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40 Years in the West

The summer the dam almost didn't

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Robyn Morrison | Jun 08, 2010 06:00 AM

"We could as well have been sticking two chewing gum companies together, or merging an anti-vivisection group with a professional society of biology teachers," wrote the new staff in the Sept. 5, 1983 issue of High Country News, the first published from its new home in Colorado.

Ed and Betsy Marston, the publisher-editor team selected by the board of directors to take over the High Country News operation, were busy buying phones, merging mailing lists and sorting a blizzard of paperwork following the organization's arrival to Paonia in the back of a pick-up.

Meanwhile there was a paper that needed to go to press every two weeks. The first issue published in Colorado carried a feature by Ed Marston reporting that the era of massive federally funded dam projects was over.  Water users from around the region had gathered for an annual meeting in Gunnison, Colo., which became a wake of sorts, wrote Marston.

That spring, the West was awash in water.  So much runoff rushed out of the mountains, it nearly burst Glen Canyon Dam. The story of the dam's near failure arguably became the biggest news reported by High Country News that decade.

The first story, "Colorado floods Grand Canyon beaches," surfaced in the June 24, 1983, issue and reported that 60,000 cubic feet per second had been released to keep Lake Powell from overflowing. Just six months earlier, the Bureau of Reclamation had agreed to limit releases through the Grand Canyon to 31,000 cfs.

A Park Service helicopter dropped leaflets to alert white water rafters in the 225-mile stretch of the Grand Canyon below Glen Canyon dam about the release.  "CAMP HIGH. BE CAUTIOUS," warned the notes from the sky.

A record 120,000 cfs was flowing into Lake Powell from late spring snow and rain in the Rocky Mountains that no one had anticipated.  On July 2, the lake - considered full at 3700' - was just 3.5 feet from its maximum capacity of 3711' and rising three inches a day.

The July 8 issue reported that the dam's spillway began breaking up when officials upped the release to 92,000 cfs.  The high velocity water was carving out huge holes in one of the tunnels, a process known as cavitation that sent chunks of concrete and red silt from the eroding Navajo sandstone bedrock shooting into the clear river below the dam.

Officials at Glen Canyon dam quoted in the story admitted the spillways contained "known design flaws."  Averting a massive disaster became their priority. Meanwhile, the second spillway tunnel was beginning to suffer damage.

That fall, High Country News examined the broader implications of the summer's flood. "Floods reveal water policy chaos," ran on the October 3, 1983 cover and told how the competing thirst for every drop of Colorado River water created a water policy so tangled that it left government leaders and agency officials ill-equipped to deal with the near-disaster. (Cover image at right, or click here to download the entire article as a pdf.)

Just before the year's end, a teaser "How Lake Powell almost broke free of Glen Canyon Dam" splashed across the front page of the December 12 issue.  Writer T. J. Wolf, whose father had worked as a Bureau of Reclamation engineer in Denver during the heyday of giant dam projects, provided an insider's take on how the agency had handled the crisis.

Wolf wrote that if you had been on the bridge spanning the canyon below the dam on June 28, "you would have seen a sight terrifying enough to put the fear of God into anyone, but especially into an engineer. (Cover image at left, or click here to download the entire article as a pdf.)

"You would have seen the steady sweep of the spillway mouths suddenly waver, choke, cough and then vomit forth half-digested gobbets of steel reinforced concrete (bad, very bad), spray out blood-red water (My God, it's into bedrock) and finally disgorge great red chunks of sandstone into the frothy chaos below the dam.

"You would have seen the Colorado River going home, carving rock, moving deeper, as it has always done."

In Wolf's blow-by-blow analysis of the summer's events he looked at not only what it would have meant for the engineers if the dam had failed, but also for "the approach to nature that says rivers, forests, resources of all kinds are there to be changed, transformed and reworked, until they respond to the flicks of switches."

He concluded that as the massive dam shook and vibrated madly and tremendous rumblings echoed through its interior passages, the agency's rank and file "showed the right stuff" by keeping cool heads and using their knowledge and guts to operate the dam under such extreme conditions - something that was downplayed by high-ranking officials.

In the end, the Glen Canyon dam held.  If it hadn't, the West would have been dramatically altered, just as the region would be a dramatically different place without High Country News and its tenacious community of readers, freelancers and contributors.

True nightmares
Teresa
Teresa
Jun 08, 2010 02:10 PM
This reminds me of a certain "spill" that actually is happening right now. All the "ifs" in this story could, on some level, be translated into actuality with the current BP spill. Lets just speculate that "if" we messed up big time then, perhaps some major lessons could have been learned by now on humankind's ability to pit technology against earth. Who knows? Perhaps millions of gallons of oil would not be spilling into our ocean at this very moment...
Ed Abbey was hoping
SocraticGadfly
SocraticGadfly
Jun 12, 2010 01:42 AM
And wouldn't that have been a sight. Would John McPhee have rounded up Dominy and Brower for another boat ride together?
Glen Canyon Dam
Rusty Austin
Rusty Austin
Sep 21, 2010 04:44 PM
I read a novel about it being blown up by a nuclear bomb, the name of the novel escapes me now, but it had pictures of the 1983 flood, and the engineers actually used 1" plywood, backed by steel braces, across the top of the dam to hold back the water. Plywood, to hold back Lake Powell. Fantastic...
P.S.
Rusty Austin
Rusty Austin
Sep 21, 2010 04:46 PM
I have spent more summers than I can remember at Lake Powell, and I have the feeling that the Colorado will reclaim it yet...