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ENVIRONMENTALISTS URGE FEDS TO FLOOD GRAND CANYON AGAIN

SHARE ENVIRONMENTALISTS URGE FEDS TO FLOOD GRAND CANYON AGAIN

How about another flood?

A second consecutive year of above-average snowmelt coming off the western Rocky Mountains is threatening to erode hundreds of beaches in the Grand Canyon built up by last year's artificial flood of the Colorado River.Environmentalists suggested recently that the federal government conduct another artificial flood this year to build up the beaches even more - something federal officials have discussed.

"Let's take what we learned, now that we have a potential crisis, and do something smarter," said Pam Hyde, Southwest director of American Rivers, an environmental group based in Washington, D.C.

Water releases from Glen Canyon Dam, just upriver from Grand Canyon National Park, were increased in February to 27,000 cubic feet per second, a rate that some scientists have predicted could tear down the new beaches.

Ironically, an even higher flow of 45,000 cfs, like last year's artificial flood, would likely benefit the beaches by lifting sediment from the bottom of the Colorado River and depositing it on the shores.

That's what happened during last year's flood, when some beaches grew by more than 10 feet.

The beaches in the Grand Canyon had severely eroded since Glen Canyon Dam was completed in 1963 to create Lake Powell.

Until they were curtailed in 1991, highly erratic water releases from the dam - geared to match hydroelectric power demands across the Southwest - caused water levels to rise and fall rapidly inside the Canyon, causing beaches to melt away.

The erosion was a disaster for river runners, who use the beaches to camp during excursions through the Canyon that can last for weeks. The erosion also exposed archeological sites and damaged backwater estuaries where dwindling numbers of endangered native fish spawn.

Last year's flood repaired the beaches, protected the prehistoric ruins and created new habitat for wildlife. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt declared it an unqualified success.

Federal scientists said last year that another artificial flood should be conducted within a decade. En-vi-ron-men-tal-ists say that nature is presenting the federal government with another opportunity even sooner than expected.

"We're looking for a better solution than the one that is on the table right now," said Rebecca Wodder, president of American Rivers.

Forecasters last month revised their estimates of the amount of melting snow likely to flow from Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico into Lake Powell. The estimated flow into the lake increased to 13.2 million acre-feet or 171 percent of average, from 12 million acre-feet or 155 percent of average, between now and July.

An acre-foot is enough water for an urban family of five for a year.

Glen Canyon Dam is holding 20 million acre-feet of water and only has room for 5 million more. Federal officials ordered increased water releases last month from Glen Canyon Dam because they were concerned that an uncontrolled flood that could top the dam and threaten to collapse it.

Barry Wirth, spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in Salt Lake City, said federal hydrologists have spoken with scientists about an artificial flood again this year, but that those discussions are very preliminary.

Reclamation experts are predicting that they can handle the increased snowmelt without an ar-ti-fi-cial flood, without risking an overtopping of the dam with an uncontrolled flood, and without losing electric-generating potential. They plan to follow this schedule: 27,000 cfs through the end of March, 24,000 cfs through July, and then back down to 20,000 cfs, where it has been most of the time since last year's artificial flood.

"We're obviously concerned, and the scientists will watch it as closely as they can," Wirth said about the possibility of beach erosion. He said scientists have been scrambling for the past week to make observations in the Canyon in anticipation of the higher water flows.

Wirth said the estimated amount of flow into Lake Powell could increase, too. Significant amounts of snow often fall across the western Rockies in March and April. New forecasts will be generated at the end of this month, he said.

If there were to be an artificial flood to create new storage capacity behind Glen Canyon Dam, Wirth said it would require the cooperation of dozens of federal, state and tribal governments, environmental groups, scientists, as well as water and power users.