Science Moab spoke with Lucas Bair, economist with the U.S. Geologic Survey Southwest Biological Science Center in Flagstaff, Arizona. His work deals with the monitoring and researching resources downstream from Glen Canyon Dam and also helping officials make informed decisions when managing the Colorado River Basin. Ideally, this monitoring and research helps inform not only the delivery of water and the production of hydropower, but also the management of ecosystems and other resources at the basin scale.
Science Moab: What aspects of the Colorado River Basin and dam management are you most focused on?
Bair: As part of the Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center, we are focused on resources below Glen Canyon Dam, including hydroelectric production and components of the ecosystem, recreation, and also aspects of cultural and historical sites within the canyons. Five tribes are stakeholders within the program, so we also want to consider their perspectives and think about the trade-offs that are being made when we manage the dam for certain outcomes.
Science Moab: What are you studying with regards to ecosystems right now?
Bair: I use a bioeconomic model, which looks at some of the native fish that are in the canyon and considers the impacts that invasive species have on those native fish. A lot of people know we’re in a significant drought in the Colorado River Basin, which has changed reservoir levels, subsequently changing the water quality that comes out of the bottom of Glen Canyon Dam. The warmer the water gets, the more likely it becomes that other invasive species will arrive, and that creates management challenges for our native fish populations. So we look at the bioeconomics of this problem by thinking about the population viability of these native fish and how we might most cost-effectively implement management actions.
Science Moab: There are two approaches to river regulation: regionally-focused and segment-focused. Can you explain the two?
Bair: Within our center, we focus on the resources below Glen Canyon Dam, so we’re really focused on segment-level management. So whether that’s maintaining or improving native fish habitat, thinking about the production of hydropower below Glen Canyon, dam, recreation, other resources, it’s a very segment-focused approach. In our case, by managing Glen Canyon Dam and operations of Glen Canyon Dam to improve those resources, we manage them in a way that doesn’t necessarily think about altering or changing those larger basin scale decisions. At that regional level, the focus has typically been on water delivery and hydropower production. Bigger management challenges, like drought, have implications for reservoir levels and energy generation throughout the basin. How the basin is managed on a larger scale also has implications for environmental resources throughout the basin. We’re not considering those changing conditions at the regional level while managing fish. To do a better job of managing resources at the segment level, I think we should also consider management of those resources at the basin level, and how implications of basin-scale management influence our segment-level management strategy.
Science Moab: How do you influence decision makers?
Bair: Currently, federal and state decision makers are thinking about how to manage the basin into the future. Part of our center’s responsibility is to provide additional science and information that helps them make informed decisions. Ideally, our research helps inform the delivery of water, the production of hydropower, and the management of ecosystems and other resources at the basin scale. The federal agencies that we work with have been very receptive to our science and look to federal agencies that conduct research to inform them as they face new challenges. And the federal agencies that implemented management plans relied heavily on the science of federal and state partners to understand the implications of those basin-level management decisions.
Science Moab: How can managers of the dam under low-water conditions adapt to address the problems of fish and water quality?
Bair: When we face these conditions with low reservoir levels, one option for managing the ecosystems below these dams is the timing and quantity of water that’s released at different times of year, letting us control how water moves through the basin.The timing and quantity of water released at these reservoirs has large implications for ecosystem resources downstream from these dams. If we time flows to promote native fish abundance, that can have significant implications for ecosystems downstream of these reservoirs.
Science Moab: Can you explain the importance of hydropower management?
Bair: Hydropower, as a resource, is very flexible, and provides a lot of support to the electric sector. Hydroelectric generation has historically replaced high cost energy generation, such as natural gas. So when people are using a lot of power, hydroelectric production is able to offset the high cost of natural gas. However, hydropower also is very flexible, allowing you to integrate solar and wind into the electricity sector. Hydropower is going to be playing an increasingly important role in the future in the electricity sector, but then the drought and the reduction in reservoir levels just adds a layer of complication to the whole situation.
Science Moab is a nonprofit dedicated to engaging community members and visitors with the science happening in Southeast Utah and the Colorado Plateau. To learn more and listen to the rest of this interview, visit www.sciencemoab.org/radio. This interview has been edited for clarity.