|Cracked, dried mud stretches for many yards at the Hite Marina.|
In his foreword to Eliot Porter’s The Place No One Knew,
David Brower wrote, “Glen Canyon died in 1963, and I was partly
responsible for its needless death. So were you. Neither you nor I, nor
anyone else, knew it well enough to insist that at all costs it should
endure. When we began to find out it was too late.” In the successful
struggle to keep dams out of Grand Canyon that followed the publication
of this book, and in many wilderness battles for years to come, Glen
Canyon became a rallying cry against compromise, a lament that the
wilderness we have already lost is too much. The Southern Utah
Wilderness Alliance for years printed a bumpersticker that read
“Remember Glen Canyon” as it worked to preserve the remainder of
southern Utah’s wildlands. No one promoted this cautionary tale about
Glen Canyon’s tragic loss more than Brower himself. But thanks to a
Salt Lake City physician and a regionwide drought in the southwest, we
can learn a new lesson from Glen Canyon, one that could go further
toward realizing Brower’s vision for the Earth than the old tale ever
On September 20, 2003, a group of 60 people gathered in a remote corner of what is now the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area (better known as Lake Powell) to hear the music of saxophonist Paul Winter. The place where they gathered was near what was once the confluence of the Colorado and the Escalante Rivers before the gates of Glen Canyon Dam closed in 1963. On a channel through the sandstone once known as Clear Creek, they gathered in a chamber once known as Cathedral in the Desert, the grandest of all the hundreds of side canyons of what once was Glen Canyon. The concert took place in the sandy bed of Clear Creek, at the top of the Cathedral’s signature 60 foot high waterfall, a place that only months ago would have been under several dozen feet of reservoir water. “It is amazing to think,” said Dr. Richard Ingebretsen, founder of Glen Canyon Institute (GCI), which organized the concert, “that at this time next year, we could be standing on the floor of Cathedral in the Desert, which has not been seen since 1966.”
Since founding GCI in 1995, Ingebretsen has called for the restoration of Glen Canyon and the draining of Lake Powell. Now a prolonged drought in the West is draining it for him. Lake Powell is now over half-empty and is predicted to drop further between now and the arrival of spring run-off from the mountains in April. “It’s as if my father, in his new incarnation, has called in a favor with The Big Guy,” said Robert Brower, who visited Glen Canyon with his late father in the 1960s as the flood waters first began to rise.
Why is Lake Powell being drained?
To meet the legal demands of the Colorado River Compact and to generate hydropower at Glen Canyon Dam, the Bureau of Reclamation must release water from the reservoir even as less water flows in from the parched western states upstream. The Bureau must also satisfy the demands of the 1992 Grand Canyon Protection Act, which requires it to balance the ecological needs of Grand Canyon National Park, immediately downstream from the dam, with water and power needs. This Act was passed in response to years of protest from environmentalists and river-runners, and led to research that showed that Glen Canyon Dam was having a disastrous impact on the ecosystem of the Grand Canyon. David Wegner, the Bureau of Reclamation’s chief scientist on these ecosystem studies, was forced out of his job after criticizing the much publicized flood release in 1996, which officials claimed had solved the problem.
Most people who have heard of Glen Canyon through books like The Place No One Knew are aware of the incomparable scenery that was lost to the waters of the reservoir. Fewer are aware of the ecological havoc caused by Glen Canyon Dam. Edward Abbey wrote: “There was a time, in my search for essences, that I concluded the Canyonlands country had no heart. I was wrong. The Canyonlands did have a heart, a living heart, and that heart was Glen Canyon and the golden, flowing Colorado River.” Wegner, now science director at GCI, says that Abbey was exactly right: “You had hundreds of miles of lush riparian habitat and slackwater fish nurseries in Glen Canyon bounded by world-class whitewater on either side and parched desert on the plateau above. It was the biological heart of the region, a haven for hundreds of species.” According to his research, Glen Canyon Dam is directly responsible for the extinction of two native fish species, has critically endangered a third, and is responsible for the threatened or endangered listing of over 60 plant, mammal, fish, reptile, and amphibian species. The Bureau of Reclamation spends millions of dollars annually in an attempt to mitigate the ecological effects of the dam, but has not succeeded in reversing the decline of species like the humpback chub, razorback sucker, and the southwestern willow flycatcher. Many scientists like Wegner believe that recovery through the current adaptive management approach is impossible without restoring the original warm, silty flows of the Colorado River. Wegner notes that the beaches and other habitat created in Grand Canyon by the 1996 flood flows had all disappeared within a year.
An avid proponent of ecological restoration, Brower jumped at the chance to join Ingebretsen in the new movement to restore Glen Canyon, beginning with a televised debate in 1995 between Brower and his old nemesis, former Bureau Commissioner Floyd Dominy, builder of Glen Canyon Dam. Inspired by the debate and armed with new figures from the Bureau showing that Lake Powell was losing nearly one million acre-feet of water annually to evaporation and seepage, Brower convinced the Sierra Club Board of Directors to unanimously endorse draining the reservoir in 1996. This led Utah Congressman Jim Hanson to call for Congressional hearings in 1997, which brought the proposal national attention for the first time. Since these hearings, it has become an annual event that a member of the Utah delegation attaches a legislative rider to a spending bill prohibiting the expenditure of any Federal money on even studying the draining of Lake Powell.
With government funding unavailable to study this ambitious restoration effort, Glen Canyon Institute proceeded to commission studies and compile existing research into a “Citizens’ Environmental Assessment” to begin to expose the economic, ecological, and other impacts of decommissioning Glen Canyon Dam. Among the facts exposed are that the reservoir has lost more than 34 million acre-feet of water since 1963 to the evaporation and seepage that inevitably occurs when storing water in a sandstone basin in the desert. The value of this lost water, $8.8 billion dollars according to current market rates, far outstrips the economic value of the electricity generated by the dam and exposes it for the wasteful boondoogle it has always been.
With the reservoir draining itself, there has never been a better opportunity for those seeking to restore Glen Canyon to make their case. Lost wonders like Cathedral in the Desert and Gregory Natural Bridge are becoming visible for the first time in over 30 years. Vegetation and wildlife like otter and beaver are returning as creeks flush sediment from long-inundated side canyons. And color is rapidly returning to the old Powell “bathtub ring” every day. The challenge now is to hold the ecological gains that the drought has allowed for and ensure that this is indeed the first step toward restoration, not merely another fluctuation in the reservoir level. GCI is now researching legal strategies that would grant the re-emerging Glen Canyon the protection it was denied in 1963, before the advent of modern environmental law required the government to consider the consequences of its actions.
As former Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Daniel Beard writes in a new edition of The Place No One Knew: “The suggestion that we drain Lake Powell is breathtaking in its scope. But so was the suggestion that a 726-foot dam could be built on the Colorado River in the early part of this century. The construction of Hoover Dam heralded the beginning of the dam-building era. Now, nearly seven decades later, the restoration of the free-flowing Colorado River through Glen Canyon can be the flagship of the dawning river restoration era.”
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