The playground of Lake Powell isn’t worth drowned canyons

Before a writer knew the true cost of Glen Canyon Dam, ‘ignorance was bliss.’

 

Crista Worthy is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. She writes about aviation and wildlife from her home in Idaho.

I have a long relationship with Lake Powell. I have spent hundreds, if not thousands, of hours in its canyons and on its waters. We even used to have a houseboat there. It’s complicated.

My parents were Danish immigrants, eager to explore the natural wonders of their adopted country. And so they took me on a tour of the Colorado Plateau, including Grand Canyon, Bryce, Zion, Arches, Canyonlands and Capitol Reef national parks. The year was 1963. Those who mourn the loss of Glen Canyon know that this was the year the gates slammed shut on the “damn dam.” All I knew, at the tender age of 4, was that I loved the red rocks.

Lake Powell, a reservoir on the Colorado River, behind Glen Canyon Dam.

Somehow I didn’t get around to returning until 1996, when my husband and I flew to Bryce and Arches with our kids in a rented Cessna. We also stopped at a place I’d never heard of — Lake Powell, where my husband water-skied as a teenager. We landed at a dirt strip at Hite, Utah, rented a motorboat, and I pulled him around the lake on skis for a couple of hours. Then we took off for Moab. In 2000, we were back to rent a houseboat and ring in the new millennium out on the reservoir.

I was enchanted with the silence of the place, although I noticed the lack of birds and other wildlife. It was like a beautiful bathtub of blue water and sky and red rocks. The lake was full. We purchased a $5,000 share in a huge houseboat, equal to the price of one rental. We’d fly to Bullfrog Basin, launch the boat in late fall and early spring, and enjoy a week of hiking up the beautiful, quiet side canyons. Ignorance was bliss.

On our third trip, I picked up a book called “Ghosts of Glen Canyon,” by C. Gregory Crampton, the geologist hired by the government in the 1950s to quickly document all that would soon be drowned by the Glen Canyon Dam. I was aghast. Shortly after, thanks to John Balzar of the Los Angeles Times, I read Ed Abbey’s work and my life would never be the same.

As drought set in in the early 2000s, I watched with joy as muck vanished from the newly revealed canyons. Cottonwoods grew to 25 feet within two years; birds, beavers and deer returned. In 2005, we paddled into the Cathedral in the Desert, its waterfall revealed for the first time in over 40 years, and I wept. Our last houseboat trip was in 2006; we gave away our share.

Houseboats dot the water at one of Lake Powell's marinas.

I’m embarrassed: How could I have been so ignorant for so long about the origins of Lake Powell? But now, the writing is on the sandstone walls. If we cannot tear down Glen Canyon Dam, we should at least drain its reservoir and fill up Lake Mead instead. No less an authority than the former commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, Daniel Beard, says the same in his book, “Deadbeat Dams.”

According to the Glen Canyon Institute, as of April 17, 2018, Lake Powell and Lake Mead are at 53 percent and 41 percent of capacity, respectively. In 2018, runoff into Lake Powell is expected to be just 43 percent of normal. Colorado River forecasters say the Southwest should brace for the sixth-driest runoff season into Lake Powell since the government erected Glen Canyon Dam 55 years ago. For 2019, a shortage declaration at Lake Mead is a distinct possibility, which means mandatory cuts in its water deliveries.

Drought is the new normal. Each year, Nevada’s entire water allotment is wasted at Lake Powell through evaporation and seepage. How long before the value of that water exceeds the value of the electricity generated at the dam? Can’t we replace that hydropower with wind and solar? How can you place a value on the fish and habitat of the Grand Canyon, now degraded by the dam? And just in case you blame Angelenos and other city dwellers for using all this water — sorry — the vast majority is used for agriculture, especially to grow alfalfa for export to Asia and to feed cattle here.

To those who say the “lake” provides easy access to recreation for millions, I respond by asking if you’ve seen the price of houseboats lately. It can cost up to $15,000 a week to rent one. The Colorado River deposits 10,000 dump-trucks’ worth of sediment each day in the reservoir, sediment that should be flowing into the Grand Canyon.

Lake Powell is simply a water-storage and water-wasting platform whose time has passed. We need to elect leaders who will make decisions on water use based on real science, and we need to restore Glen Canyon.

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