First time in the Glen

Glen Canyon Institute
River Talk
Published in
5 min readJun 20, 2023

By Anneka Williams

The author walking in a side canyon

The sparkling blue of Lake Powell reservoir is striking against the red walls of Glen Canyon as our boat slices through calm water. I’ve never seen so much water in the desert before. It’s unnerving.

Centrally-located on the Colorado Plateau, Lake Powell is the United States’ second largest reservoir. Powell is an impoundment of the Colorado River and straddles the Utah-Arizona border above the choke point of Glen Canyon Dam.

On this trip — early April 2023 — Lake Powell’s water level sits well below the historic high water mark set in 1983. The water level is 3,520 feet above sea level, 187 feet below its maximum. A white band of mineral residue (dubbed a “bathtub ring”) stands out against the red sandstone walls above our heads, marking historic water levels and serving as a stark indicator of how much lower the water is today, the lowest it has been since it started filling.

A decades-long drought in the American Southwest and a warming climate have led to increasing water evaporation rates. These natural factors, coupled with outsized human demands have exacerbated aridification of the Colorado River plateau and led to the precipitous drop in reservoir levels.

But there is a silver lining to this moment of uncertainty. As the water levels decline, we are witnessing the rebirth of Glen Canyon for the first time since it was submerged behind the dam in 1963. We are also beginning to understand what was lost when the Colorado was dammed and the reservoir was created.

It’s my first time on the reservoir and I’m fortunate to be accompanied by Glen Canyon experts who teach me about the complicated and controversial history of this place. The average age on our trip hovers around 30. Though the dam was built decades before our generation became players in the environmental space, Lake Powell is a through-line from the beginnings of the modern environmental movement and my generation is deeply invested in the issues at hand. As we meander through narrow channels and explore side canyons on foot, we dive into discussing the future of this landscape.

The construction of the Glen Canyon Dam and subsequent creation of Lake Powell occurred in tandem with the rise of the environmental movement. Controversial from its inception, the creation of the reservoir came at the expense of the Glen Canyon ecosystem and the multitude of animals, plants, and geologic features contained within that ecosystem. David Brower, renowned environmentalist and the first Executive Director of the Sierra Club, famously lamented that Lake Powell would be “America’s Most Regretted Environmental Mistake.” That haunting sentiment is something that we are still wrestling with today.

Ostensibly created to provide a sustainable water supply to Upper Colorado Basin states, in actuality Lake Powell has led to massive water waste via large-scale evaporation and inefficient water delivery. The growing threat of water insecurity is driving greater attention to how water is managed in the Colorado Basin and it’s becoming clear that Lake Powell is hindering rather than helping water management and allocations on the Colorado Plateau. And in the wake of a rapidly changing climate, it’s becoming clear that 20th century development models don’t work for the 21st century.

We spend a night perched on a recently-revealed gravel bar, trading stories around a driftwood-fueled fire. As the fire’s glow flickers off the canyon walls, I learn more about the history of Glen Canyon. An abundance of gently-flowing water, lush vegetation, bird and mammal species, and unique geology made Glen Canyon a desert oasis along the Colorado River. And for centuries, Glen Canyon served as an important home to a diversity of Indigenous people.

For decades after Glen Canyon Dam was built and the Colorado backed up into Lake Powell, the beauty and history of Glen Canyon was lost. Boats passed over rock arches and the ghosts of forests that once lined the floors of side canyons.

But in recent years, the water levels in Lake Powell have dropped and the remains of Glen Canyon are emerging. Vegetation is coming back, lining the walls and floors of a lost canyon returning, the bright green of willow leaves providing a striking contrast to the red and brown hues of the canyon rock. This contrast is more natural to me than that of the walls reflected in the still, cold waters of the reservoir. Rock spires and other geologic features are being revealed by receding water and we find ourselves boating under arches that were submerged last year.

Glen Canyon is re-emerging from the depths of Lake Powell at the same time that we are beginning to more strongly acknowledge the need for a different water management system. As the first Colorado River Compact, signed in 1922, approaches its expiration, we are poised to agree on a new set of rules to govern water management that will go into effect in 2026. Hopefully rules that will right some of the wrongs embedded into the early days of formal water management in this region. Indigenous people, who were not taken into consideration by early environmentalists or the masterminds behind the dam’s construction and tribes and were excluded from the Colorado River Compact signed in 1922, need a seat at the table. The new rules need to be made more holistically, without a single-minded focus on control and extraction of natural resources. And decisions need to be made with the knowledge that our future is uncertain as we face climate change in the context of a divided country and rapidly shifting policy landscape.

The scale of ecosystem reestablishment in Glen Canyon is unprecedented. Water levels fluctuate on the order of tens of feet each year revealing rock formations that were shaped over geologic timescales. Visiting Glen Canyon is an ongoing practice in adaptation. As water levels rise and fall in response to temperature, snowpack, and water demands, access to different areas is a moving target.

Seeing, moving through, and acknowledging greater complexities creates a different landscape for our environmental movement than that that shaped the inception of Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell. I hope the future of this place will consider the entire ecosystem, bring all the stakeholders to the table, and take action with not just present but future water needs in mind, as well.