Slobs at Lake Powell foment a revolt

  • Andrew Gulliford


Each summer I do penance at Lake Powell for the environmental sins of its visitors. This summer was no exception as I volunteered to work on a houseboat called the Trash Tracker. Our job: picking up debris in 108-degree heat along 100 miles or so of the 1,900-mile shoreline.

Our team found the usual amount of beer and soda cans, diapers, toys, plywood, pillows, water bottles, fireworks and golf balls. In five days we picked up almost 50 full bags of trash, though in the oppressive heat we covered less ground than usual. But this summer, we saw more toilet paper and human feces than we've ever seen before. Just ask Ranger Terry Bell, who had to dedicate some of her time this summer to go on "poop patrol" around the lake to prevent the spread of fecal coliform bacteria.

It seems that a lot of motor-boaters and houseboat users haven't a clue about "Leave No Trace" ethics. And throughout the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, which surrounds Lake Powell, recreational mayhem is only getting worse. The lakeshore has become a wasteland of weeds, tamarisk, exploded fireworks and fire rings full of broken glass and melted aluminum.

So, after three summers of picking up trash, I've come to a revelation: Forget about draining Lake Powell, or "Lake Foul" as the critics call it. Draining the lake is not happening anytime soon because of the legal water rights of downstream states and Mexico; then there's also the increasing signs of drought.

The writer Ed Abbey wanted to blow up Glen Canyon Dam, but he couldn't get the job done.  Back in 1981, EarthFirst! had fun by tossing a large black plastic wedge over Glen Canyon Dam to make it look like the dam was cracked and ready to spill. Nice gesture and a memorable picture, but ineffective.

I'm tired of waiting the 1,000 years or so that it will take before the mighty Colorado River, which drains 243,000 square miles, finally silts up behind the dam and turns it into a huge waterfall. I want Glen Canyon back for paddlers and those who row boats -- now.

The speedboat and houseboat crowd have had the lake since it began to fill in 1963, and what have they done with it? They've trashed it. It's time to take Lake Powell back for the kayakers, the canoers, the rubber-raft folks and all the river people who know how to pick up their trash, how to use fire pans, and who certainly know how to poop into portable toilets once called groovers. (They were named after the first river-running toilets, which were .50 caliber surplus ammunition boxes. Sit on one and grooves will be yours.)

I'm not kidding. With a shoreline longer than that of California, Oregon and Washington, why do motorized watercraft -- including those insanely loud jet skis that buzz around in circles like angry hornets -- control the lake?

I'm raising my canoe paddle. I want to be heard. I want a section of Lake Powell closed to the gas-guzzling, climate-warming motorboat crowd. I want a section just for paddlers, and I think the Escalante arm or the flooded Escalante River section would do just fine. A new industry could be created for shuttling paddlers and their boats into remote canyons.

In honor of all the boatmen who drifted down through the marvels of Glen Canyon before the dam, it's time to take back a portion of it. Here was a place so beautiful that John Wesley Powell wrote on Aug. 3, 1869, "We have a curious ensemble of wonderful features -- carved walls, royal arches, glens, alcove gulches, mounds and monuments."

Now, the canyons are flooded and over 2,000 Ancestral Puebloan sites and ruins are underwater. We've lost what the eminent Western writer Wallace Stegner called "the incomparable." But solace can still be found amid those red rocks, blue skies, and green waters. For too long, environmentalists have shunned the lake. Instead, it's time to embrace it.

The secrets of Glen Canyon are still there. At the heads of the 93 canyons that form the lake, there are hidden springs, tiny pools of water beneath original, narrow leaf cottonwood trees shimmering green against curved, arching sandstone walls. There is deep silence and a profound sense of geologic time. Glen Canyon has been lost, but its essence can still be found -- not by draining the lake, but by allowing quiet paddles and quiet oars.

Andrew Gulliford is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He is a professor of Southwest Studies and History at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado.

Anonymous says:
Aug 23, 2010 11:13 AM
I agree that the current state of Lake Powell's wealth extraction tourism engine encourages the pollution and destruction of the lake. But will just shifting a small part of that engine to a more sustainable one be the long term solution? The Southwest has been beaten down by a culture that exploits the ecosystem for personal wealth rather than sustainability for the well being of all. And I bet it will be hard for any elected official to say "my bad" and change their fundamental way of existing... But that is what it will take to revive Lake Powell and then entire Colorado River ecosystem.
Anonymous says:
Aug 24, 2010 06:08 PM
There's a 50-50 chance Lake Mead goes at least "functionally dry" within 10-15 years. Make Lake Foul will follow.
Anonymous says:
Aug 24, 2010 06:30 PM
This is such a good idea I can't believe I've not heard it before. Lots of us hate the "lake", and for good reason, but the fact is that it is there...right in the heart of some of the most spectacular lands on the planet.

