Glen Canyon Dam by ANDR3W A

The Last Days of Glen Canyon Dam

These are heady days for dam-busters. Six dams in the American West have come down in the past year. Last month the Federal government agreed to remove four more dams on the Klamath River.

Dams are like clogs in the earth’s arterial system. Removing dams is like performing angioplasty for the planet. On rivers from the Amazon to the Yangtze we’ve dammed enough water to change the speed that the planet spins. Dams decimate communities in the flood zones, prevent fish from swimming up river, and often bury archaeological and geographic treasures.

We’re now learning that some of those dams are also wasting the water they were built to protect.

The holy grail for dam-busters is Glen Canyon Dam in Southern Utah. The giant concrete dam on the Colorado River forms the second largest American reservoir, Lake Powell. Today it’s less than half full, with a giant bathtub ring stain formed at an old high-water mark. Before inundation, Glen Canyon was an explorable maze of Native American archaeological sites and 2,000 side canyons. Today Lake Powell is a popular houseboating destination. You can steer your houseboat to the pinnacle of a three hundred foot spire that’s 90% submerged.

Photo by Dave Higgins, 1997

Lake Powell is not even half-full. Less water is flowing down the Colorado River because of the long-running Western drought. Demand for the water for lawns, water fountains, factories and farms continues to outstrip the dwindling supply. Lake Mead, further down the Colorado River, behind the Hoover Dam, is also less than half full. A new article in the New York Times by Abrahm Lustgarten makes the compelling case that it’s time to open the floodgates of Glen Canyon Dam and combine Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Merge the two reservoirs and we’ll reduce the water loss to evaporation and leakage. We will also increase the hydroelectric power produced by Hoover Dam.

Environmentalists sacrificed Glen Canyon in the fight to protect Dinosaur National Monument. They offered Glen Canyon as a trade. David Brower was credited with the compromise. He spent the rest of his days regretting the choice. “We didn’t know Glen Canyon,” he lamented to me. Brower, the first executive director of the Sierra Club, lead the battles to protect the remaining wild stretches of river in the U.S.

By the 1960’s, dam-building fervor was at a peak. One ill-conceived plan would have made the Grand Canyon into a giant lake. The Sierra Club drew a line in the sand at Dinosaur National Monument. “If we can’t protect a national monument,” he later told me, “why do we exist?” The victory protected the confluence of the Green and Yampa rivers, but it allowed the larger Colorado River Storage Project to go forward. Glen Canyon was lost.

Brower came to understand the cost of the compromise. He visited Glen Canyon after its fate was sealed, but before it was flooded. He photographed the canyons and Native American sites that would soon be lost. He explored and cataloged the side canyons. He floated down the river that would soon become Lake Powell.

In 1997 I conspired with Brower to begin a campaign to drain Lake Powell. The science was becoming clear that the dam was losing billions of gallons of water each year to evaporation and leakage. The slow, steady release of water from the dam was destroying habitat all the way down to the Grand Canyon. Wild rivers flood during storms and create beaches. Dam-released rivers can become lifeless channels.

Despite the public opposition to the idea, the Sierra Club board voted to support the draining of the dam. The New Republic quoted me saying:

“We’re talking about something big here. If we want to actually look forward to the next step of the environmental movement, we’re going to have to talk about proactively restoring parts of nature that have been destroyed.”

We were deluged by critiques. Congress held hearings to “expose” our devious plan. My Congressional testimony was punctuated by laughter and insults from members of Congress. During an event with the Glen Canyon Institute in Utah, the local sheriff had to escort us from an angry crowd.

Environmentalists are allergic to dams. They offend our belief that nature should exist as it has before humans dominated the planet. But with climate change bearing down on the planet, the world will need more water storage to respond to increasingly frequent droughts and deluges. Hydroelectric dams provide the clean, carbon-free energy that’s critical to slowing our impact on global warming.

Glen Canyon Dam is not insurance for climate change. Just last month, the level of the water at Lake Powell reached an all-time low. Low water levels result in a radical reduction in the hydroelectric power production for the dam. Open the floodgates of Glen Canyon Dam and the water will flow through to the half-full Lake Mead without reducing the effective water storage capacity on the Colorado River. We’ll combine two reservoirs into one, and lake Mead will produce more hydroelectric power to make up for the deficit. And, with less overall surface area, there will be less evaporation of the precious water.

Lake Powell wastes water. New studies show that Lake Powell loses an eye-popping 179 billion gallons of water a year through evaporation and leakage. That’s enough water to serve the entire population of Los Angeles.

In David Brower’s final years he promoted “CPR” — Conservation, Preservation and Restoration. “In my time,” he would say, “we moved from the idea of conserving our resources to preserving the last wild places. It’s your job to start restoring the planet.” Today his vision for restoration is more realistic than ever. With dams coming down across the West, Glen Canyon Dam’s days are numbered.

In 1997 I was quoted in the New York Times saying, ‘’At my age, 24, I have never had the chance to see Glen Canyon, but I hope my children will.’’ I’ve got three kids now and I’m more optimistic than ever that they’ll see Rainbow Bridge in Glen Canyon.

Let’s get on with it.

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Environmental activist & social entrepreneur. Co-founder, Yerdle. Sierra Club former President. Author, Strategy for Sustainability.

Environmental activist & social entrepreneur. Co-founder, Yerdle. Sierra Club former President. Author, Strategy for Sustainability.