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Wet Desert: Tracking Down a Terrorist on the Color



To Kelly, Kevin, Jennifer and Allison

Monday, June 21


12:00 noon — Porcupine Canyon, Colorado

Grant Stevens braced for the explosion. He felt tightness in his stomach and up the back of his neck. He glanced sideways at his friend Bruce Godfrey and saw wild eyes and a tense smile. Bruce stared unflinchingly at the bombsite across the canyon. Neither of them would have missed this for the world. Grant looked back just in time.

The bombs detonated. Grant's entire torso flinched. Porcupine Dam exploded as particles jettisoned in soaring arcs above the structure. The concrete face of the dam came to life, bursting outward. A dust cloud expanded from the rubble, obscuring the entire structure of Porcupine Dam. Smaller clouds mushroomed out of the large one, in what seemed like a series of secondary explosions. Some of the rocks and pieces of concrete were propelled high in the sky, with trajectories like fireworks on the Fourth of July.

For an instant, Grant panicked. He was far too close. The onslaught of rocks and concrete would rain down on him, and kill him instantly. He would have no chance of escape. But then, as if on cue, the outward energy died. The particles reached the apex of their eruption and fell back to earth. Grant would not be killed after all, and he felt like an idiot for thinking it in the first place.

He relaxed. The explosion had been far more intense than he had expected, making him forget that they had not yet heard the noise. When the sound wave reached him, he ducked again. The loud impact made him feel like his chest might be crushed or his head split. He reached instinctively to cover his ears, in spite of the expensive twenty-decibel ear protection, clutching them tight to his head until the sound dissipated.

Only the dust was visible now, churning on itself like a thundercloud, and covering the carnage underneath. Although the dam's concrete structure was completely decimated by the explosion, and reduced to rubble, no flash floods or waves of water could be seen. In fact, no water could be seen at all in the streambed, or anywhere else below the dam. No reservoirs were released downstream by the demise. The canyon below the dam remained dry.

Grant realized he had never seen anything so spectacular in his life. He felt goose bumps on his arms and a grin spreading across his face. He stared at the fog of dust covering the far side of the canyon. A sound from behind startled him. It was a mixture of clapping, yelling, and a few whistles. Grant looked around and saw Bruce and the others applauding towards the demolished Porcupine Dam. At first, the cheering seemed foreign and wrong, but he slowly realized he felt the same way, and after a moment he joined in and clapped enthusiastically.

He glanced around at the others who were in attendance. Standing next to him on a flat plateau across Porcupine Canyon from the dam was a group of managers from the Bureau of Reclamation, representatives from the U.S. Department of Interior, and a large number of local politicians and various other VIPs from the Denver metropolitan area, including the governor of Colorado. The plateau, which acted as a grandstand for the large group, was conveniently located a half-mile downstream from the dam.

Below the plateau, sprinkled up and down the slopes, were the non-VIPs. This much larger group, which Grant estimated at a few thousand, was made up of non-managerial staff from the Bureau, farmers who had once irrigated using the water from Porcupine Reservoir, curious local residents, and a group of environmentalists with a banner that read: Free the Rivers, Kill the Dams. A scattering of deputy sheriffs infiltrated the group to keep peace between the environmentalists and the farmers.

While he stood and stared, he was vaguely aware of someone collecting the ear protection in a large basket. When the man, a Hispanic in a maroon tuxedo, approached, Grant deposited his ear protection in the basket with a mumbled "thanks." He looked back at the demolition site. The change was incredible. He had never seen anything like it. He rubbed his hand on his chest and admitted it still felt tight. He peered down into the canyon, but the dust frustrated his ability to see much of anything. If only the wind would blow the cloud away. However, that afternoon, Porcupine Canyon was devoid of any wind or even a breeze.

