Taking Out Glen Canyon Dam
By Jeffrey St. Clair
The service station at Dangling Rope, one of the most remote in the United States, sells more gas than any other outlet in Utah. Oddly, the business is more than 50 miles from the nearest road, in one of the least populated landscapes of the lower-48 states. Dangling Rope is a floating gas station, a marina drifting on the eerie, placid waters of Lake Powell. Three hundred feet below are the ruins of Glen Canyon, a natural Atlantis drowned in a man-made flood. The floating gas station, anchored in this surreal spot to refuel the flotillas of houseboats that prowl the reservoir, is a perfect symbol for the grim fate of one of the planet's natural wonders.
The reservoir, the second-largest in the United States, and the downstream remnants of the Colorado River are becoming inexorably toxified. Every four years the pollution discharged into the water from the thousands of motorboats and jet skis that ply the lake's stagnant waters is equal to the amount of crude oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez. To top it off, more untreated human waste is dumped into the reservoir than any other body of water in the United States. Lake Powell is well on its way to becoming a hazardous waste site. It didn't have to be like this.
Perhaps more than any other single issue, Glen Canyon has haunted the conscience of the American environmental movement. At the center of the story is renowned environmentalist David Brower, whose trip down the canyon with Floyd Dominy, then head of the dam-building Bureau of Reclamation, was immortalized in John McPhee's book, Encounters with the Archdruid. It was Brower, the most creative and radical green of his generation, who signed off on the building of Glen Canyon dam in 1956, as part of a fateful deal to keep the Bureau of Reclamation from building the Echo Park dam on the Green River inside Dinosaur National Monument in northern Utah. That decision has weighed heavily on him ever since.
Now 87 years old and battling cancer, Brower has returned to the Four Corners region to inaugurate a new campaign aimed at decommissioning the dam, draining Lake Powell and restoring Glen Canyon. Brower's last charge represents a direct confrontation against one of the engines that has driven the development and destruction of canyonland country. He also sees it as a chance for a kind of personal redemption. "It's time to correct one of the most egregious errors of the last century," he says.
The Colorado River has been dubbed the American Nile. Both, of course, are desert rivers, coursing for much of their length through some of the world's most sun-scorched terrain. And each gave rise to great ancient civilizations, the empires of Egypt and the mysterious Anasazi, whose cliff-hugging communal dwellings still embroider the canyonland country. But beyond that it's not a particularly precise metaphor. For one thing, the Nile is three times the size of the Colorado. For another, the Nile is a leisurely river, descending only about 6,000 feet in its 4,200-mile journey to the Mediterranean. The Colorado, born in the alpine snowpack of the Rocky Mountains, freefalls 14,000 feet in a headlong 1,500-mile rush to the Sea of Cortez. It is the compact power of the Colorado that sets it apart - the dramatic way it has slashed through the massive blocks of sandstone on the Colorado plateau, carving out the most bizarre and spectacular landscape on earth. It was a forbidding terrain that intimidated even the conquistadors, who stopped their pillaging forays at the first sight of its vast, seemingly impenetrable chasms.
The first whites to see Glen Canyon were almost certainly in the expedition of Major John Wesley Powell, the crusty one-armed Civil War veteran who floated down the Colorado in wooden dories in 1869. Powell's journal of that trip offers some of the finest nature writing of the 19th century and his detailed description of the canyon and the river remains one of the most precise and compelling. But Powell was no transcendentalist aesthete, no gritty Thoreau of the plateau. His mission wasn't merely to describe this uncharted territory, but to graph it out and discover a way to reclaim the parched land, making it suitable for habitation on a grand scale. The solution, arrived at over the next four decades, was to replumb the entire river system with a network of dams, ditches, canals, diversions, reservoirs and pipelines.
Powell went on to push for the creation of the Bureau of Reclamation in 1902. But the era of dam building had to wait for the competing parties to settle their differences over who would get what from the projects. The Colorado and its tributaries slice their way through seven states, and each one demanded a share of the action. Then there were the Indian tribes, Navajo and Ute, Apache and Havasupai, Hopi and Shoshone, whose rights to the water were undeniable if almost never recognized. The resolution of these claims and counterclaims to the waters of the Colorado resulted in a thick, convoluted and constantly evolving docket of regulations, contracts, court rulings and legislation, known collectively as the "Law of the River." Distilled, the Law of the River comes down to this: first in time, first in right. It's called the doctrine of prior appropriation and was an invitation to a feeding frenzy.
The big issue for the states was how the water would be divvied up. After years of squabbling, they came up with the Colorado River Compact of 1922, which divided the states into two groups, the Upper Basin (Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico) and the Lower Basin (California, Arizona and Nevada). Each basin received rights to half of the Colorado's annual flow. The states in each group were left with the tricky choice of how to divide the water between themselves. By the time they were done, not even a freshet of the river would reach the sea. It has been sucked dry.
