Muddy Waters: Silt and the Slow Demise of Glen Canyon Dam

  • The ever-migrating waterfall on the Lower San Juan River.

    Craig Childs
  • The silt-laden Colorado River was revealed above Hite Marina during the drought year of 2003, with the lake level down 100 feet.

  • The San Juan drops 15 feet into a violent churn at the waterfall in its new channel.

    Craig Childs
  • Debris floats on the upper reaches of Lake Powell, no longer carried by the current of the San Juan.

    Craig Childs
  • The river disappears into Lake Powell, where the bathtub ring shows the lake level during highwater years.

    Craig Childs
  • Craig Childs

 

Updated 5/17/11

The Lower San Juan River courses through a rather forsaken landscape of clay hills and redrock plateaus in southeast Utah. At the end of a long, dusty road, there is a boat ramp at the water's edge where, at any warm time of year, vans and roof-racked Subarus bake in the sun while their owners are out on the river. This is the end of the line. A large sign stands along shore, smacked with big red letters:

DANGEROUS
WATERFALL AHEAD
DO NOT PROCEED

The sign and the waterfall mark the transition from a fast, muddy river to a bizarre and almost forgotten landscape created by upper Lake Powell, backed up behind Glen Canyon Dam a hundred miles away. Everyone gets off the river here.

In the bright and cloudless sunlight of a desert afternoon, I pump up a ducky -- a bright yellow inflatable boat that looks like a swollen banana -- and drag it down to the water past a group of river runners hauling rafts and kayaks onto the boat ramp. They pause and watch as I toss in drinking water and a drybag for my gear, and push into the current. They seem puzzled: Didn't I notice the sign? Am I just crazy? Before I can offer an explanation, the river has taken me out of sight beyond a bend in the tamarisk-thick shoreline.

River-runners generally know the San Juan by the river that lies above here. Swift and wild, it meanders through canyons where hackberries, cottonwoods and massive red boulders congregate along the shore. But few know the river just downstream, where it becomes an enormous science experiment in silt and fluid mechanics.

Lake Powell, which now starts several miles below the waterfall, is the second-largest artificial reservoir in the United States. It is the seeming endpoint for four rivers: the Colorado, Dirty Devil, Escalante and San Juan. But the reservoir isn't really an endpoint at all. These rivers aren't dead, and their persistent dynamics are slowly, steadily driving Lake Powell toward its demise.

I had come to see the San Juan in action. This confluence of moving and still water changes dramatically year by year as reservoir levels fluctuate. Mud flats grow and shrink, exotic tamarisk trees explode to the horizon, then drown underneath high water. The river itself is unstable, prone to jumping its channel, whipping across the desert in search of a new course. The waterfall that the sign warns of appeared along the river in the '90s, then vanished. A new waterfall formed about 10 years ago, this time miles downstream of the first, as if it were migrating.

This bottom stretch is legendary among river runners, although few have actually seen it. The only one I know is a dirtbag guide out of Bluff, Utah, named Paul. He told me that he caught a glimpse of the waterfall after crashing for hours through sweltering tamarisk thickets, dragging his kayak behind him. Advising me before my trip, he emphasized, "You just do not want to go over the waterfall, that's all."

Certainly not in my yellow banana.

High Country News Classifieds
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Methow Valley Citizens Council has a distinguished history of advocating for progressive land use and environmental values in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County...
  • ACTING INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS DESK EDITOR
    High Country News is seeking an Acting Indigenous Affairs Editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk while our editor is on...
  • GRANTS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation seeks an enthusiastic, team-oriented and knowledgeable Grants Program Director to work from their home in Montana. Established in 1983, the Cinnabar Foundation...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Artemis Program Manager will work with National Wildlife Federation sporting and public lands staff to change this dynamic, continue to build upon our successful...
  • ALASKA SEA KAYAK BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Well-known and successful sea kayak, raft, hike, camp guiding & water taxi service. Sale includes everything needed to run the business, including office & gear...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND EVENTS PROGRAM COORDINATOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a detail-oriented and enthusiastic Membership and Events Coordinator to join our small, but mighty-fun team to oversee our membership...
  • PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT FACILITATOR
    ABOUT THE HIGH DESERT MUSEUM Since opening in 1982, HIGH DESERT MUSEUM has brought together wildlife, culture, art and natural resources to promote an understanding...
  • LAND STEWARD, ARAVAIPA
    Steward will live on-site in housing provided by TNC and maintains preserve areas frequented by the visiting public and performs land management activities. The Land...
  • DEVELOPMENT WRITER
    Who We Are: The Nature Conservancy's mission is to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends. As a science-based organization, we create...
  • CONNECTIVITY SCIENCE COORDINATOR
    Position type: Full time, exempt Location: Bozeman preferred; remote negotiable Compensation: $48,000 - $52,000 Benefits: Major medical insurance, up to 5% match on a 401k,...
  • EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT
    ArenaLife is looking for an Executive Assistant who wants to work in a fast-paced, exciting, and growing organization. We are looking for someone to support...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Mountain Lion Foundation is seeking an Executive Director. Please see our website for further information - mountainlion.org/job-openings
  • WASHINGTON DC REPRESENTATIVE
    Position Status: Full-time, exempt Location: Washington, DC Position Reports to: Program Director The Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC) is seeking a Washington, DC Representative...
  • REGIONAL CAMPAIGN ORGANIZER
    Position Title: Regional Campaign Organizers (2 positions) Position Status: Full-time, exempt Location: Preferred Billings, MT; remote location within WORC's region (in or near Grand Junction...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Driggs, ID based non-profit. Full time. Full job description available at tvtap.org. Submit cover letter and resume to [email protected]
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • SPRING MOUNTAINS SOLAR OFF GRID MOUNTAIN HOME
    Located 50 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada in the pine forest of Lee Canyon at 8000 feet elevation. One of a kind property surrounded...
  • MAJOR GIFTS MANAGER - MOUNTAIN WEST, THE CONSERVATION FUND
    Cultivate, solicit and steward a portfolio of 75-125 donors.
  • NATURE'S BEST IN ARAVAIPA CANYON
    10 acre private oasis in one of Arizona's beautiful canyons. Fully furnished, 2123 sq ft architectural custom-built contemporary home with spectacular views and many extras....
  • HEALTH FOOD STORE IN NW MONTANA
    Turn-key business includes 2500 sq ft commercial building in main business district of Libby, Montana. 406.293.6771 /or [email protected]