The engineers have had their say on the Colorado River, plumbing it with dams and diversions, so as the drought continues, we have no choice but to turn to poets. As A. R. Ammons wrote, "If anything will level with you, water will."
Glen Canyon Dam is currently leveling with us. The last
time I could bear to look at the statistics, in February, Lake
Powell was sinking below 3,590 feet. That sounds all right until
you realize that the reservoir holds only 11 million acre-feet
instead of the 27 million acre-feet it can store at full capacity.
Lake Powell is a magnificent sight at 27 million
acre-feet. It is not just the azure blue clarity of its water
against the pink desert sandstone. It is not just the houseboats
and the holiday air they give, or the water skiers and the
wake-boarders. It is also the meaning of the reservoir.
My dad was an engineer — the chief engineer — on the
dam almost a half century ago, so I grew up with it the way other
kids grew up with suburban streets. I was taught it would protect
us for all times against a shortage of water, while providing
electricity to light hundreds of thousands of homes, and water to
make Los Angeles and Phoenix and Tucson green.
important, at least to me, was the prospect of fun on the water. So
it breaks my heart today to see the stranded docks and boat ramps
being extended to reach an ever-retreating shoreline, the
dirt-ringed cliffs and the beds of sediment emerging wherever the
shore is flat.
Desert peoples used to load their sins
onto a goat and drive it off to die in the desert. Is Lake Powell
our goat? Are we watching it die in the desert? The scapegoats, I
imagine, plodded into the desert, knowing full well their fate. But
the Colorado River, unknowing, rushes brown and red toward Glen
Canyon Dam. Then it hits the slack water and drops its burden of
dirt into the reservoir, cleansing the water and giving the lake
the color we love — the color of the sky above.
dirt that had previously flowed to the Sea of Cortez is now trapped
in Lake Powell. Thanks to that mud, Lake Powell today can only
store 25 million acre-feet of water. It’s even worse than
that, because the mud flow toward Lake Powell is accelerating,
thanks to what we’re doing upstream in Colorado, Wyoming,
Utah and New Mexico. We’re urbanizing; our overgrown forests
are burning, creating huge earth flows; and the current drought is
drying out the soil and letting it blow.
Sooner or later,
all the misplaced dirt from the river’s watershed of 244,000
square miles flows into Lake Powell. And there’s something
else my father and his colleagues didn’t dwell on back in the
optimistic 1950s: about 1 million acre-feet of Lake Powell’s
stored water either evaporates or seeps into the sandstone each
Still, whatever the long-term problems of the dam
in a high desert, I’d give a great deal to have the wet years
return. It seems a dream that only 21 years ago this spring, water
was running between sand-bagged dikes down the main street of Salt
Lake City. And the engineers who managed Glen Canyon Dam were
worried that the massive rains and meltoff in the mountains would
undermine Glen Canyon Dam and cause Lake Powell, which was more
than brim full, to empty out in a few hours.
Who among us
would not wish to have those problems again today? How welcome it
would be to watch engineers mount plywood boards on the dam’s
spillway gates, to allow the reservoir to hold another few million
acre-feet of water.
Those were the days, the anomalous
days, it now seems. Wet decades in which the good, green times
rolled us into the dry decades of the late 20th century and early
If it is true that the last half of the
20th century was the exception, then our society faces a choice: Do
we let the sands accumulate before Glen Canyon Dam, the way the
great Egyptian technological societies let their pyramids and
sphinxes become buried in the deserts’ sands? Or in this new
century, will young children, open-mouthed and curious as I was,
accompany their fathers across the West as they try to solve the
problems we have left them?