There is no reason why portions of the lake shouldn't be set aside for non-motorized recreation, and the Escalante region would be a perfect start. It would keep portions of it quiet, and hopefully, free from the garbage so common to slob campers who tend to use motors rather than oars. Fantastic idea Mr. Gulliford
Anonymous says:
Aug 25, 2010 11:38 AM
I like your attidude and I support your idea. I am a long time user and visitor of Lake Powell. I fell in love with the lake the first time I was there in 1983. I to am totally frustrated with the growing trash and poop problem. I like your concept to set aside the Escalante for Kayakers but if the "law" can not control those who trash and poop in the park then I do not hold out too much hope the non-boat area will work in the long term. Good luck.
-rich Herron
San Diego, CA
Anonymous says:
Aug 25, 2010 12:46 PM
Lest we forget, sailors are also usually quite gentle on the Earth as they go by. Maybe just restricting motors...
Anonymous says:
Aug 27, 2010 11:56 AM
So, where do we sign up? That's a great area to start, but any of the northern reaches would do. What group goes and cleans with you each year? Maybe it's a time for some exposure and photography, maybe video, but anything to retake some of the canyons former dignity.
Anonymous says:
Aug 31, 2010 04:26 PM
This is a wonderful idea and one that I think would yield a new breed of tourist to Lake Powell. I for one have shied away from the "bathtub" for some of the very reasons explained in this essay. If a section was set aside for non-motorized, mindful, and respectful adventurers, I'd be first in line.

But I also agree that enforcement needs to be stepped up. Aren't the campsites around Lake Powell by reservation only? Wouldn't that leave record of who was in the site? Sites could be periodically inspected and registered campers could be held accountable. Sure you can't have rangers and poop patrols at all campsites all the time, but a registration process, a few busts, and some stern signage might start to turn the tide.

Great idea and well written.
Anonymous says:
Sep 01, 2010 09:24 AM
Reserving the Escalante for paddlers is a great idea--good luck getting it through, though. I must say that for over a decade my husband and I have enjoyed hiking up the side canyons in spring and fall. Because environmentalists (and that includes most hikers) hate the reservoir---as do we---they stay away completely. Boaters, of course, almost never hike at all. So that means we basically have these incredible canyons to ourselves every year, rather than having to fight the crowds in places like Grand Gulch. Observing the transformation over the past decade has been incredible. In 2002, when water levels first fell dramatically, a hike up from the reservoir often entailed a mile-long slog through smelly muck. But flash floods washed this away and by 2005 we saw tall willows and cottonwoods, birds, beaver, and deer repopulating the side canyons.

Which leads me to the biggest thing we can do to protect what's left of Glen Canyon: promote the idea of "fill Mead first", to lower the Powell Reservoir water levels, and hopefully keep them low and somewhat stable. This will greatly increase the natural habitat. Join the Glen Canyon Institute, which is fighting for this.
Anonymous says:
Sep 03, 2010 09:51 PM
Hear hear! And while National Parks (and, by extension, National Recreation Areas) may have been America's best idea, the National Park Service, the agency that can't seem to control this mess, sure isn't.
Anonymous says:
Jan 07, 2011 01:23 PM
You can't punish all because of others! My Family has been going to Lake Powell since it has started filling! And before that! We always clean up and take care of the places we stay! And I think you should not be able to close parts down just because your not happy with how some people are! There is so much of that lake that people dont visit and see! Just this last summer I was up by Hite Marina and we were able to go 5 days with only seeing one other boater that wasn't part of our group! I love Lake Powell! and enjoy what activities it offers all the way around! Including those noisy jet skis! You can't take away everyone else's rights to have a good time just because you dont like it!
Paul Maurer
Paul Maurer says:
Oct 11, 2011 03:26 PM
Powellin It above, what about the rights of those who would like to have a "good time" on part of the lake where it is clean and quiet? Rights do not mean the right to pollute and destroy.
Paul Maurer
Paul Maurer says:
Oct 11, 2011 03:30 PM
To Andrew Gulliford: Keep it up my man, I love your stuff!