This event, which had drawn so many spectators up Porcupine Canyon on a hot Monday, was the culmination of five years of lawsuits, political jockeying, and environmental studies. Ironically, the Bureau of Reclamation, which had fought hardest against decommissioning Porcupine Dam, was now in charge of the event, and celebrating the dam's demise. Grant felt hypocritical. In spite of the excitement of witnessing the explosion, ultimately Grant wanted to build dams, not blow them up. As a manager for the Bureau of Reclamation, he detested the thought of destroying a working concrete dam. Although Porcupine Dam was not in the same league as the bigger, more well-known dams in the west, its sheer simplicity made it remarkable to an engineer like him — just a sweeping concrete arch, with two rounded spillways sculptured right in the middle.

Bruce Godfrey, his friend from the River Hydraulics Group, slapped him on the back. "What'd ya think?" Bruce had been unable to talk about anything else for weeks.

Grant pointed in the air. "For a second I thought some of the pieces were going to hit us."

"Yeah. Me too. It was awesome!" Bruce pumped his arm in excitement. "And it was way louder than I thought it would be. Even with the earphones," he said, motioning to his ear.

Grant pointed down in the canyon. "I wish I could see better. There's too much dust to see how much of the structure…"

"Give it a few minutes to settle," Bruce said, motioning toward one of the hospitality tents and a table of drinks in ice. "Let's get a drink."

Grant nodded and they both headed towards the table. He wondered if events like this were his future. How many more dams would the Bureau demolish over the next ten years?

Grant had worked for the Bureau for eighteen years. He had joined the Bureau to build dams, big concrete ones like Hoover and Glen Canyon. Their sheer size and power hypnotized him even after all these years as an engineer. As a child, he had toured Hoover Dam with his family while they vacationed in Las Vegas. At the age of seven, while looking down the six hundred foot face, he had announced to his parents that he would build dams when he grew up. But unlike most children, Grant had not stopped with his childhood dream. Instead, he had let his passion propel him through college — first a bachelor's degree in civil engineering, then a master's, all focused on the chemistry of concrete, structural analysis, and ultimately, dam building.

When Grant first started working at the Bureau of Reclamation in the early eighties, he had advanced quickly, gaining recognition both for strategic decisions and common sense. He garnished awards and promotions. It was not until his career was set and he had worked for the Bureau for over ten years that he finally realized the truth. It came in the form of disapproval for a dam proposal he engineered for the Snake River. It wasn't the disapproval that bothered him, because almost all his proposals had been denied. It was the lack of concern from his management at the Bureau. They had expected it to be refused.

The day the proposal was rejected, Grant's mentor Henry Petersen, who had helped design the Glen Canyon Dam in the late fifties, looked Grant in the eyes and said, "Face it, Grant, there ain't gonna be no more dams in America. It's over. It's not considered environmentally correct to build dams anymore."

It was at that moment that Grant's conscious mind grasped what his subconscious had known for years — he was too late. America's dams were already built. His dream would never be fulfilled. The Bureau of Reclamation had become a maintenance organization, content to monitor water usage. And, as the final straw, the Bureau was now decommissioning the dams it had built in the first part of the twentieth century.

When they reached the table, Bruce grabbed a cream soda and popped the top. "You all packed and ready to go?"

Grant smiled at mention of the trip. His luggage was packed for a flight that evening. "Yeah, as ready as you can be." He sorted through the sodas, and picked out a Diet Coke.

"How late are you guys leaving?" Bruce asked.

"Nine," Grant said.

This was a trip Grant was really looking forward to. The flight would take him first to JFK, then Paris, and then Nairobi, Kenya. After that it would be small propeller planes and cars to the dam site on the Tana River. Unfortunately for Grant, elephants would not be necessary, since there were actually paved roads to the site.

Since all the big rivers in the United States were already dammed, most of Reclamation's engineering work was now done in foreign countries. The Bureau consulted around the world on how to harness water resources. This particular trip to Kenya was a weeklong international symposium on dam building. Engineers, including Grant, would be attending from many of the giant projects around the globe, including the most impressive dam of all, the Three Gorges Dam in China. Grant had traveled to foreign countries before for business, but never a trip of this magnitude.

"You cleaned and oiled your rifle yet?" Bruce had a large smile on his face.



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