Drought is a rude reminder that in any given year the interior West is but a storm or two from that hydrological tipping point where farming, ranching and the presence of cities become not merely ill-advised but — impossible.
The region is being reminded of this now in a big way:
Five consecutive years of drought, six in some areas, are throwing
a scare into urban water managers, driving farmers and ranchers off
the land and threatening power shortages this summer as anemic
river flows curtail hydro-electricity generation.
there are some to whom the drought presents opportunity. On a warm
day in late May, a small group gathered at a trailhead southeast of
Escalante, Utah, to take advantage of that rare chance. Joining
guide Travis Corkrum of Salt Lake City and freelance photographer
Eli Butler of Flagstaff, Ariz., were six backpackers from four
states who had signed up for an outing sponsored by the nonprofit
Glen Canyon Institute.
Shouldering packs, they trudged
across sand and slickrock, past blooming beavertail cactus and
sage, to the edge of the plateau. At the lip of 900-foot-deep
Escalante Canyon, they clambered down a vertical rock face and then
squeezed through a crack in the rock barely wide enough for an
adult. Gathering again at the bottom of the cliff, the group
descended a steep slope and dropped into the inner canyon, setting
up camp beneath an overhanging wall of Navajo sandstone.
The campsite was about a quarter-mile from the confluence of Coyote
Gulch and Escalante Canyon, and more than 80 miles downstream from
that confluence stands a dam, the 10-million-ton plug of gracefully
arched concrete wedged into Glen Canyon. Not long ago, the enormous
reservoir behind that dam backed up right to the campsite in Coyote
Gulch. But things have changed since the drought began.
Lake Powell, which began filling in 1963, is at its lowest point in
more than 30 years, 117 feet below maximum pool and at only 42
percent of capacity. Its boat-launch ramps have been extended
hundreds of feet and Hite Marina has been closed altogether because
there is no longer any water there.
The drought also has
begun resurrecting the canyon system drowned more than three
decades ago by Glen Canyon Dam, revealing to a new generation of
Westerners the environmental cost of their water and power. And by
doing that, the drought has reinvigorated a quixotic campaign to
mothball the last of America's high dams, and to drain forever the
lake it created.
"The drought is showing us why we don't
need Glen Canyon Dam," said Chris Peterson, executive director of
the Glen Canyon Institute, which was established in 1995 with the
goal of decommissioning the dam and draining the reservoir.
Environmentalists for years have made their case against
the dam in the language of scientists and engineers, debating
evaporative losses and sedimentation rates with the U.S. Bureau of
Reclamation. But the drought has given them an opportunity to
change the tenor of that debate now that people can see some of the
canyon for themselves. The trip in late May was the second such
outing; several more are planned this year.
The goal of
the outings is simple: to win converts to the anti-dam cause by
giving visitors a first-hand look at the scenery lost beneath the
lake and letting the landscape work its magic.
what's going to win this campaign — that permanent place in
your heart that this place holds," Peterson said.
four days, the institute-led group explored Coyote Gulch and lower
Escalante Canyon. The retreating water has revealed seeps and
springs, alcoves carpeted with maidenhair fern and columbine, quiet
pools reflecting burnished slickrock. It also has revealed
discarded tires and towering deposits of sediment.
Already, the flowing water has cut deeply into those layers of mud
and begun moving them downstream in a small-scale demonstration of
Upstream in areas never touched by
the reservoir, hikers were offered additional reminders of what
drowned when the reservoir filled: whispering groves of cottonwood
and willow trees, grassy flats where Anasazi farmers — their
abandoned granaries and rock art still visible high on the cliffs
— grew corn, beans and squash hundreds of years ago.
Defenders of the dam are adamant that it is a key
component in the water and power system of the West. "If there ever
was a period of time that demonstrated the critical nature of and
need for Lake Powell, now is the time," said Barry Wirth, regional
public affairs officer for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. "Without
Lake Powell, without Lake Mead, without the Colorado River Storage
Project, we wouldn't have made it to this point."
they left Coyote Gulch after four days of exploration, Corkrum and
his group of backpackers didn’t talk much about
kilowatt-hours or acre-feet. They dawdled on the rim after the long
climb up from the river as if mesmerized by what they had seen.
Butler pointed to sections of the canyon far below that would
vanish beneath stagnant water if the reservoir were to fill again.
"Tell the world about it," he said.