Is Glen Canyon Dam pulling the plug on itself?

  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.

But most 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.

The 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 year.

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 21st century.

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?

Tom Wolf is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). A writer in Taos, New Mexico, he is working on a biography of Colorado conservationist Arthur Carhart, one of the chief opponents of the dam.