Drought, Glen Canyon Dam, climate change and God

by Jonathan Thompson

I was driving the first time I saw the Golden Gate Bridge, and so befuddled was I by the sight that I almost swerved off the road. I had grown up amid spectacular mountains and canyons, but had never seen anything human-made on that scale. It simply didn’t seem possible. My friend and I, both 19, screamed with awe, fascination and a little bit of terror.

A quarter of a century has passed, and my reaction to larger-than-life infrastructure hasn’t dulled. I’m the dumb hick who gawks up at the skyscrapers in a city, and who cringes in fear as he drives down the casino canyon of the Las Vegas Strip. But to me perhaps nothing is as awesome to behold as Glen Canyon Dam. Like the Golden Gate Bridge, the dam is a spectacle, dwarfing much of the natural world all around. I can stand for hours on the vertigo-inducing bridge that spans the cold, green Colorado just downstream a 1,000-foot long steel spiderweb suspended gracefully over a 700-foot deep void simply trying to comprehend Glen Canyon Dam's concrete enormity: 300 feet thick at its base, 1,500 feet long at the crest. More than that, though, is what it represents: Our effort to control what was once a muddy, wild, tumultuous river, to rein it in with a colossal concrete plug, holding back billions of gallons of water and flooding hundreds of miles of once-sublime canyons.

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The base of Glen Canyon dam and the outflow valves through which millions of gallons of water per minute flowed during the 2013 High Flow Experiment. Photograph by Jonathan Thompson.

Glen Canyon Dam’s power to bewilder on both sensory and conceptual levels was enhanced this past week as massive amounts of water were released from the dam to mimic natural floods and hopefully bolster the Grand Canyon ecology and beaches that were forever altered by the dam. Call it a simulated Niagara Falls or, better yet, a several-day-long opening of one of the biggest faucets in the world gargantuan plumbing, if you will.

I happened to be driving through Page as the big water was being released, so I parked in the dam’s visitor center parking lot, and as soon as I opened the car door I could not only hear, but could also feel the roar emanating from 800 feet below, down at the bottom of the dam, where four giant nozzles sprayed streams of white into the green water of the river, churning it all up into a violent froth. A few days earlier, about 7,000 cubic feet of water was being released from the dam each second, through the hydroelectric turbines. During the flood, that increased to 35,000 cfs, or some 13 million gallons per minute, blasting into the river via the turbines and the nozzles. It was a good time to be rafting the Grand Canyon.

It’s probably a disturbing time, however, to be boating on Lake Powell, which must feel a bit like floating in a draining bathtub. In between playing classic rock tunes, the local radio station gave updates on the water releases and the effect that opening the spigots was having on the lake levels: After three days, the surface elevation had dropped one and a half feet, adding another foot by flood's end. That’s big, but nothing compared to how much the infamous bathtub ring i.e. climate measuring stick on the lake’s stone banks has grown recently. During the 2013 water year, 4.12 million acre feet of water flowed into Lake Powell. That’s only 47 percent of average, making it the fourth driest year on record since Glen Canyon Dam was completed in 1963. As a result, the water level dropped nearly 30 feet since this time last year, so the lake’s surface is now just below 3,590 feet, or more than 100 feet below full pool.

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The backside of Glen Canyon Dam along with the 'bathtub ring' that shows how much the water level has dropped during the extended drought. Photograph by Jonathan Thompson.

If the dam’s enormity is a symbol of our ability to control nature, then the bathtub ring is an equally potent symbol of how slippery our grasp really is. It shows us how fickle our climate can be, and how our hugest efforts can merely temporarily mitigate the impacts of that fickleness. And it shows us how our very efforts to dominate the planet have gone awry, causing our already unpredictable  environment to get even more wild and uncontrollable. Even the massive dam, just one piece of the huge plumbing system that we have constructed up and down the Colorado River drainage, can’t completely fix the arid truth any more than water managers' prayers for more rain and snow next year.

Federal water managers seem to have turned those prayers into wishful thinking. Despite the fact that inflows to the reservoir have been above average during only three out of the last 14 water years, the Bureau of Reclamation’s latest outlook optimistically projects 2014 Lake Powell inflows to range from 6.5 million acre feet 50 percent more than 2013 to 17.5 million acre feet, which would be higher even than 2011, which was one of the most generous water years on record. Under the “most probable” scenario, which lies in between these two projections, Lake Powell’s level would end 2014 at about the same level it is now. Even worse off is Lake Mead, which the Bureau expects to drop to 1,084 feet by next fall, more than 20 feet below its dismally low current state. If the trend continues, Las Vegas' current water intake in Lake Mead will be left high and dry by sometime in 2015 (which is why the regional water district is frantically working to construct a new one). Political battles over what water remains in the river are likely to follow soon afterwards. These scenarios rely on the next two years being wetter than the last two, and don't even consider what would happen if the drought of 2013 were repeated.

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Current Bureau of Reclamation projections call for near-average precipitation for the watersheds above Lake Powell next year, even though only three out of the last 14 years have been average or above average. Source: Bureau of Reclamation.

As I drove away from the dam and the bridge, and then encountered another awe-inspiring piece of infrastructure, the Navajo Generating Station, I considered my reaction to these monuments of our collective hubris. There’s the awe part, which has to do with the sheer magnitude of the dam or the power plant or the Las Vegas resort. But there’s that other emotion, too, a mixture of fear, anger, disbelief. By no means am I a religious person, but I think the latter emotion comes from a sort of inherent religiosity: That human-made edifices can overwhelm those created by “God” is both threatening and offensive. It’s even unbelievable on some level, so that these massive creations seem vaguely unreal holographic images projected upon the rock that vanish when we look away.

Perhaps those who refuse to believe in human-caused climate change are experiencing something similar: It’s simply unthinkable that us puny, insignificant little people could throw the whole planet into disarray, and that an omnipotent and omniscient God could allow it. Maybe, to them, anthropogenic climate change like the Golden Gate Bridge or Glen Canyon Dam — is just too big to be real. And maybe God or nature or just chance will bring a succession of rainy, snowy years, and the bathtub rings on Lakes Mead and Powell will slowly be swallowed up again by all that life-giving water.

But greenhouse gases continue to spill into our atmosphere from the stacks of Navajo Generating Station and thousands of plants like it. Global temperatures continue to rise. We’re now 14 years into the current drought, the driest 14 years of the past century. Snowpack levels above Lake Powell are just below average as I write this, but also just about equal to what they were on this date a year ago. The West's biggest plumbing system is in danger of running on empty, and there's little our monumental dams can do about it. That’s no illusion.

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News. He tweets @jonnypeace.

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