June 11, 2018 |Logan, Utah

Schmidt, Jack Oral History Interview


This is Paul Hirt of Arizona State University with Jennifer Sweeney, research associate at Arizona State University. And we are interviewing with Jack Schmidt in Logan, Utah on June 11th of 2018. Jack, thanks for joining us today.

00:00:01 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 00:00:18


Can you just start out by giving us your full name, the positions that you held in the adaptive management program over time, and the years in which you were involved?

00:00:19 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 00:00:31

Well my legal name is John C. Schmidt. I go by Jack. I only served, I served in an official capacity with the program as Chief of the Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center from August 2012.

2011, right?

00:01:04 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 00:01:05

Two–August 2011.

I saw your memo.

00:01:07 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 00:01:08

I know I, I just, I’m going through the numbers (unintelligible, both talking at once). August 2011 until November first of 2014.

But you were involved—before that.

00:01:19 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 00:01:20

Yeah, but I have long–so, the longer involvement (pause) I did my first river research trip in, uh, spring of 1984–

Colorado River?

00:01:37 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 00:01:38

My first river research trip in Grand Canyon, with the USGS to help and look for a research opportunity. I was subsequently funded. That’s its own story. And I did my first research trip affiliated with the USGS in the sp–in May of 1985. I pursued my dissertation, completed that in 1987, stayed working for the USGS another approximately nine months. Took my, an academic position. Uh–

Was that here at Utah State?

00:02:40 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 00:02:41

Middlebury College in Vermont. Stayed active, at a time when I was not getting any direct funding from the program in the late 1980s. And that’s its own story. Served as a sediment, as an advisor on sediment and geomorphology issues to Duncan Patten who was senior scientist–

A fish biologist [Dr. Patten is a riparian ecologist].

00:03:18 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 00:03:19

Right. And so–

Are you a geologist, by the way?

00:03:21 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 00:03:22

I’m a geomorphologist. Yeah.

Geomorphologist. Okay.

00:03:23 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 00:03:25

So I did have an active position then, but that was before, um, the adaptive management program existed.

Jack Schmidt 00:03:36

I guess to back up, in the late 1980s before I went to Middlebury, I was part of the team that wrote the Phase One final report of the GCES program. So I was that sediment guy. So then I served as an advisor to Duncan [Patten] in the early 1990s so I was involved extensively in the development of the interim flow recommendations in the early 1990s, (pause) the conception of the Grand Canyon Protection Act, the discussions that went on behind the scenes that ultimately led to the creation of the adaptive management program. I was one of a group of probably five people who originally thought of the idea of controlled floods, and worked extensively in the early 1990s to get that implemented. Once the adaptive management program was created and GCMRC was created, and after the first flood was, occurred, I actually had more mod–more limited involvement. I would occasionally, I mean, I knew what was going on, my grad students (pause) I mean I’ve been involved in lots of ways and continued to write papers. And so, I had probably a reduced involvement as somebody who was, um, part of the academic, the funded academic group, until I became Chief. Um, yeah.

When you were, I forgot my question. I had a question right in my mind and it, and it just slipped out the window. So we’ll just go to question number two then.

00:05:48 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 00:05:58

That happens to me all the time.

Yeah (laughter). Um, so, oh I was going to ask you when you came to Utah State University for the first time.

00:05:59 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 00:06:05

In, uh, September of 1991.


00:06:08 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 00:06:09


And, were you doing research along the river in the Canyon when the floods of, I think that was 1993, there were some large floods that came through. Is that about the time that you started thinking that we should maybe create some artificial floods because of your observation of the effects of some of those large El Niño-type flood events?

00:06:09 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 00:06:34

No, that, that’s not really how it worked. Um, so (pause) God, this is so hard to tell this the, oh, it’s such an involved–give me like two or three, I’m tempted to just tell you the historical story from the start.

All right. Well, the next question was, which of the three main components of the program were you mostly involved in, that scientific research would be, and then policy and management as the second component, and social and institutional engagement, like stake represent–representing stakeholders as the third. Did you do all three?

00:06:55 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 00:07:15

Certainly the first two all the time. Um (long pause) let me just try and tell you my story.

Yeah, yeah. Yeah.

00:07:29 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 00:07:37

You know, the program has evolved. When the program, um, I gave a, I gave a talk this–in Flagstaff just last month on sort of the history of scientific ideas in Grand Canyon and how they’ve evolved, and what there was that research foc–

Was that written out?

00:07:55 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 00:07:56

No, but I can give you the PowerPoint slides.

That’d be great.

00:07:58 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 00:07:59

Um, so if you look back at the 1970s and you look at the inception of GCES, it was focused on the effects of hydropower generation on the downstream environment. Um, and the lawsuit that created GCES was all about what’s going to be the effect of bigger fluctuations. You know, and then it morphed into what are the large-scale operational effects of the dam.

Jack Schmidt 00:08:45

The most notable incident that I remember from going, well, I was just a guy who had gone back later in life to get a PhD. I was going to do a dissertation in Montana and I wanted to go back home to Montana after I got my dissertation done, and through a set of connections, an influential fellow in the USGS, and friend of mine, when I said to him, well are there any other dissertation topics you can think that I might want to work on? And he said, well, I think we can get you and, we could get you involved in this brand-new program that the USGS is going to get involved in, in Grand Canyon. And um,

Was that before the GCMRC? This is in 1990?

00:09:28 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 00:09:30

No, this is way– this is, uh, this is a decade before.


00:09:35 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 00:09:36

And I never looked back. And that’s what I did. You know, and at that point in the program in the early 1980s when GCES was created, you basically had this, um, unwanted irrelevant fish biologist who they sent down, who they let go to Flagstaff to go run something that Reclamation considered harmless.

Was this Duncan Patten?

00:10:07 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 00:10:08

No, no. Wegner.

Oh, Dave Wegner.

00:10:09 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 00:10:11

Yeah, of course. I mean–

He was a fish biologist.

00:10:13 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 00:10:14

Yeah. And meanwhile, because all of that would be harmless, and stuff that really mattered, like modeling sediment transport or something, was going to be done by the USGS in the old traditional alliance between Reclamation and USGS that has been part of those agencies’ history for a century. And it’s a testament to the fact that Reclamation thought every, this was all pretty irrelevant by the fact that they would let somebody go to Flagstaff and create an office.

Jack Schmidt 00:10:51

Little did they know what would happen. So to placate the um (pause) environmental interests, there were nominal questions listed, like what will be the long-term fate of sandbars. But, and so I showed up at the USGS and they said, well, we don’t know what you would do, but here’s some questions we’re supposed to answer. And so I said, “Okay, I’ll work on the sandbar question.” I, after I looked around Grand Canyon, I (pause) wrote a grant proposal, submitted it to Wegner, Wegner said he would fund it. Then the USGS said, “Well, if you’re going to be funded to work on this, then you’ll work for us.” So I, as a graduate student out of Johns Hopkins, ended up saying, “Okay, I’ll do my dissertation through the USGS,” not because they cared, I mean, just because they demanded it. And so I did my dissertation as a hydrologist for the USGS as a graduate student completing this dissertation. And I had, um, and there was a USGS scientist who was nominally my boss. And we were, I mean, she administered it. And we did, there’s all sorts of, you know, we wouldn’t get out of here if I started telling you (laughter).

