One way to get rid of Lake Powell

  What's in a name? Controversy, as I learned about 25 years ago when I began editing a newspaper in Breckenridge, Colo. I called one local attraction what I'd always called it -- "Dillon Reservoir."

The nearby Dillon Chamber of Commerce told me that it was scenic "Lake Dillon." I argued that it was not a natural alpine lake, but just a manmade supply facility for Denver. We compromised; thereafter the Summit County Journal called it "Lake Dillon Reservoir."

Something similar, though on a bigger and more serious scale, could be happening to the name of the water stored upstream of Glen Canyon Dam, commonly known as Lake Powell.

According to Russell Martin's fine history of the project, "A Story That Stands Like a Dam: Glen Canyon and the Struggle for the Soul of the West," it was christened in the spring of 1959 by Floyd Dominy, just before he was promoted to director of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Republicans wanted to name it for President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Democrats pushed for Sen. Carl Hayden of Arizona, who had long championed his state's water projects against Republican opposition.

John Wesley Powell was too far in the past to be partisan, and "Powell Reservoir" and "Powell Lake" didn't sound quite right, so Dominy settled on "Lake Powell," Martin wrote. Powell, a one-armed Civil War veteran, floated and explored the canyons of the Colorado River in 1869 and 1871, and on those trips he named Glen Canyon.

The Powell name angered Edward Abbey, who wrote in "Desert Solitaire" that "The impounded waters form an artificial lake named Powell, supposed to honor but actually to dishonor the memory, spirit, and vision of Major John Wesley Powell ... Where he and his brave men once lined the rapids and glided through silent canyons 2,000 feet deep the motorboats now smoke and whine ..."

However, even Powell believed in impounding water throughout the West, although he later became the patron saint of whitewater river rafting guides.

Now there's a Coalition to Rename Lake Powell, headed by Nancy Jacques of Durango, Colo. She points out that "lake" is usually applied to a natural body of water, and "reservoir" to an artificial site. Further, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names does not like duplicates, and long before the dam at Glen Canyon, there was a Lake Powell -- in Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park, up at the start of the Colorado River.

Its name most likely comes from an 1868 Powell trip, when he and four other men made the first recorded climb of 14,255-foot Long's Peak. They came in from the west, on a route that passed this little lake.

On that basis, and the use of "lake" for a "reservoir," Jacques petitioned the Board on Geographic Names last March. "Unlike Lake Powell, Glen Canyon Reservoir is not a duplicate," she said. "It's accurate because it calls a reservoir a reservoir, and it reminds us of what is under the water. Place names should tell us where we stand."

Page, Ariz., sits next to the dam, and it's easy to tell where people there stand, according to Chris Sheid, editor of the weekly Lake Powell Chronicle. In a recent editorial, he wrote that the proposal comes from "a group of people, many of whom don't even live in Arizona ...(who)want to come in and change something that local people and agencies decided on a long time ago."

The newspaper's Website found 92 percent of those surveyed opposed. "Some of the groups supporting the name change are groups that want to drain the lake," he said, "and of course that's not going to be popular in Page --that lake is our livelihood." The proposed name change, though, "might aid those people who want to drain it, since it might be easier to get support for draining a reservoir instead of a lake."

Jacques said that's not the case, even though many supporters would prefer the canyon to the lake. And it shouldn't be up to just the people of Page, "since this was a federal project for the whole country."

She's urging people to just start calling it Glen Canyon Reservoir, no matter what the Geographic Board rules when it gets around to holding hearings and announcing a decision.

Anybody willing to try my old compromise with a chamber of commerce, and use some mouthful like "Lake Powell Glen Canyon Reservoir?"

Ed Quillen is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an essay service of High Country News ( He lives in Salida, Colo., where he publishes Colorado Central Magazine and writes frequently for the Denver Post.

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