The first big dam to go up on the Colorado was Hoover in 1936, designed to funnel water to ever-expanding Los Angeles and the fields and ranches of the Imperial Valley. At the time, Hoover dam was the biggest structure ever built. Behind it, Lake Mead, the world's largest reservoir, held back two year's worth of the Colorado's annual flow. Speaking at the dedication ceremony, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt extolled the project, touting it as the first move toward "altering the geography of the region." FDR's words were prophetic. The raising of that dam sanctified a certain mindset toward the arid lands, what the western historian Donald Worster has called "a world view of permanent subordination." Nature submerged is nature subordinated. Or as Dominy put it: "The Colorado unregulated isn't worth a damn."
The Hoover dam project also inaugurated another grand tradition of Western water schemes: corporate profiting from government pork. The Bureau of Reclamation didn't actually build dams: It planned them, lobbied for them, fudged numbers to make them seem more efficient and fended off attacks against them from Congress and conservationists. Dam building is big business and those billions of dollars were predestined to end up in the coffers of corporations. The lucrative contracts for Hoover dam alone transformed three relatively obscure firms (Kaiser, Bechtel and Morrison-Knudsen) into corporate Goliaths that have stomped around the globe causing ecological mayhem and human misery ever since.
Hoover was California's deal. Then the Upper Basin wanted its shot: Their scheme was grandiose, including dams at Flaming Gorge, Echo Park and Glen Canyon. But then in 1952 along came Brower, the newly hired executive director of the Sierra Club. Brower was outraged by the Bureau of Reclamation's plan to erect a dam at Echo Park inside the stunning canyons of Dinosaur National Monument. The proposal brought back bad memories from an earlier era, when John Muir, the Sierra Club's patron saint, fought a futile battle against the flooding of the beautiful Hetch-Hetchy valley in Yosemite National Park in 1913. After that travesty, the Club made a pact: no more dams inside national parks or monuments.
Brower was a master organizer, generating one of the first great national campaigns in the history of the environmental movement. But from the beginning, Brower's focus was riveted on keeping a dam out of Dinosaur National Monument. At all costs, he feared resetting the precedent of Hetch-Hetchy. So Brower proposed a compromise. In exchange for keeping a dam out of Dinosaur, the Sierra Club wouldn't oppose a dam at Glen Canyon. Indeed, Brower even supported a scheme to raise the height of Glen Canyon dam to accommodate more water storage.
As the dam began to be raised, Brower and photographer Eliot Porter took one last float down the river. They documented their trip in a stunning book, The Place No One Knew. It was a powerful, elegiac testimony to what had been lost, fully capturing the haunted beauty of the canyon. But the book's title was somewhat self-serving and deceptive. It is vital to understand that Glen Canyon was not a wilderness, per se. The Navajo and Ute tribes, and before them the Anasazi, had been living there for centuries. Many others knew and loved Glen Canyon, intimately and passionately, among them folksinger Katie Lee, river guide Ken Sleight, author Edward Abbey, historian Gregory Crampton and the thousands of people who had floated down the Colorado and San Juan rivers.
Another person who knew what would be lost with Glen Canyon dam was the writer Wallace Stegner, a close friend of Brower's who had floated through Glen Canyon twice. Indeed, before the deal was finalized, Stegner told Brower that it was a mistake to trade Glen Canyon for Dinosaur National Monument. "Between us, Dave," Stegner said, "Dinosaur doesn't hold a candle to it."
Brower himself soon came to learn that Stegner was right. Looking back on it, he called the deal his "greatest mistake, greatest sin."
For two years the concrete poured nonstop into the towering pilings of the Glen Canyon dam, and the town of Page sprung up out of nothing nearby. It's now a city of more than 8,000 people. The floodgates on Glen Canyon dam closed on March 23, 1963. From the observation deck outside Page, a quarter-mile downstream from the dam, the 710-foot tall structure appears as a sleek blonde colossus sunk into the blood-red Navajo sandstone.
Admirers of Glen Canyon dam have compared the structure to the pyramids at Giza. It won't last nearly that long. One reason is that the reservoir is fast filling up with silt. The Colorado River deposits 65 million tons of sediment at its base every year. The mud is stacking up at the foot of the dam at the rate of between two and three feet a year. In a little more than 150 years, the silt will have reached the 425-foot level, where it will clog the penstocks that suck water into the power generating turbines.
But the dam may breach well before then, as it almost did in 1983. That year heavy snows and a rapid snowmelt left the Colorado so flush with water that the dam nearly overtopped, becoming a 710-foot waterfall. At the same time, its spillways failed and the dam came close to a catastrophic breach. The flows of the river that year were high, but far from what the Colorado has reached in the past and will reach again sometime in the future.