Was that all in Flagstaff?

00:12:34 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 00:12:36

Ironically, when I headed back to Arizona to start that, I assumed I’d be living in Flagstaff. But the state office of the USGS was in Tucson. And so I was told that I was living in Tucson. Which is something about sort of the control and sensitivity of these things. But we’re, so, with that woman I’m out on the river one time and what was distinctive about it, is that we had the great 1983 floods. And then we hit really high releases in 1984 and 1985 and (pause) I was down on a U—on somebody else’s USGS trip, just helping. And I [remember] making some comment after a couple of days about our need to study what this 45,000 cubic foot per second flow was doing to the river. And this person dressed me down. And in no uncertain terms, she said to me, we will not study this. We have a responsibility to study what is the effect of increasing the range of power peaking from a high, high releases of 31,000 to high releases of 33,500 cfs. And that’s what we’ll study. So–

Why do you think she was that rigid about the parameters of the study–

00:14:04 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 00:14:08

Because that was, that was what Reclamation said. I mean, so it’s a reminder that the focus was on hydropeaking and the high flows of the eighties were, um, not understood–well, were viewed as a, um, an anomaly and not, and really just an impediment to study what needed to be studied. That’s how much the issue has moved over time. And, so, I mean, I did my thing in the, in the midst of that in late 1985 and early 1986. Reclamation had to schedule a special period of hydropeaking so that we could measure what its effects were. And they didn’t want to hydropeak. They didn’t want to (pause) they didn’t want to hydropeak because they had so much water they wanted to get out of the reservoir, and they had so much snow in the mountains. And they scheduled this four-month period and we measured it and studied it. And in fact, they bailed three and a half months into the study because it was snowing again and they needed to abandon it. So the important thing is that those studies went on explicitly to study the effects of hydropeaking and the issue was too much water and it completely changed the operations. And, but it’s a focus that everything was about hydropeaking. Of course, the other goofiness, it was about how do we preserve a trout fishery? You know, it was, you know, there’s all, you know, and oh, “hydropeaking must be bad for trout because trout spawning is adversely affected when the redds [spawning nest with eggs] are dried every–” So this complete hodgepodge of different values. So, anyway, it was the National Research Council, well, so I, like other scientists at that time, although we were increasingly aware of what had the floods done, there was this drive that we’re focused on hydropeaking.

Jack Schmidt 00:17:04

And so there was a drive that we looked at and understood our science in the context of, what would limiting hydropeaking do to make for less erosion. And there were lots of studies done by lots of people that sort of looked at, at those issues. It took some external reviewers from the National Research Council to point out that the issues of erosion and maintaining sandbars can’t just be about limiting hydropeaking, you’ve got to also rebuild those deposits. And I mean my research contributed, you know, um (pause)– Let’s stop for a minute. This is the problem with Mesa [a dog in the recording area]. She’s just completely ramped. Let’s just take a quick second. I’m going to take her…

[Speaking to Jennifer Sweeney] You want to hit pause?

00:18:05 Paul Hirt
Jennifer Sweeney 00:18:05


Pause in recording

Do you remember where you were?

00:18:06 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 00:18:08

Um, floods.


00:18:10 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 00:18:10

So the National Research Council observed that—um, reminded us all that any geologic deposit and its status at any time is both the result of the history of erosion but also the history of deposition, and that river deposits do have to go underwater at some time if they’re going to ever be rebuilt. And in the early nineties, the, the innovative discussions were held in Duncan’s offices amongst some key people. And, um, those people were Ned Andrews of the USGS, Jim Smith of the USGS, Dick Marzolf of the USGS, uh, Dave Rubin of the USGS, and myself. And I would say that probably at the beginning, Rubin and I were the most skeptical and I would say the, Andrews and Smith and Marzolf were more, um, strongly advocating for floods from the get-go. And, um, so I’m always careful to say I’m lucky enough to be part of a group of people who conceived of this, and nobody, and no one person ever dreams these things up. I’m not going to go through the history of all that went on in the early nineties. Are you familiar? There’s a book called The Controlled Flood in Grand Canyon that is an AGU [American Geophysical Union] monograph that is Robert H. Webb. It’s Webb, Schmidt and Valdez, I think, I’m not sure. It’s something like that. Published in 1999. It’s an AGU monograph. I mean, it’s certainly one of the seminal publications of the controlled flood in Grand Canyon. It’s certainly one of the seminal publications of the program.

Jack Schmidt 00:20:45

And, um (pause) I wrote a chapter in that book called “The History of the Controlled Flood,” you know, how it came to be. And everybody’s a coauthor, including Wegner. And so rather than walk through all of that, I mean, that’s published and that’s gone through peer review. But what’s important there is, is that, you know, I tell the story. That’s an idea that came out of scientists. And the guys at the USGS in the early nineties would propose that every year, uh, Larry Stevens was very much against the idea of the flood. Dave Wegner was very much against the idea of the flood and they fought it behind the scenes relentlessly every year.

Is that because they assumed that floods would only cause erosion and not deposition, do you think?

00:21:40 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 00:21:45

It was a mix of, of well-intentioned scientific reasons and, p–who was in political control. And, when it was proposed as a USGS-led science effort, Wegner fought hard against it. And so we were almo–and, we would used to, in the early nineties, we would sort of year after year, we would sort of conceive of who was going to do what. And so, um–

And the funding at that time was coming from where?

00:21:24 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 00:22:28

It was helter-skelter.


00:22:30 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 00:22:31

USGS was investing money. Some of, I mean I, in, in the late 1980s, I led two winter research trips to measure sandbar erosion in the late eighties, funded on the backs of tuition from kids at Middlebury. Because Wegner wouldn’t give me a dime. Because you know, it’s this sad thing about Grand Canyon. I mean, everybody fights for the money. The agencies all want to be in control. You know, there’s a difficulty of who’s going to be, just who, political control is just the big thing. Whatever the case, I think that I write about that in a more politically acceptable way, you know, in this article that I wrote. But the reality is after two or three years of failed efforts to get the flood implemented, because you had to line up all the politics and all that, finally enough people thought it was their idea. And how do you get anything done in the world? You’ve got to convince other people that it’s their idea. And if you go around now, I could tell you NGO [non-governmental organization] people who think they dreamed up the flood and different people in agencies, who used to run agencies, for all I know they think they dreamed up the flood, and that’s all fine.

And that’s… (unintelligible, both talking at the same time)

00:23:59 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 00:24:00

But we’re on, we’re on record that, that flood idea arose probably in ’92 or something. And it took us four years to get that implemented. And, you know, and it occurred in ’96.

So that was the first, quote unquote, “high flow event”?

00:24:13 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 00:24:16

Yes. Which is just administrative gobbledygook. It’s a controlled flood. But for– The one other thing that just in the past that’s not written about, I should say, is that in the late 1980s, one of those win–on the first winter trip when we were down there after the high flows of the eighties, we’d gone into high hydropeaking in the late eighties, I mean I couldn’t get any money out of Reclamation to work there any more so I would go there in the winter because I still cared about it. And, there was lots of erosion going on. And so, one night sitting at Eminence Break camp in Marble Canyon after days of, you know, a week of measuring this stuff, we got, sitting around the fire, we got worked up and so we sort of conceived of and wrote in my field book, the “Beach Bill,” we called it, to protect the beaches of Grand Canyon. And that was me and my students: Dave Rubin, Johnnie Moore from University of Montana, Tom Moody, uh, Dan Dierker, both river guides. And we sort of collectively wrote this thing.

