© 2023 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The Defunding Of Grand Canyon Science


The Colorado River supplies water to nearly 40 million people in the West, but longstanding programs to protect the river's health are about to be defunded by the federal government. River managers say the result could be disastrous, including for the Grand Canyon. From member station KNAU, Melissa Sevigny reports.

MELISSA SEVIGNY, BYLINE: The annual meeting last week of the Glen Canyon Dam Adaptive Management Program was anything but ordinary this year. The program is one of three focused on keeping the Colorado River healthy. The meeting opened with the announcement that all three are about to vanish. The news came as a shock to a crowd of scientists, river runners and residents of Flagstaff, Ariz. Lynn Hamilton is the director of Grand Canyon River Guides.

LYNN HAMILTON: This whole situation just so greatly flabbergasts me and disturbs me, as I'm sure it does all of you.

SEVIGNY: For two decades, the Glen Canyon program has shaped the management of the dam just upstream of the Grand Canyon, finding ways to supply water and hydropower to millions of people while still protecting the region's ecology. Steve Wolff of Wyoming serves on the adaptive management committee.

STEVE WOLFF: It's uncharted territory for us.

SEVIGNY: He explains, this program and two others focused on endangered fish recovery are funded by hydropower revenues administered by WAPA, the Western Area Power Administration. One of the critical roles of these programs is to make sure water projects on the river comply with the Endangered Species Act.

WOLFF: Those hydropower funds basically have provided certainty. And all of a sudden, they've been cut off from us.

SEVIGNY: WAPA confirmed in an email that the White House Office of Management and Budget had directed them to no longer fund, quote, "costs associated with environmental programs in the Colorado River Basin." Instead, $23 million will be redirected to the U.S. Treasury as of October 1. Jim Devos of the Arizona Game and Fish Department says this work has gone on uninterrupted for decades.

JIM DEVOS: In the scheme of science, that's a huge time frame, and the data that we have is largely unprecedented in many areas. So it becomes a very serious issue.

SEVIGNY: Devos says not only is the data at stake, so are people's jobs.

DEVOS: If you're a scientist who has a house mortgage and all the fiscal things that we have to deal with, and you start hearing the, well, you know what, I might not have a job six months from now, it causes you some concern.

SEVIGNY: One of these environmental programs, the Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center, is a significant employer in Flagstaff. The center stands to lose its $10 million budget and 60 employees. That funding also flows out to researchers at other institutions, like geologist Matt Kaplinski of Northern Arizona University. He's mapped sandbars in the Grand Canyon since 1990.

MATT KAPLINSKI: The potential elimination of funding is - you know, that's my livelihood. All of it is wrapped up in one big gut punch.

SEVIGNY: Kaplinski says these programs aren't just about meeting obligations under federal law. He says society has long held the belief that we should protect and learn from the Grand Canyon.

KAPLINSKI: If we can't take care of the Grand Canyon, how are we going to take care of the rest of the places in this country that are also amazing?

SEVIGNY: Representatives of the seven Colorado River Basin states are fighting to restore the funds. Requests for information to the Office of Management and Budget from state and federal officials and from NPR have thus far gone unanswered. For now, scientists continue to work in the Grand Canyon under a cloud of uncertainty.

For NPR News, I'm Melissa Sevigny in Flagstaff. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Melissa grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert. She has a B.S. in Environmental Science from the University of Arizona and an M.FA. in Creative Writing and Environment from Iowa State University. Her first book, Mythical River, forthcoming from the University of Iowa Press, is about water issues in the Southwest. She has worked as a science communicator for NASA’s Phoenix Mars Scout Mission, the Water Resources Research Center, and the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. Melissa relocated to Flagstaff in 2015 to join KNAU’s team. She enjoys hiking, fishing and reading fantasy novels.