Lake Powell, the blue-green gem of the Colorado River and one of the 20th century triumphs of the Bureau of Reclamation, is in trouble.
Not a lake but a reservoir, its shrinking water level, down 150 feet, offers dramatic proof of drought and climate change. As the marvels of Glen Canyon slowly emerge, the falling water line provides new opportunities for human-powered recreation and better beaches.
Edward Abbey referred to Lake Powell as “Lake Foul.” He wrote, “The difference between the present reservoir, with its silent sterile shores and debris-choked side canyons, and the original Glen Canyon, is the difference between life and death. Glen Canyon was alive. Lake Powell is a graveyard.”
Back in the 1950s it had been a deliberate trade off: Stop dams in Echo Park and Whirlpool Canyon in Dinosaur National Monument and move the dam downstream onto plain-old vanilla Bureau of Land Management land that had no special conservation designation.
Under director David Brower, the Sierra Club published a book about Glen Canyon. Brower admitted, “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.”
The handsome book of color photos by Eliot Porter was titled “The Place No One Knew,” but the title wasn’t correct. Salt Lake City Boy Scouts had floated Glen Canyon for years on inner tubes and small rafts. Norm Nevills and his Mexican Hat Expeditions took river trips from Mexican Hat, Utah, down the San Juan River to the confluence with the Colorado River through Glen Canyon and all the way down Grand Canyon.
It was a lively, rare, elegant, canyon country riparian ecosystem and it ended with a concrete plug placed by the Bureau of Reclamation to satisfy water rights for the Upper Basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico. But now it doesn’t work. The dam is still there – the water is not.
High tide in the desert was spring 1983 when the Bureau of Reclamation had full reservoirs, a large snowpack and heavy rains in May. A wall of water rushed out of the Rockies and there was nowhere to put it. Kevin Fedarko’s masterful book, “The Emerald Mile,” describes how water almost topped Glen Canyon Dam.
Engineers couldn’t figure out what to do fast enough, but a janitor suggested a simple solution – plywood. So the Bureau rushed to buy every piece of plywood in Phoenix to build a wooden breastworks to temporarily raise the dam’s level, and it worked. No such problem now. The river’s roar is a trickle. Miles of Lake Powell are drying mud flats.
I’ve been on the reservoir many times as part of a dedicated crew of Trash Trackers, using a houseboat, a barge and a runabout boat to help pick up an annual trash volume of 56,000 pounds. I’ve been on most parts of the lake. I’ve watched the houseboats get bigger while the reservoir has shrunk.
The last time I went, the white bathtub ring, now 100 feet tall, dramatically showed how high the water level had been. Quagga mussels with their sharp edges are everywhere. The natural riparian zone has become weeds, invasive plants and bare rock. Lake Powell has become a human-made eco-disaster, but is not without its attractions: blue sky, green water, red cliffs. Vacationing families love it.
“Lake Powell, which some people consider the most beautiful place on earth and others view as an abomination, lies in slickrock country,” begins Elizabeth Kolbert in her article “The Lost Canyon” published in The New Yorker. She writes that as waters decline, Glen Canyon has been re-emerging. “The river was cutting new channels through the sediment, with unpredictable results; from year to year and even month to month, it was hard to know what to expect.”
Lowering lake levels are bad news for all those swimming pools and golf courses in Arizona much less for irrigated crops of water-intensive cotton and grapefruit. Below Lake Powell lies Lake Mead now at 34% capacity. That’s not good. What will happen to all those water features in Las Vegas? Will outdoor Vegas fountains limit their enthusiastic spurts? Will imitation Italian gondoliers at the Venetian resort be out of work?
The sinking lake is also threatening the houseboat industry based in Page, Arizona, and the several marinas dependent on high water levels, high-priced gasoline and tourist purchases.
One marina, Dangling Rope, is already on the ropes. A seasonal facility 40 miles up from Glen Canyon Dam, it was damaged by high wind. With low water, it may never function again. I remember many times arriving there in intense heat to gas up, ice up and purchase soft ice cream after standing in line with other sweating, sunburned, lotion-lathered sun seekers.
A windstorm “completely fractured” the marina, said Glen Canyon National Recreation Area Superintendent William Shott in a news story in The Lake Powell Chronicle. Houseboaters are begging him to fix the marina, but he says, “we don’t have water back in that cove.”
If the marina gets moved farther out into the lake, at considerable expense, wind exposure increases.
“The further you bring it out, the higher risk of that thing being broken. We’re not talking about an errant houseboat bouncing around. We’ve got thousands of gallons of fuel bouncing around on the Colorado River. A lot of risk, and you’d have to move breakwater,” Shott said. “You’d have to engineer a solution in deeper water to try to anchor it, so that’s not promising, either.”
Perhaps it’s time to stop and smell the sagebrush and chamisa. Perhaps it’s time to make the lake multiuse, multipurpose and much friendlier to paddlers who do not need fuel.
For years, the Glen Canyon Institute has argued for taking down the dam, but the way things are going, we don’t need to. Our Colorado Plateau system of rivers and dams is failing on its own.
But what is possible is a new industry at Lake Powell or at least a supplement to what’s already there. It’s time to make the lake user-friendly not for the giant houseboats with their hot tubs, jet skis, plastic slides and gas-guzzling engines, but for human-powered rowboats, dories, duckies, sailboats, canoes and kayaks.
Let’s close a few canyons to motorized access. The last time I proposed this in an editorial in the Salt Lake Tribune I had voluminous hate email for a week, but now the falling water levels are making their own statement. It’s time to adapt. As expensive as it would be to rebuild Dangling Rope Marina, how simple to add a few buoys up say, Escalante Canyon. Have the buoys say, “No Wake. No Motors.” If the future is less water, the recreation area’s general management plan is decades old. Time for an update.
Time to plan for less water, fewer houseboats and for other kinds of watercraft to explore hidden canyons admired by Katie Lee and Wallace Stegner. He wrote that in geologically carved chambers, “the light was dim, reflected, richly colored.” Stegner knew that Lake Powell would become one of the nation’s “great water playgrounds,” but he admonished, “In gaining the lovely and the usable, we have given up the incomparable.”
With dropping water levels, lost Glen Canyon is re-emerging for a younger generation willing to paddle, row and float, and to seek adventure on a sustainable scale. In The New York Times, Kevin Moran with the Environmental Defense Fund said, “The river is the iconic resource,” but he added that the Colorado River, “is in uncharted territory. Climate scientists have pretty well articulated that something like 40 to 60% of the decline is due to a warming climate.”
Climate change did in the dinosaurs. Not sure what a changing climate means for huge houseboats. I’ve got my double duckie, my inflatable kayak, ready to paddle. Which canyons will be closed to motors?
Andrew Gulliford is an award-winning author and editor and a professor of history at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.