How long, when was that (both talking simultaneously)?

00:25:53 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 00:25:55

That was like, that would have been in, probably, January of ’89.

And for how long had you known that the dam operations were leading to the loss, the erosion and loss of beaches? Was that just a few years?

00:26:00 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 00:26:11

No, no, no. No, no, no. That’s a longer history. I mean, the first scientific article that, the first scientific article that described that erosion was published in 1974.


00:26:24 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 00:26:25

So the perception that hydropeaking played a role in that erosion went way back. The issue is now very nuanced in that we now understand that hydropeaking plays some role, but it’s also clear, you know, it’s bigger issues of sediment mass balance, the absence of supply, things like that. But you, just to go back, just because these pieces of the administrative history are important, we came out of that, and I got back to my office at Middlebury, got on the phone to Ed Norton, the head of the Grand Canyon Trust. He told me to get lost, that they didn’t need any legislation, that they were going to work with Reclamation to get an environmental impact statement produced. So I don’t take no for an answer. So then I contacted Tom Jensen, who was the Chief of Staff for the Senate Natural Resources Committee, and said, “You know, this is, uh, this is what’s needed.” He was sympathetic. I wrote him a letter, typed up the whole thing from my field books, corresponded with him, and then worked all of that spring to write a report, you know, Middlebury College Department of Geology Series Number One or something, describing all that. And then, um, it turned out, ironically that Bill–Senator Bill Bradley was the convocation speaker at Middlebury that spring. So we all waited around–

Was he on the Natural Resources Committee?

00:28:13 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 00:28:16

He was the Chair of it—

He was the chairman?

00:28:17 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 00:28:18

He was (unintelligible—both speaking) Jensen’s boss. And Jensen of course, goes on to become, he leaves the Senate and becomes head of Grand Canyon Trust after. But, so anyway,and this was all led out of, by Dan Beard and Tom Jensen to get the Grand Canyon Protection Act. Anyway, so in May at Middlebury, we had the glossy report and we, and the pre–and the university, college let us do this. And I had three students, you know, with me and we stood behind the bleachers, and Bradley gets out of the limo coming down from the Burlington airport and, you know, we all shake hands and he, you know, Bill Bradley’s a big imposing basketball player. And at some point, you know, I just, you know, everybody sort of stammers for a minute. And then I sort of kick the kid next to me and, “Well, Senator Bradley, we know you’re a great friend of the environment and we’ve been working in the Grand Canyon, and we wanted to share with you this report in which we describe the sandbar erosion in Grand Canyon. We’d like you to be–” And so then we said a few things and Bradley said, you know, some nice things, and on we went. And little did I know that within the month he flew out to Grand Canyon to do a field review with Grand Canyon Trust. And he got off the plane with our report having been circled and said, “What’s going on?” And I have somewhere in my files a letter of thank you from Tom Jensen telling me, you know, I, when the Grand Canyon Protection Act was passed, knowing that I played a role in getting that going. Now it’s like everything else. Everybody else claims their own credit for it. But I know that in the late eighties, I kept the idea alive. And that’s my style. My style is that I call it the way I see it, but I just don’t write a science report. I go somewhere with it. Anyway. So that’s just that piece of that story.

Jack Schmidt 00:30:40

So, so, um (pause) the other thing that went on in the mid-1990s as the adaptive management program was being created was that (pause) those of us who were senior scientists at that time began to realize that the program was pretty aimless and trying to be all things to all people. So we got together and wrote what is surely one of the most influential papers that guides the program, called “Science and Values in the Grand Canyon” or “Science and Values in Restoring the Grand Canyon,” that was published in BioScience in 1998. And, you know, that was, it’s Schmidt et al., but it’s Schmidt and Webb and Valdez and Marzolf and Stevens. And it basically says, we can give you any kind of Colorado River in Grand Canyon that you want. And the problem isn’t science, you just have to decide what you want. And we don’t think you know what you want. And, that paper is still read, I mean, that paper is read around the country by classes still, and that paper is read by people who understand the history of these issues ever since. Um (pause) so in some ways–

Can I go back to that quote for a second?

00:32:36 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 00:32:39


Because I had, I read that in the memo that you sent me, that you wrote in 2014 as you were leaving [as chief of GCMRC], and I was struck by that quote. I think it’s really, uh, profound, and I was going to ask you if you would elaborate a little bit on that. When you were there in the early years, what did people want from a program and how did that change over time? Did we ever get clarity? Or was it always a muddle? Did it change as values or policies changed? Well, how do you see the evolution of that whole challenge?

00:32:39 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 00:33:21

You know, it’s interesting when I teach courses in this stuff, I often say that, um, when you tell the history of water development in the West and you tell the story about how in the 1950s the key decisions about building dams and diversions were made by the technical elite. Technical elite of engineers, lawyers, civic boosters, corporate agriculture. Isn’t this a much better world, that now everybody’s at the table. And then you turn it on students and say, “Well, is it really a better world? Or have we just made the world infinitely more muddled?” At the ti–in, in the (pause) Wegner had a clear directive that I think came out of administrative guidance, and maybe even out of court rulings. I’m not sure. He surely knows this stuff by heart. So the issues were sandbars, trout, endangered fish, maybe riparian vegetation. I think those are the four, or no, or maybe it’s recreation. It’s uh, you know, maybe rip—maybe it’s four, maybe it’s five. It’s damn simple. Now. There was, now, you know, probably the GCES Phase One taught us more about what we didn’t know than what we knew.

Jack Schmidt 00:35:00

Well, whatever the case, we were forced to make little matrices where you had some kind of operational decision, some environmental outcome, and you had pluses or minuses or you don’t know. And I think that that’s where the perception that not everything benefited by the same operational decision started to, like, become clear to people. But it wasn’t until that BioScience article that we made a huge table and systematically plugged pluses and minuses, and then it became clear there was no operational scheme that benefited everything. And if there was no operational scheme that benefited everything, then you’d darn well better know what you wanted.

