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The Planet

The Colorado River: Natural Resource or Plumbing System?
Outrage Over Outfitters' 'Rights'

The Colorado River: Natural Resource or Plumbing System?

By Melissa Meiris

The Colorado River begins in the high mountain meadows of Wyoming and Colorado, gains girth, volume, and sediment as it winds its way through the high deserts of the Colorado Plateau, picks up more sediment in the low deserts of the Sonoran and Mojave, and empties into a vast river delta. After draining most of the Southwest United States, the river naturally ends at the Sea of Cortez in Mexico.

This enormous river system is the subject of the Colorado River Report, released in February by the Sierra Club's Colorado River Task Force. Written to help activists understand the environmental impacts of water use and management along the 1,450-mile-long river, the report shows how Americans have transformed the Colorado River - the major water artery in a region drier than the deserts of North Africa - into a "plumbing system." The product of more than two years of research, the report also lays out the myriad political boundaries and agreements that manage the river, and recommends an integrated effort to revamp the entire system, not just pieces of it.

"This report brings together all the issues happening on the river into one place," said Steve Glazer, task force member and chair of the Sierra Club's Rocky Mountain (Colorado) Chapter's Water and Aquatic Resources Committee. "It acknowledges that the Colorado River is over-allocated and used to extinction, which leaves insufficient amounts available for environmental protection."

Exploitation has left most of the river's remaining native fish endangered, degraded major bird migration stops and jeopardized some of the world's most spectacular scenery. As much as 15 percent of the river's annual flow evaporates from its 22 reservoirs. Every year, California exceeds its allotment of river water by 800,000 acre-feet (one acre-foot supports an American family of five for a year). The once rich and varied ecological habitats of the river delta in Mexico are drying up, and by the time the river bed reaches its natural end in the Sea of Cortez there is often no water left.

In a 12,000-acre wetland called the Cienega de Santa Clara, just across the Mexican border, two endangered species -- the desert pupfish and a bird called the Yuma clapper rail - struggle to make a comeback. The Bureau of Reclamation originally planned to use the Cienega de Santa Clara as a dumping ground for brine (water saturated with salt) coming from its desalination plant in Yuma, Ariz. But the $250 million plant, built to reduce the salinity of agricultural runoff on its way from Arizona to Mexico, operated for only a few months in the early 1990s. The untreated runoff, too salty to fulfill U.S.-Mexico treaty agreements, was left flowing into the Cienega. The life that has flocked to this accidental wetland gives testimony to the diminishing natural habitat in a once-abundant river delta.

The Bureau of Reclamation now wants to reduce flows to the Cienega, re-open the desalination plant and send the treated water on to Mexico to fulfill U.S. treaty requirements. This comparatively small amount of water would come at an enormous cost, and flow reductions would fundamentally alter the Cienega, further jeopardizing the survival of the pupfish and the clapper rail.

Other solutions to the problems on the Colorado River aren't drastic, or even complicated. For example, much of the Colorado River delta in Mexico, downstream from the Cienega de Santa Clara, could be revitalized by relatively small quantities of water - 32,000 acre-feet per year, with a pulse of 260,000 acre-feet every fourth year. This small allowance would mimic natural cycles, restore habitat and again enable the river to flow into the Sea of Cortez.

The report recommends decommissioning the Glen Canyon Dam (an action supported by the Sierra Club's Board of Directors) as an alternative to current operations, and pushes for comprehensive studies and an environmental impact statement on dam removal.

The Colorado River Report is currently available on the Internet. Task force members have used listservs, e-mails, and regional chapter newsletters to publicize the report.

Glazer hopes the study will educate people about the importance of water conservation and inspire them to participate in resource management on a local level.

"The report offers people a lot of different ways to get involved, and it uses plain language that people can understand," he said. "We wanted it to serve as a living document to help activists learn, and we wanted to encourage people to work together on a balanced and coordinated conservation strategy for the river as a whole."

The complete Colorado River Report can be found at

Take Action:
Contact the Bureau of Reclamation. Tell them to maintain full bypass flows into the Cienega de Santa Clara to ensure wetland habitat for the endangered species of the Colorado River. Write to Robert Johnson, Director of the Lower Colorado Regional Office, Bureau of Reclamation, PO Box 61470, Boulder City, NV 89006-1470; BJohnson See more information on the Sierra Club's recommendation to decommission Glen Canyon Dam, go to, and click on "Recommendations" then "Glen Canyon Ecosystem Restoration."

Outrage Over Outfitters' 'Rights'

By Jenny Coyle

Nonprofit Outings at RiskSince the days of John Muir, Sierra Club leaders have taken people to backpack in the mountains, raft remote rivers, birdwatch in forests and wetlands.

How ironic, then, that in the 100th year of the Sierra Club Outings program, a bill has been introduced in Congress that puts its operation at risk.

Muir knew that people are more willing to fight to save a wild place if they've experienced it firsthand, which is why the outing program was launched in 1901.

Sierra Club Outings now sponsors more than 300 national and international outings each year, combining the exploration of extraordinary natural areas with the conservation and environmental goals of the Club. Additionally, thousands of chapter and group outings introduce members to the wild places in their own backyard.

The Outfitter Policy Act of 2001, S. 978, introduced by Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), would grant commercial outfitter companies priority rights for recreational permits on lands managed by agencies other than the National Park Service: national forests, wilderness areas, wildlife refuges and Bureau of Land Management lands. Caught holding the leftovers would be nonprofit organizations such as the Sierra Club, Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, church groups, environmental education classes and others.

In places where there are wilderness quotas - such as for rafting or mountaineering trips - the bill would skew the number of permits available to the commercial outfitters.

"The bill basically guarantees that outfitters will see financial return for being in business, which could leave programs like ours out in the cold," said Dave Simon, the Sierra Club's director of outdoor activities. "A mule packer, for instance, would be certain to guide trips into a wilderness every day, while a national Sierra Club outing or Inner City Outing trip might not get a permit at all. It's an outrage."

Not only that, said Simon, but commercial permits would be automatically renewed - even when outfitters performed in a substandard fashion or when the public, or new outfitters, sought permits to enter the nation's most popular and heavily used areas. These permits could be transferred or sold to other outfitters, like legal property, he said. And though the bill makes it sound like the goal is to preserve the ability to hand down a family business to new generations, the permits could be sold to a company like Disney.

"The bottom line is that the bill elevates the rights of outfitters above all others in order to guarantee them a rate of return on their investment," said Simon. "And land managers will no longer be able to make decisions based on what's good for the land, but also what is good for commercial outfitters."

Rep. Jim Hansen (R-Utah) has introduced a companion bill, H.R. 2386, in the House.

Take Action:
Ask your senators and representative to reject S. 978 and H.R. 2386, respectively, so that valuable nonprofit and volunteer-led programs conducted on public lands are not endangered. Take action on-line by going to and check out "Nonprofits' Access to Public Lands Threatened."

Photo courtesy Fred Schlachter. Photo caption: Nonprofit Outings at Risk: Three adventurers on a Sierra Club Outing rest at Family Base Camp, in the Ansel Adams Wilderness. Trips like this could be threatened by a new law giving priority to professional outfitters.

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