If you drifted into the courtroom of U.S. District Judge J. Thomas Greene this week, you saw a few lawyers clustered before him and heard the judge intone, "I see no reason to change the discovery order of June 1, 1987."
Dull, dull, dull.Except that this is one more step in a suit that may force the federal government to rethink its operation of Glen Canyon Dam in light of the damage to the Grand Canyon's ecology.
This is the remnant of a big lawsuit filed in October 1986 by Utah Power & Light Co. against the federal Western Area Power Administration.
Most of the allegations of illegal power brokering were summarily dismissed April 14. But the suit's environmental issues are still alive. A strange coalition of UP&L, cities, and environmental groups are going after WAPA on those grounds.
The Interior Department's "Glen Canyon Environmental Studies," issued in February, says the dam's operations have adverse effects on the environment of Grand Canyon National Park, and on river running.
Much of the damage results from a policy of generating as much power as possible when demand is highest, as in the late afternoon and early evening.
"By choosing to generate the most power possible during the peak period, they are running a very high flow down the river at that time," said Liz Birnbaum, a Washington lawyer for the National Wildlife Federation.
This week, the federation filed for permission to enter the suit, along with American Rivers Inc. and the Grand Canyon Trust. Greene said he is inclined to grant the motion provided there's no objection by June 1.
"By generating reduced amounts of power during lower power-use periods they are running a much lower flow through the turbines - and therefore much lower flows through the river," Birnbaum said. This is when fish are stranded.
"It really damages both riverine and riparian habitat," she said. Not only does the fluctuation kill fish and rip out vegetation, "it also has been eroding beaches along the Grand Canyon and Marble Canyon reach of the river, used by recreation boaters and rafters as camp sites."
According to Birnbaum, WAPA is unwilling to thoroughly examine the environmental consequences.
In early 1986, the agency decided a full-blown environmental impact statement is not necessary to put new operating criteria into effect. Instead, it relied on a lower-level analysis.
"They said the marketing criteria do not constitute a major federal action significantly affecting the quality of the human environment," she said.
Gregg Alvord, a lawyer working on the suit for UP&L, said the court is being asked to decide whether WAPA should prepare an environmental impact statement. Trial is tentatively set for the end of November.
UP&L and about 150 cities that also are plaintiffs are trying to force WAPA to write an environmental impact statement because it would cover economic impacts.
A range of WAPA decisions about how much water to release from big federal dams, how much power to buy, and to whom to sell - "all of those things have to be considered in an EIS and they never have been," Alvord said. "So it's really a fairly broad look at WAPA's marketing and operations that we're urging on the court."
Originally, the Bureau of Reclamation built the dams and marketed their cheap hydropower. But in the late 1970s, WAPA was created to handle marketing, and the new agency was placed under the Department of Energy.
"As things turn out, WAPA still maintains a great deal of control not only over the marketing, but the generation of electricity also," Alvord said. "They punch their computer buttons in their center in Montrose, Colo."
Although WAPA produces a great deal of electricity at peaking periods, it sells it for the same price as power generated in the middle of the night. WAPA's customers can sell it at a premium during peak demand.
In addition, WAPA has been buying power from coal-fired generating plants, Birnbaum said. It then resells this power to their customers at a blended rate, a rate partially subsidized by federal hydropower.
"So they end up selling non-federal power at lower rates" to certain favored customers.
A national park is beaten up by the brutal rules of supply and demand. Meanwhile, those left out in the cold, such as UP&L's ratepayers, were taxed to build the dams in the first place.
Among these ratepayers are rafters whose enjoyment of Grand Canyon National Park is reduced by scoured-out beaches and violently-fluctuating river flows. And they probably include several who would like to protect the natural habitat.