Jack Schmidt 00:35:52

And so then an idea that’s in that article that I get credit for because I’m the senior author and I’ve got a lot of mileage at it, but the idea was Dick Marzolf’s, not mine, was he coined the terms “relict resources” and “artifact resources.” Relicts of the past and artifacts of dams. And Dick thought this up. And then I, you know we all jumped–you know how we all work in academia, right? I’ve gotten so much mileage out of this and so many slides and so many talks, I can’t even keep track of them, in which you–so we had those ideas, right? That you know folks, some of the environmental resources down there are the relicts of the past and other resources are artifacts of dams, the most obvious being trout, recreational trout fishing as an artifact of the dam. So then, I will confess, um, that I got quite frust–when the adaptive management program was first created, I got, from afar, I got quite frustrated by it because it just instantly wanted to make everything more complicated. And so then, you have all these stakeholders, and all of these stakeholders have their pet resources they care about. And then I–(at 00:37:31 Schmidt speaks briefly and very quietly to his dog in the interview room, then laughs at the interruption). There’s a focus in these adaptive management programs and these stakeholder processes in people getting along. And I used to flippantly criticize the program because I would cynically say that, you know, it became this whole trust-building exercise, and fall backwards into each other’s arms to learn to trust the other person, and all this stuff that goes on, and nobody would make hard-nosed decisions. And so what happened was a set of obje–and then let’s get all the stakeholders to write objectives for the program and they, so this became cannon fodder for me giving talks because I would show a slide in which all these objectives would be listed, all written by the stakeholders and there was sixteen or twenty of them or something, I don’t know. And then the next slide I would just have the same list except, you know, in one color would be relicts of the past and the other color would be artifacts of the dam. And under artifacts of the dam would be a recreational trout fishery and maximum hydropower production and secure water supply, and, and then it was just like, and then you know well folks, you can’t do this, this is not a hard problem. We can do really sophisticated science. But it isn’t actually that hard a problem. For starters, we can’t do all this. We need to make a tougher decision–

Because you’re saying basically there are tradeoffs–(both talking at the same time)

00:39:13 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 00:39:15

You, you can’t have it all–

Somebody’s going to win, somebody’s going to lose.

00:39:16 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 00:39:19

Yeah. And what, and what, yeah. And so, so where I began to, so I became, I guess, a critiquer of the program. Um, to go back–

Is that because you wanted them to start making trade-offs and making decisions, and it was taking too long to establish a collaborative–(both talking at the same time)

00:39:35 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 00:39:45

All I, all I, I don’t–I mean I have, I have my personal biases of what I’d like planet earth to look like, but I don’t get to choose how many (pause) billion people live on the earth’s surface or how many hundred millions live in the United States. And I mean, you can’t have this, you know, magical, natural paradise and have however many people we have, so trade-offs are going to have to be made. Um, I just felt like tough decisions weren’t–there was tough thinking that was, we had made such progress in the early nineties to get to the idea of the controlled flood, and then we were losing it because everybody cared about just how they all got along. And–

Which was delaying decisions like–(both talking at the same time) delaying the process.

00:40:40 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 00:40:42

No, I uh–I don’t know. Yeah, government moves so slow. I don’t know, I just, I just wasn’t a big fan of that. But I would say that, you know, my experience and the experience, the early 1990s were a unique time. They were a unique time because, um, I flippantly sometimes refer to that as, those were the years when the traditional water managers and Reclamation lost control of the dam. And this small group of scientists, sitting in Duncan Patten’s office, actually just sat around and dreamed up, oh, let’s have interim operations. Let’s reduce the range of fluctuations. And the political forces largely set up by Wegner pushed those things through, and Reclamation and the traditional stakeholders hated it. And so, by the time the adaptive management program was created in ’96 or ’97, um, it was like, we’re doing this as a formal process. This is going to be formal. This is a Federal Advisory Committee. We’re not going to have this tyranny or anarchy of scientists running the show.

Jack Schmidt 00:42:18

And you know, if I sat in a room with Rick Gold who was the Commissioner then, you know, or the regional Director then, I mean, I don’t think actually that it would be all th–I think everybody would sort of agree with that. So there was something, the adaptive management program transformed what some might call anarchy into a very formalized process. Others might say stultifying, others might say ossifying (laughs), you know, and so, you know, who am I to, who am I? I mean this is what happens with any government agency. EPA was a wonderful place the first couple–you know, then it becomes a more, a different kind of a place. The Office of Surface Mining, I had worked the first years it was organized in the Carter Administration. It becomes a much more re–I mean this is just what happens. So the fact that that’s what happened when the adaptive management program was formalized, is not, um (pause) I don’t know that that’s good or bad. It’s just what happens. (Long pause)

Jack Schmidt 00:43:44

In the legislation that–in the record of decision of the EIS [Environmental Impact Statement], what was created was a formal adapt–it was formally called an adaptive management program. After the first hiccup, the first head of, Chief of GCMRC, a guy named Dave Garrett, who wasn’t there very long before he to leave for health problems.

We’re meeting him in August and at his home in Colorado.

00:44:16 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 00:44:19

Send him my regards–yeah, he runs a winery.


00:44:22 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 00:44:22

Yeah. If you don’t–you might do it, stop and go here [in Logan, Utah]. But for heaven sakes, don’t make the same mistake in there, make sure you tell your families you need to spend two full days talking with Dave on his back deck, having a glass of rosé or whatever. [PH: Alright] Yeah, don’t waste that trip. Anyway. But then the, after Dave had health problems and had to leave, the second Chief, Barry Gold, was a real disciple of adaptive management. And then they brought in, you know, the international expert on adaptive management, what could possibly be wrong with that? And so they bring in Carl [Walters]. And, you know, Carl’s a pretty strong-headed, my way or the highway kind of guy, doesn’t take guff from anybody, and he’s a real straight shooter. He’s internationally respected, written books. I mean, he’s a–he’s a force. And he had a vision of how everything was going to work. And that vision of how it was going to work, was that they could create models of all these trade-offs. And then if you made everything transparent, of course stakeholders are going to make the informed decision and you can start to evaluate the trade-offs, and you can start to evaluate whether you really need to know X or Y or Z. And so, they went down the path of building a big ecosystem model. And, um, you know, and the metaphor I use is that, you know, so they invited a whole bunch of experts in every different field and they locked them in a room, and Carl and his crew would say, “Okay, well what’s this relationship between flow and fish populations or sandbars or something.”

Jack Schmidt 00:46:54

And if the scientists would say, “Well, we can’t tell you that one,” then they’d say, “Well, okay, well, you know, we’re lock, no, we’re locking you in. I don’t care how long it takes you, but you’re not getting out of the room. You’re not getting another hamburger until you tell me whether it’s going up or down.” And so, you know, and so out of that, you know, it’s just like, we’re not going to just let scientists just forever, you know, study things, like, damn it! we’re going to get something out of you. And so they did it and they built an ecosystem model, and you could run trade-offs and do whatever. And as soon as that came out, the stakeholders, you know, immediately ignored it. And it had no impact on decision making.

Why, why did they ignore it?

00:47:41 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 00:47:45

Because you can’t, you cannot practice adaptive management in Grand Canyon. In the literature, and I wrote about it in one of those memos I sent you, in the literature, the circumstances in Grand Canyon are at best described literally as “adaptive management light,” which means you’re trying to, you’re either trying to practice adaptive management or you’re pretending to practice adaptive management in a context in which there are major societal actions that cannot be experimentally adjusted.

Jack Schmidt 00:48:33

The most fundamental in Grand Canyon is that you must pass a lar–an explicit amount of water from the Upper Basin to the Lower Basin, from Lake Powell to Lake Mead. And you’re– you can’t tweak that. And there are large external forces relative to water supply that, um, must be acknowledged and respected and cannot be manipulated. And there are large institutional forces that control those decisions, and those institutional forces of water supply are never going to let go of their control and give it to the issues of Grand Canyon. And so you’re never going to be able to practice adaptive management.

