River Plan Hits Delay, Drought, and Court Denial

The much anticipated release of the Colorado River Management Plan (CRMP) at Grand Canyon National Park has been delayed yet again. In the balance is Colorado River management for the next decade or more. Recent events may make the outcome of this plan even more contentious.

In a statement released May 6, 2004, by Rick Ernenwein, head planner for the CRMP, Ernenwein noted "It is our desire to present a comprehensive and thorough document to the public. We are nearing completion of the Draft EIS, which we now expect to release later this summer." The projected release date is now tentatively set for late July.

Issues the Colorado River plan should address include whether or not the park will continue to allow many large groups of concessions motorized tour boat trips to race through the canyon, and how rafting access is to be distributed between the parks 14 river concessions and the general public.

Grand Canyon National Park announced in November 2003 the park would no longer allow the public to sign up to raft the river on their own, citing a backlog of over 8,000 do-it-yourself permits pending to raft the canyon. This spring, the Grand Canyon river concessions are offering sizeable discounts, hoping to fill empty bookings for 2004 and 2005, even going so far as to offer discounts to repeat customers.

The CRMP is supposed to address the distribution of use between the river concessions, which presently hold access to over 80% of river visitation, and the general public. Kevin Lewis, president of American Whitewater, comments "The average citizen can no longer even apply to wait 20-plus years to access their National Park while river concessionaires offer discounts to fill their spaces. Where is the equality in this?"

The stakes for access between the river concessions and the boating public have never been higher. On April 19, 2004, an opinion was finally rendered by New Mexico District Court Judge Martha Vasquez overseeing a lawsuit filled by a number of river runners in 2000 over the allocation of use between the rafting public and the parks river concessions.

In Judge Vasquez's opinion, she denied all the river runners' claims but one, in that she ordered the park to complete a comprehensive review of the river management plan. John Wells, lawyer for the plaintiffs, notes "We are very disappointed with this decision and are weighing our options. I strongly suggest all boaters participate in the comment period for the new draft plan and that they inform their own congressman and senators about the issues."

Issues between river runners about who gets to go are only part of the equation, as drought continues to grip the southwest. Present forecasts indicate there may not be enough water in the river to float the thirty seven foot concessions tour boats that travel through the rocky river channel. By 10 year contract, three out of four river concessions trips use this type of large motorized watercraft. John Weisheit, Colorado River Keeper from Moab Utah, notes "Rafts will still be able to go through Grand Canyon, but the big motorized tour boats will get stranded in the rapids, just like in the summer of 2000 when the park had to use helicopters to lift concessions passengers off their stranded motorboats." Park planners are also considering shortening river rafting trip lengths for the general public. Low water flows caused by the drought will slow the speed at which oar rafts travel. This will make it more difficult to raft through the park in a shorter time frame if trip lengths are reduced. "It will be interesting to see how park planners address low water levels in the CRMP" notes Weisheit.

"Given what's at stake in this management plan" notes Tom Martin, Co-Director of River Runners For Wilderness, "it's of utmost importance that river runners and wilderness lovers let their voices be heard in the upcoming comment period. It's time to end the commercialization and wilderness value destruction occurring in this icon park."