a complicated relationship
Free Press Weekly Columnist
The Grand Canyon is one of America’s most famous wild places, but the river that runs through it is one of the most managed in the world.
On Sept. 8, Lucas Bair, an economist with the Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center, told an audience at Colorado Mesa University’s Saccamano Lecture Hall how the price of electricity factors into river flows through the Grand Canyon. His lecture was part of CMU’s “Natural Resources of the West” weekly fall seminar series (schedule available at http://www.coloradomesa.edu/watercenter ).
The demand for air conditioning in Phoenix and the performance of power plants across the vast western grid both affect when electricity demand and prices peak, which in turn determines the most profitable time to maximize power production with high releases through Glen Canyon Dam. Hydropower plants can respond quickly to changes in demand, as can natural gas power plants; coal plants respond more slowly, and wind and solar plants’ power production is dependent on natural conditions and is thus intermittent.
Hydropower production is only one of the purposes for which the dam was constructed, however, and only one of many factors driving the quantity and timing of releases (along with the experiences of rafters in the Grand Canyon).
The “Law of the River” — a complex set of laws, plus interstate and international agreements on how to allocate Colorado River water — sets the broad framework for how much water is released in each year. Seasonal and daily release fluctuations are influenced by attempts to maximize benefits and minimize harm to native fish and riparian habitat, as well as recreational boating.
Prior to a 1995 Environmental Impact Statement for the operation of Glen Canyon Dam, which raised the priority of environmental and recreational considerations in dam management decision-making, daily flow fluctuations were much more extreme than they are now. The 1995 EIS also introduced the concept of periodic high releases to rebuild beaches and otherwise benefit riparian habitat by mimicking pre-dam floods.
Knowledge about how releases at Glen Canyon Dam and other management measures affect the environmental, recreational and cultural resources downstream are still imperfect, and any potential change in dam operations to benefit those resources must also be assessed for its impact on water users and hydroelectric power generation. An adaptive management advisory group was set up to respond to new information and integrate all of these considerations into decision-making about how the dam is operated. Bair’s task is to provide information on the economic efficiency of different management options.
The impacts of Glen Canyon dam’s operation extend upstream as well as downstream. This is in part because Lake Powell serves as the Upper Colorado River Basin States’ primary “bank account” for meeting downstream obligations, and partly because revenues from power generation at the dam help fund salinity control and endangered fish recover programs. These programs have funded many irrigation infrastructure upgrades in the Grand and Uncompahgre valleys.
Likewise, water use and hydrology in the Upper Basin impact the operations of the dam. When lake levels drop, whether due to drought or increased water use or a combination of the two, power generation through the dam becomes less efficient. And if levels drop far enough, the dam won’t be able to generate power at all.
The already complex challenge of optimizing management of Glen Canyon Dam gets more complex the farther you broaden the scope. If measures that decrease hydropower production in order to benefit riparian habitat lead to increases in power generation from natural gas or coal-fired plants (and decreases in funding for other management measures), then what is the net environmental benefit? How should economic values be weighed against environmental and cultural values in decision-making?
These are questions that require a combination of sophisticated scientific and economic analysis and informed public deliberation, and will probably never be settled for good. To learn more about the Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center’s work to do their part in informing the process, go to http://www.gcmrc.gov.
This is part of a series of articles coordinated by the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University in cooperation with the Colorado and Gunnison Basin Roundtables to raise awareness about water needs, uses and policies in our region. To learn more about the basin roundtables and statewide water planning, and to let the roundtables know what you think, go to http://www.coloradomesa.edu/WaterCenter.
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