Because that requires experimental research and there are certain experiments that are out of the realm of possibility, you’re saying.

00:49:42 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 00:49:49

And not only that, you can’t ada–you can’t, you cannot (pause) you cannot maintain a fixed experimental program, you know, for ten or twenty years because the world changes. We go into a protracted drought, we have five years of, of wet years in the eight–and everything goes right out the window. Yeah. But anyway, that’s, yeah. So that went on and then, the tension, just to finish the thought, then the um– There was a focus in adaptive management, GCMRC as an agency was viewed as, its objective was to be a small contracting agency that led contracts for academics and consultants to do applied research, that the role of GCMRC was to write guidance documents in planning and adaptive management. That was certainly the paradigm of Gold. The whole GCMRC gets absorbed into the USGS, there is intrigue with all of these things and long stories. And, and then all the way through my predecessor, um, that was the focus of the agency. That’s the focus of GCMRC. And (pause) and then I came in and said, well, that’s great, but we’re not going in that direction anymore. We’re going in this direction. And then–

And that new direction was–?

00:51:56 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 00:52:05

Um (pause) I guess twofold, I’d said, the science questions that GCMRC is asking, that are coming from the stakeholders, are myopic, unanswerable, complex, and intractable. And, um, I viewed—I mean, I would go to occasional meetings of GCMRC, annual reporting meetings of the adaptive management program in the years before I became Chief, and people would come up to me in the back of the room and say, you know, “Jack, it’s great to see you. Yeah. Isn’t this just crazy what it’s become?” And it was just a demoralized (pause) it was just a demoralized operation, which people said, and–

What was the source of that demoralization?

00:53:03 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 00:53:06

Nobody knew what the questions were. Nobody knew what they were supposed to be working on. Nobody knew where they were going.

So there was no direction. There was just (unintelligible) research (both talking at the same time).

00:53:13 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 00:53:14

(Unintelligible.) No, no, no. This is the adaptive management program. I’m not–the science (unintelligible), I’m not talking about, I’m talking about the program itself. Because, so I just went in and said we can’t articulate–that’s not how it can work. The way it has to work is that the job of GCMRC is to rearticulate science questions as big, simple questions, so that every stakeholder, if asked, “What are you studying and why do you exist?” Every stakeholder will tell you basically the same thing because everybody understands it. And um, so–

What would be an example of that kind of simple direct kind of question?

00:54:05 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 00:54:10

Can we maintain–so, I used to put them up in all my talks, it was like, this program is about answering these three questions or these two questions. This is all we’re trying to do. If it’s not relentlessly fixed on this, where do, we’ve got to reth–we’ve got to ask ourselves why did we do this? Yeah, the two fundamental questions for Grand Canyon are, um, is it, I mean every one is a nuanced question, but the first one is, “is it possible—” no, “What is the maximum size of sandbars that can be maintained with the existing tremendous deficit in sand supply and given the operational rules that exist, and is that size acceptable (pause) to society?” And the other question is something like (pause) “What is the maximum population of the endangered humpback chub that can be maintained given the fact that soc– that we have made a societal decision to also maintain a recreational trout fishery when those trout eat the endangered fish?” Now there are, the fish one is much more nuanced now. Now there’s razorback suckers along with humpback chub. Now it’s brown trout rather than rainbow trout. Now, it might be that [dam] operations don’t make a hill of beans of difference, but it’s just that. And, um–you work with the administration and, you get guidance. Well, what you do is you sort of clue the admini–high administration that like, “we’d like to receive a memo that says this.” And they say, “Well, would you like to share with us any paragraphs that you’d like to, wouldn’t mind seeing show up in a letter on this?,” you know, and that’s the game you play. But, um, we would get memos from the Assistant Secretary that said, “Well, we know you have a lot of things to work on, but just to be clear, it’s sand, fish, fish, fish. That’s what you’re working on.” So that effort was simplified, those would come in the time I was there.

In the, so in the 2– like 2011 to 2014?

00:57:16 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 00:57:19

Yeah. And um, so anyway, so one thing is make this question, make it simple, make it so everyone can articulate it, and that the job of GCMRC is to listen in a sensitive and caring and careful way to the expression of stakeholders, what they’re saying are their concerns, and then to be able to be clear enough to tell, talk back to a stakeholder and say, “Okay, I hear your concern and this is the scientific question that I think you’re asking.” Or to say back to a stakeholder, “Well, what you’re asking is a really hard and nuanced question.” And anytime you’re trying to answer a hard and nuanced question in science, then it will cost you much, much more to answer it. It’s just how it works. And you need to understand, you need to ask yourself whether you really need that question answered. Because what you’re, what it would, the resources it would take to answer that are probably not reasonable. Or to say to a stakeholder, “That’s a great question. That’s exactly tractable.” Or to say, “I don’t think that’s a question you really want to ask. Here’s a question and this is a tractable one.” Or perhaps even just as important it is to say, “I hear your concern, but we can’t tell you any more than we have told you already. You need to make a decision.” We’re past the point–because what happens in these programs is that—(pause) you know, I keep going in these segues.

Jack Schmidt 00:59:30

Okay, so one big, one big thing is the resources that people care about in Grand Canyon, they’re artifacts or relicts, right? Another big categorization is the categorization, the stakeholders. The stakeholders, some of the stakeholders represent institutions and perspectives for whom their agendas and goals are met if radical and big change occurs in operating rules. And the other group is those institutions and groups who benefit because the status quo is maintained. And so when you have a program that has two fundamental groups and the groups for whom this, if the status quo is maintained, they benefit, happen to also be the most politically powerful people sitting around the table, and those are the people who are paid real salaries to sit there at the table. Right? Then what’s the game you play? “Well, I’m not convinced. I think we need to study that some more. Here’s another alternative that might be plausible. We really should study this other possibility before we take an action.” And you endlessly delay decisions because you can always come up with some other question or some other nuance. And the problem in Grand Canyon is that, um, there’s always some young hungry academic or some young hungry agency person who will say, “You bet, I’ll go–I’ll take that on.”

Yeah. More research.

01:01:26 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 01:01:29

I have colleagues, I mean, I’m an old guy, I have colleagues who are my ilk who would look at me in years past and say, “Shoot, I can’t believe you still work in Grand Canyon. You figured it out. You know what the solutions are. There’s not a societal will to solve the problems. Why do you take their money? Can’t you–are you incapable of coming up with anything else to work on?” You know, just have enough nerve to walk away and go study in something else. And one of the dilemmas in Grand Canyon is that the game of stakeholders asking ever more nuanced, silly questions is perpetuated. And in a world in which research money is hard to come by or just maintaining GCMRC as an institution, somebody says, “Oh, I’ll take that question on.” So anyway, this whole, so my agenda in GC–that’s one thing was big questions.

Jack Schmidt 01:02:34

And then, um, the other one was internal to GCMRC. I said, um, GCMRC cannot be an agency staffed by people who write contracts. That if that’s what you do–you can’t manage excellent science unless you are yourself an excellent scientist. And so, I remember one of my former students who is down there [GCMRC] now, when he was hired down there, I was a prof, he left here [Utah State University] to go down there and he was the finalist for the job. And at the time, tum, he biggest concern within GCMRC about whether to hire that guy is they were concerned that he might be too much of a scientist, and he might want to actually do science. And he needed to understand that, no, he’s coming down to run a program and write contracts.