That hasn't been the only problem with the dam. For one thing, it leaks. The Navajo sandstone formation, the soft red rock that gives the canyon its Mars-like hues, is extremely porous; it sucks up water like a sponge. In fact, the entire base of the dam is waterlogged, shedding sheets of saturated sandstone. Internal memos from engineers at the Bureau of Reclamation suspected this would happen, but the reports were buried. At the same time, more than a million-acre feet of Lake Powell's water is lost to evaporation in the searing heat - that's enough water to meet the yearly needs of 34,000 homes.
But water was never the main issue at Glen Canyon. The big money at the dam comes from power generation. The huge turbines in the bowels of the dam generate 1,300 megawatts of power a year, enough power for 350,000 homes (though about 60 percent of it goes on the western power grid to industrial customers). But maddeningly, much of it is used to power engines that pump water from the reservoir on its way to Las Vegas, Phoenix and Flagstaff. In all, it provides less than 3 percent of the electricity for the region.
There was one final insult. Back in 1956, Brower had fought for and won protection for a side canyon harboring Rainbow Bridge, the glorious natural arch that is also one of the most revered sacred sites for the native peoples of the Southwest. But it soon became clear that the Bureau of Reclamation had ignored the deal and that the waters of Lake Powell would creep up to the very base of Rainbow Bridge. An outraged Brower brought a lawsuit in federal court, but lost. The political nightmare unleashed by the Faustian bargain to save Dinosaur National Monument just kept getting worse.
In one way or another, Brower has spent the past 40 years trying to atone. Glen Canyon has become a testament to the perils of political deal-making when it comes to the environment. Brower repeatedly warns young environmentalists: "Never trade a place you know for one you don't."
The closing of the floodgates at Glen Canyon helped spark a new kind of militant environmental movement that rejects political dealing-making and compromises. This new movement had a voice: Edward Abbey. Abbey didn't hold back; he raged against that dam and all it stood for, writing in 1968 that it must come down, one way or another. He envisioned the following scenario for the reservoir's dedication in Desert Solitaire:
In 1981, Earth First!, the group inspired by Abbey's musings about monkey-wrenching, marked its arrival on the scene by dropping 300-foot-long plastic strip down the face of the dam, simulating a giant crack.
But Glen Canyon dam doesn't have to end with a boom. It can go out with a whimper and a wild whoosh of water. And that's just what Brower has set his sights on doing. In December 1999, he and a group of some of the finest environmental activists in the country set up shop right in the belly of the beast: in an old ice-cream parlor in Moab, Utah. They call themselves the Glen Canyon Action Network (http://www.drainit.org), and their goal is straightforward: build an international movement to force the government to decommission the dam, drain Lake Powell and restore the Colorado River.
The group includes river rafters, small business owners and traditional Navajo. It is headed by Owen Lammers, former chief organizer at the International Rivers Network, where for more than a decade he fought dams around the globe, most notably China's gargantuan Three Gorges project. The developing world is experiencing a spasm of dam-building, which is annihilating rich ecosystems and indigenous cultures. Lammers says that the best way to reverse this ugly trend is to target one of the most famous dams in the world and put it out of business. "That's Glen Canyon, and it's a good thing its located in the United States, because we need to show other nations that we are serious about cleaning up our own messes," he says. "When Glen Canyon comes down, others will fall like dominos."
Is it possible to drain the lake? Yes. Even Dominy, Brower's old nemesis, says so - though, typically, he disagrees on exactly how it could be done. Under most scenarios, the dam itself would remain standing, the Colorado pouring through its floodgates, an absurdist relic of a lamentable era.
"The barriers to a restored Glen Canyon are not so much technical or economic as political," Lammers says. "It was politics that inundated Glen Canyon. And it will take a peoples' movement to bring about its restoration." The political barriers are familiar ones, though perhaps not as conniving and powerful as the old days. The Western congressional delegation has already reacted with predictable hostility, pushing through a legislative rider that bars the Department of Interior from ever examining the feasibility of decommissioning the dam. At the same time, the federal government is now looking at pulling the plug on four dams on the Lower Snake River along the Idaho-Oregon border to aid dwindling runs of salmon. Those dams provide nearly three times more hydropower than Glen Canyon.
Things change, and even the most craven politician can come to his senses when faced with angry constituents. For others it can be a simple matter of conscience. A few months before he died, Barry Goldwater, the right-wing senator from Arizona, was asked which vote he most regretted in his long career of infamy. "I wish I could take back the vote to put up Glen Canyon dam," Goldwater said. "And let that river run free."
Brower hopes to see that day soon. "The decommissioning of that dam will give the restoration era its big break and bring a lot of joy to the 1,600 miles of Glen Canyon and its side canyons that are magnificent gestures of the earth - to use Ansel Adams' phrase - unmatched on earth or anywhere else," he says. "They are waiting eagerly to be born again. I know, I asked them all."
Jeffrey St. Clair is a contributing editor of In These Times.