Contracts for research.

01:03:38 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 01:03:41

Yeah. For someone else to do it. Yeah. And so I just said, we’re not doing that. And so the other big change that I made at GCMRC was saying no, we’re going to convert all of these people to um, what are called RGE scientists. They’re basically within the USGS you’re a Research Grade Evaluation scientist. I would not, as Chief, control whether you get a promotion. You are evaluated for promotion by an external, national committee of your peers and they could care less what you do in your day-to-day work. You’re either producing at the rate at which you would justify tenure or promotion in an academic arena, or you’re not. And so I took it out of my hands and then I just said, “Well, you’re on your own now. You better produce.” And then the other one is that, you know, in GCMR– so there are multiple people who come up to me and thank me for having, in their words, saved their career, put them on a path of research.


01:04:53 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 01:04:53

At GCMRC. And the other one was that I happened to be Chief at a time of financial relative abundance. Anybody looks good in a time–right?–a rising tide floats all boats. So my job was a hell of a lot easier than the job now. But because of that I was able to hire a number of postdocs because that was based on the philo–I had, my philosophy was, it’s hard to reinf– you know, I was trying to inspire people. I couldn’t inspire everybody. You can only pull that off–so if they’re federal employees, you can’t fire them, you know, all that sort of stuff. And so in an effort to inspire the place, I filled it with postdocs.

Young, hungry–

01:05:50 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 01:05:52

And it was just like, okay, get some people, get some people, um, swimming fast and then maybe other people will swim fast. And, anyway, so those are the two– I mean those are the two big changes that I’m proud of. It was easier because there was money available to do it. Yeah.

So it sounds to me a little bit like, um, you’re very aware of and concerned about the tension between administrators needing to make important decisions about dam operations, trade-offs between resources, while at the same time attempting to be collaborative and democratic and participatory, that there’s a tension between those two, and that you feel that maybe we need to bite the bullet a little more often, be less, like, conflict averse and be more willing to just say, “Okay, this is what we want. These are the decisions we’re going to make,” and, not like sort of endlessly worry about all stakeholders being represented and satisfied. Is that–

01:06:17 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 01:07:10

To some ex–yes. To some extent, yes. Um (long pause).

It’s a universal challenge, and every agency–

01:07:24 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 01:07:27

Oh, oh, yeah, I’m trying to—(pause) There are big realiza–um (pause) There are big realizations that I came to in that position.

Jack Schmidt 01:07:47

One of them was the realization that Grand Canyon as a segment of the river is trapped. It is prisoner of the fact that if you think of the big map of the Colorado River watershed, you essentially have, everything in the Upper Basin, the land where the water comes from, and then everything below Hoover is the land where the water goes, the land where the water’s used. And connecting those two is the bottleneck. Every drop of water from the land where the water comes from to the land where the water is used must pass through Grand Canyon. And so, your management options in Grand Canyon are, are tiny.

Very constrained.

01:08:49 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 01:08:50

Tiny. And that all became clear to me in the development of the Long-Term Experimental Management Program [LTEMP], the EIS, the LTEMP EIS. When well-intentioned personal friends of mine, who I like and remain friends with today and who were my bosses in Washington, DC, right?, just completely took off the table every fundamental decision that would really affect the place. You’re not going to mess with the [1922 Colorado River] Compact. You’re not going to mess, you know, with any Law of the River administrative agreements, you’re not going to touch the 2007 Interim Shortage Guidelines. You’re not, you know, and so, every water supply–every water supply agreement that is in place is untouchable. Then for good measure, they said, and you’re not going to touch sediment augmentation. We would never get that. You’re not going to touch temperature manipulation. You would never achieve that. Now make the best of it. (Laughter) So what happened? So–

But they’d let you let you mess with hydropower generation?

01:10:08 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 01:10:11

Of course, so that is—so, so the irony is that in the long arc of this issue, this issue started with a focus on hydropower because nobody understood it to be anything other than hydropower. We then came to realize, no, it’s sediment supply, it’s the lack of sediment supply. It’s the absence of floods. It’s the absence of rebuilding of the deposits. Hydropeaking is one part of it, but it’s a small piece of a bigger, harder puzzle. But then it turns out that every other piece of the puzzle—water supply routing, sediment trapping in Lake Powell, temperature modification—are all off limits. And so the only whipping boy you’re left with is hydropower is everybody’s whipping boy. And so ironically, no one, no one who knew me would ever perceive me as an apologist for hydropower. And yet I actually believe that hydropower now always has to take, make the compromise because they’re the easy fall guy for much bigger problems. And that’s the crazy–so my big thing now, what I work on and work on with trying to do grants and writing articles and stuff is–and I’ve given these talks in lots of places in which I sort of talk about what are the big changes we’re willing to make? What are the big changes we’re not willing to make? The problem in Grand Canyon is we’re stuck on hydropeaking. And so that’s a problem. And so, I’m focused now in my work at trying to make sure that when the Interim Shortage Guidelines are reopened for renegotiation in 2020 the river and the river environment is on the table. It is the, a clear piece of the conversation because the way things have worked over the last twenty years is every deal is cut amongst the water supply players.

Jack Schmidt 01:12:46

And then after you cut all the deals, then you get on the phone to GCMRC and say, “Okay, we cut all the deals, now (both talking simultaneously) make the best of this, but you can’t touch the deal we just cut.”

Yeah. So what do you think we want for the river and the river ecosystem?

01:13:00 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 01:13:06

Yeah, so that’s a great– (Both talking simultaneously) Yeah, I get, yeah OK. [PH: How would we get–]. Yeah, I get, yeah. Okay. So given that, given the fact that we’re locked in right then, um, what do we want? (Long pause, tapping of pen on table.) Well, I still do think that different stakeholders want different things. I think the National Park Service just wants control, I’m not even sure they care what they want. They just want to feel like they’re in control, and they’re never going to be in control because it’s the states’ water managed by the national government to allocate for forty million people, and so they just want some say. So that’s sort of–but they just are insulted by the fact that they manage the sides of the ditch in the bottleneck. It’s clearly understandable how, the most important thing that the stakeholders almost universally agree on, is they can’t allow any endangered species to blink out. Because that would bring compliance from, um, that would bring on court-ordered environmental compliance. So there is, so um–

One more reduction of flexibility.

01:14:46 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 01:14:09

There’s, that is myopically first among equals. So ironically you might’ve thought it was sand or something. It’s the population of humpback chub, and now it’s also potentially, you know, this population of razorback suckers. But it’s ESA [Endangered Species Act] compliance species. That is head and shoulders above anything else. It’s not about, it–well that’s it. Then, I think it’s arguable whether the next tier down is sandbars for camping or it’s just whatever kind of a river ecosystem makes sure that those species don’t blink out. But to me, what’s not on that list is a natural, native river ecosystem. That’s–nobody–

Does that come automatically?

01:16:01 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 01:16:04

No, no, no. The irony is it doesn’t come or–the Grand Canyon ecosystem is a fundamentally damaged, fundamentally, um– screwed up artificial Disneyland ecosystem. And for me to say that after spending thirty years of my life there is tragic, and it is heartbreaking for me to say that. Um, but it’s not a real river. You go to the Yampa River, if you want to see a real river. You go to Desolation and Gray Canyon if you want to see a real river. Grand Canyon is this fundamentally screwed up river ecosystem, which is still life’s greatest recreational experience, where people’s lives are transformed just because they go through what they perceive as death-defying rapids in the most awesome landscape on Earth and they’re alone with their friends for seven or eighteen days and they do whatever screwy stuff goes on, on river, you know. And all of that, but it’s, it’s got a screwed up temperature and empty, empty eddies from sand, and riparian vegetation that doesn’t look anything like what it should, and the whole thing is screwed up. And I believe that in the eyes of most people, that’s just fine. Just so, because ironically the humpback chub have figured out a life history in which they can exploit this one natural place, the Little Colorado River. If it–and as one GCMRC scientist said to me years ago, you know, it really–we can’t really tell them this, but it really doesn’t matter what we do with the dam. I mean, so long as the Little Colorado River is there and it’s viable and all of that, it’s going to be okay. Now the reality is the Little Colorado River is subject to lots of development pressures itself. What if the monsoons are failing? We don’t have floods. There’s a lot of bad things can happen there. But, um, so, so I, I honestly believe, I’m being expl–or particular with my words, whatever kind of a river ecosystem, however artificial it is, who cares just so long as these target populations of endangered species don’t blink out.

And that’s what you’re saying is the current sort of core—(both talking simultaneously) objectives.

01:19:03 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 01:19:05

I, that is the curr–I believe that is the consensus. Now—(pause)

And you’d like to see a much broader vision for river restoration. Do you think it’s even possible?

01:19:12 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 01:19:20

No, I don’t think it’s possible. No, I, I, I believe that the—(pause)

What should we want for the Colorado River? (both talking)

01:19:24 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 01:19:31

No, no, uh– Here’s what I, I believe that that may be all that’s possible in Grand Canyon. What I believe deep down inside is that we do the American public a disservice by not telling them how screwed up it is. I believe that–

Because they’re given false hope, (both talking) or for some other reason?

01:19:51 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 01:19:53

Exactly. No. Simply that. I believe that where we have made the mistake is that we failed to tell the American people, we failed to tell the citizens of Arizona, the Grand Canyon State, that, um, there was an irreversible cost to the construction of Glen Canyon Dam. And there’s an irreversible cost to large scale water development in the Colorado River. And, um, and we’re never going to get that back. And therefore, as we proceed into the future, we should be very careful about what new developments we make on the d–on the river. We should be very careful about which places we do want to protect. And that the disservice that we pay to the American public is that we pretend that Grand Canyon is restorable. And that that is, that is wrong. And that then what do we do now? We just absorb ten million dollars a year of a budget as the cost of doing business. And we never just say, “You know what? This place is really completely artificial and screwed up now, and we’re going to continue to make it the best we can.”

Yeah, you’re not saying we should just treat is as a sacrifice area–(both talking simultaneously)

01:21:24 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 01:21:27

No, we have a moral, we have a moral obligation. It’s one of the greatest places on planet Earth, but we’re also not going to decommission Glen Canyon dam. So–

Never say never (laughs).

01:24:41 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 01:21:44

Well, that’s a different topic. I mean, I’ve written that, I’ve written on that as well. But the point is, I don’t, I think that we have fuzzy logic or fuzzy-headed thinking, whatever it is, and we don’t talk about the real issues in front of us. And we just pretend this feel-good, we’re going to make everything a little bit better, and we’re going to spend this much of our budget to study how much the wind blows up and buries archeological sites on hillsides, and we’re going to, you know, and stuff that’s completely intractable. And that’s crazy. No, I don’t (pause) um, I would say that the brave new world of climate change and the brave new world of decreased runoff in the Colorado River system will force our, um, forces our hand. That’s how I end my talks, is I show those graphs and I say, “Okay, so we’ve got to think big. We’ve got to think like maybe, it doesn’t make sense to equalize the storage contents of Powell and Mead.” Maybe it makes sense that we ought to re-drill out the river diversion tunnels around Glen Canyon Dam so that, um, you know, we—(pause) that there’s some–that maybe it’s better to fully drain Powell and, and keep Mead full. But I will also recognize that one can make utterly rational and reasonable statements about why it makes more sense to keep Mead full, or Powell full and Mead empty. And I mean, well-intentioned, smart people make those arguments. And, and I’m not kidding, but we need to increase operational flexibility. So that’s the other big, that’s the other big enormous issue. (Lowers voice) This is so wandering. That’s the o–this is the other big enormous issue that the adaptive management program and GCMRC are not doing now. They (pause) You know, the– the signposts saying, you know, we’ve got a crisis coming are just all, they’re all blazing, right? And, the Interim Shortage Guidelines are coming in 2020. I mean that, that, this is what I’m working on. I’ve got collaborators [who] are working on this now. And so instead– so the stakeholders in the program sort of pushed GCMRC to develop an annual work plan that they’re in now that’s all about how to implement the LTEMP EIS when, you know, it’s like, how do you ski? You ski through the slalom gates. As soon as you know you’re past the gate, you’re looking, where the hell is the next gate down the slope? And, you know, focusing the adaptive–the work plan on how to implement LTEMP is like focusing on the gate you just passed.

Jack Schmidt 01:25:22

The next gate is climate change and decreased runoff, and changing water temperatures released from a much lower Lake Powell. And that’s the big scepter(?), and the science questions that are going to be asked by, of GCMRC two years from now are going to be all about that brave new world. And the science program needs to be focused on answering those questions. And, um, that’s–and that’s all going to be about questions like, um, okay, we’re now in the twentieth year of drought, um, maybe we want to selectively store all of our water in Mead to preserve Vegas’s water quality. I’m just making things up, okay? If we do that, then the water released out of Powell is going to be really, really warm. If the water coming out of Powell is really, really warm, is that going to constitute a short-term, easily reversible temporary inconvenience to the ecosystem, or is it going to cause an irreversible tipping point that will change the ecosystem forever after, such that everything that we’ve done in the adaptive management program for the last twenty years is irrelevant?

Would we get more of a river like it used to be?

01:27:07 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 01:27:10

Well, so the arguments you’re going to get from different people, well, the answer is people will say to you, we don’t know the answer to that. And so I would submit we need to, we need to get our asses in gear and be doing the science to figure this out. Because, um, we just, so we finally–so, I’ll just take partial credit, you know, we all are–you know I’m not unique in figuring this out. And so we, working with three of my old staff, three people who work at GCMRC right now, they figured out the models. We got three GCMRC staff, me, and a fish biologist in the Upper Basin, and we get an article that’s in review in BioScience that says how we make decisions about water storage will set the fate of all these river ecosystems and we better be thinking about that. And if we don’t have the science ready to go, we better get– because here’s, here are the arguments: You might say the envi–the most environmentally oriented among us would say, “Oh no, warm water coming out of the Grand Canyon, that, that’s just like it was in the old days. That’s just the river of the 1950s. That’s wonderful, that’s what we want.”

With sediment in it.

01:28:42 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 01:28:43

And okay, and let’s put sediment in it. They would say that’s the most wonderful thing. That’s what we want. And ironically, every fish biologist at GCMRC plus (pause) a whole bunch of other people in Flagstaff who, I don’t need to make any more enemies on this tape, you know, are all, would all say no, no, the devil you know is much better than the devil you don’t. We know that humpback chub are–the largest population of humpback chub on Earth is in Grand Canyon. And it might be the most screwed up ecosystem, but that screwed up ecosystem keeps the warm-water predators away from the humpback chub. And it would be worse if the river was warm, because then the river is not only good for natives, it’s good for non-natives, and the non-natives will eat the natives.

Non-natives being trout, or something else?

01:29:46 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 01:29:51

No, the trout are cold water predators. (Both talking.) Small mouth bass, large mouth, striped or stuff like that. So that’s the problem.

And they could move in if the water warmed up.

01:30:00 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 01:30:03

They always–now, there’s different ways to argue this. And so the point is when you put like-minded people as a– (pause) we’ve, I’ve had a couple of these wonderful experiences in which we would write a scientific article, and then, so for us it was like, I mean those guys did great modeling. I helped them with the sort of, “so what?” of it and how do you write the discussion and all, and we had to nuance the discussion to not say that potential–they, because their original draft of the article was the rivers are going to get warmer and that’s terrible. And I’m saying, “Well, you can’t say that because that’s like, what? You know, you’ve at least got to say we don’t know and we had better get better science. Same way when Larry Stevens and I wrote an article back in the late nineties, and we wrote it about marshes in Grand Canyon, and as the most biologically diverse place in Grand Canyon were the freshwater marshes, except that they’re an artifact of, of the absence of floods. And so we wrote in the discussion, well, the authors of this article actually disagree with whether this article is a big deal or not, because you can either argue that this is the most biologically diverse and wonderful part of the Colorado River and Grand Canyon, or it actually shouldn’t even be there because they never were there before. They only are artifacts of the dam and who the hell cares about them?

Jack Schmidt 01:31:40

So it’s fun. Those are fun. Those are fun when you do that. But no, I would say, I know we’re out of time, but (pause) I think that what I’m, my mission is all about making decisions transparent. I mean I, I mean I personally would love a world that there wasn’t a Glen Canyon Dam and I could float a boat all the way through, and–but that’s not a world that I’m going to, I’ve never– you know, that, that’s, my mission is not to get that back. My mission is to try to make all these decisions transparent in a democracy. So that people make intelligent decisions about them and, yeah. So anyway, yeah what else—

Well, um–

01:32:31 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 01:32:32

We’re out– We’ve got, you’ve got to go. (Both talking simultaneously)

Yeah, a few more minutes, that–you did say, one last question I want to follow up on. You said earlier that there’s a whole set of factors that go into influencing the ecosystems through the Grand Canyon that are off-limits. [You] said, basically, hydropower is a whipping boy because [JS: Yes] it’s the only thing [JS: Yes] that you can actually modify [JS: Right], but that there are other more important [JS: Yes] things that you can’t modify. Could you, could you–

01:32:33 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 01:33:04

Total flow [PH: Yeah], total monthly flow, sediment supply, temperature, and the new one that nobody had thought of, that might be, is nutrients.

And if, and if somebody said to you, you know what, we’re going to rethink everything [JS: Yeah]. You can adjust any of those factors in order to get more of what we want for the Colorado River ecosystem. Which of those factors would you go and adjust and what would be the effect on the river?

01:33:17 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 01:33:39

Well, so, okay. See, I always go back to the very practical thing. The first thing that I would do is we need to have a preliminary engineering, a formal preliminary engineering analysis of what it would cost to re-drill out the river diversion tunnels. So we at least know what the hell is the number. Is the number seven billion dollars or its seven million dollars? It’d be nice to know. For instance, we know what sediment bypass with an existing reservoir would cost. There is a preliminary engineering analysis done by Reclamation. It’s a number like ten or fifteen million d–no it’s 250 or 400 million [dollars] depending on how you design it. I mean, it’s a big number, but it’s not billions [PH: Right]. And the annual operating cost for that pipeline is essentially the same as the budget of GCMRC, of the adaptive management program. Right? So, right, so it’s a big number, but you know, right? So, okay, so I would create operational flexibility. I would, um, I would somehow get the brightest minds on the planet to figure out whether it really is true that it would be terrible to reinstitute a natural temperature regime and a natural sediment regime in the Grand Canyon. Because, I don’t want to sound stubborn, but I just don’t want to take that as the answer. It seems like a ludicrous answer. And yet I understand why so many aquatic ecologists and fish biologists say that. I understand their argument.

01:35:43 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 01:35:47

No, no, no, no. These are well-intentioned people who care about endangered species. It’s kind of crazy, and I understand their argument. I just keep saying really, how can that be? Because no, deep down inside I would like to see the Grand, in an imaginary world, I would like to know whether it’s possible that we can meet society’s needs for water supply, allocated to the most economically important places in the watershed, and have a more natural Grand Canyon. But what that would take would be the ability to bypass sediment and bigger floods, in drilled-out diversion tunnels. Short of that, you can’t do it. But I’d like to believe that’s possible. And I think that a declining water supply might give us the opportunity, but at the same time I recognize that you might do all that science and you might conclude that the thing that is the best public policy decision is the one that in my heart I don’t really want, which is, you know, keeping Powell full and Mead. But I, if it comes to that, I mean, you have to make decisions with your head. I mean, so I’m willing to let the chips fall where they may, but I just don’t think we’re working on enough. So, so, getting bigger flows of the right temperature with an abundant sediment supply is the ultimate, is what you need. And all this tweaking with all this other stuff is largely just going through the motions.

Ahaa. That seems like a great place to end.

01:37:43 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 01:37:46

I’ll never be–yeah, (laughs) yeah, thank God I’m sixty-seven and not looking for another job (laughter).

I think it’d be great if we could follow up with you a little bit later, and maybe see if we can drill down a little deeper on some of these issues that we touched on, but I think this is a good place to end. We’ve covered almost everything on the list.

01:37:54 Paul Hirt
Jack Schmidt 01:38:12

Okay. And I apologize if I talked too long [PH: No, no] or if this isn’t– I don’t know how you make sense of this.

Jennifer Sweeney 01:38:20

I’m going to turn it off.

End of interview

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John C. "Jack" Schmidt

Logan, Utah


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Geomorphologist John C. "Jack" Schmidt has been doing research in Grand Canyon for more than thirty years. He was Chief of the Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center (GCMRC) from August 2011 to November 2014. Schmidt was Professor of Watershed Sciences at Utah State University, where he was Director of the Center for Colorado River Studies. He earned a PhD in Geography and Environmental Engineering from Johns Hopkins University.

Schmidt, Jack Oral History Interview Transcript 6-11-2018

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Schmidt, Jack Oral History Interview 6-11-2018

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Schmidt, John C. “Jack”. ORAL HISTORY INTERVIEW. Transcript of recorded Interview conducted by Paul Hirt, Arizona State University, and Jennifer Sweeney, Four East Historical Research, LLC, on 11 June 2018, at Logan, Utah. Edited by Paul Hirt and Jennifer Sweeney.
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