Reclaiming a lost canyon

  • Cal Hiking Club members float the Colorado in early"60s

    Phil Pennington photo
  • One of the canyons drained under Lake Powell

    Phil Pennington photo
  • Partially filled Lake Powell behind Glen Canyon Dam

    BurRec photo by A.E. Turner
  • Dave Wegner and Richard Ingebretsen

    Greg Hanscom
  • More than 2 million people visit Lake Powell each year

    Greg Hanscom
  • Katie Lee

  • Greg Hanscom, HCN assistant editor

    Cindy Wehling

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah - The first time Phil Pennington saw Glen Canyon was in June of 1961, from the window of a search plane. A graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, Pennington and a handful of university hiking club members had come to southern Utah to backpack in the canyonlands.

A few of the more adventurous (and less oriented) in the group had gone exploring and promptly vanished. So Pennington, the trip leader, found himself circling over the maze of canyons, searching for the hikers, who were eventually found.

"Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw," says Pennington. He described the sight in writing years later: "Canyons that are twisted saw-cut slots in red sandstone. Natural bridges and arches everywhere. And truly desolate stair-stepped desert mesas. Domes, ridges and needles of spectacular rock. Plus a river lined with greenery."

"It was clear we had to do a trip," he recalls today.

Phil and his future wife, Keturah, returned a year later with another troop of Cal Hiking Club members and a fleet of yellow rubber rafts. They spent a week bobbing down the Colorado River and exploring side canyons lined with cottonwood trees, monkeyflower and maidenhair fern. They saw lizards, deer, chuckwallas, bats and signs of the people who had preceded them: Anasazi pictographs, a Caterpillar tractor, a plastic Christmas tree in front of an old cabin.

The Penningtons remember Glen Canyon as "enchanting, magical, one of the most beautiful experiences in the world."

But the place was destined to disappear. In 1960, the Bureau of Reclamation (BuRec) had poured the first bucket of concrete on a dam that would eventually drown almost 200 miles of the Colorado River under Lake Powell.

Over the next two years, the Penningtons returned as often as they could. Keturah climbed sandstone walls and stood on Phil's shoulders to explore hidden canyons. Phil tested his theory that quick sand wouldn't swallow a person the way it did in the movies (it didn't). In the winter, they slid their boats on top of floating icebergs and spun in slow motion down the Colorado.

There were others in the Glen, too. University archaeologists and biologists scrambled through the canyon each summer on "salvage surveys." Desert lovers drove, bused and hitchhiked to the Glen in a rush to explore it before it was gone.

Katie Lee, a young actress and singer, abandoned a fledgling career in Hollywood and joined river guides who let her ride for free; in return, she brought her guitar and entertained the customers. Along the way, she gave the side canyons names like Dangling Rope, Little Arch, Corner Stone and Cathedral.

"Glen Canyon was peaceful and protective. The more you got to know it, the more you fell in love with it," she recalls. "It was very spiritual - and very real - you had to watch what you were doing in that place."

When Katie Lee heard about Glen Canyon Dam, she rallied opposition with her songs about the "Wreck-the-nation Bureau," and its plans to "crucify my river." Phil Pennington showed his slides of the canyon to the Sierra Club and groups in the Bay Area. David Brower, head of the Sierra Club, visited the canyon with his family, filmed it and lobbied to stop the dam.

Too little, too late. Brower had missed his chance in 1956, when the Sierra Club backed off its opposition to Glen Canyon Dam as part of a congressional deal that eliminated two dams slated for Dinosaur National Monument. The scattered river runners and college students were no match for Bureau chief Floyd Dominy, the self-proclaimed "messiah" of water projects.

In January of 1963, the reservoir began to fill. Katie Lee retreated to Aspen, Colo., and sang skiing songs. The Penningtons continued to visit, but each time found a little more of Glen Canyon under water. It was heart-wrenching to watch, says Phil.

"We would plan to go down for two weeks and after two or three days we would stop talking, get depressed and go home."

An unexpected call

Glen Canyon was given up for dead. For 17 years, the reservoir slowly filled, sprawling blue-green through the desert. Sandstone pillars that once towered over the Glen now rose out of the reservoir as islands. Half-drowned canyons hummed with motorboats and cliff-jumping tourists. By 1995, 2.5 million people were visiting Lake Powell each year, according to the Bureau of Reclamation, adding $455 million to the region's economy.

Glen Canyon Dam, a $272 million, 10 million-ton curved wall of concrete, was here to stay. Each year, it generated roughly 5 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity, or 85 percent of the Colorado River Storage Project, which powers dozens of small municipalities and cities like Provo, Utah, and Colorado Springs, Colo.

Many people never forgave the BuRec for Glen Canyon. In 1975, Edward Abbey wrote The Monkey Wrench Gang, a novel that centered on a plot to blow up the dam. Earth First! held protests in the 1980s. But for the most part, opposition went under with the canyon.

"I didn't know there was anybody else out there who (cared)," says Katie Lee.

Then in 1996, her phone rang. A mild-mannered man introduced himself as Richard Ingebretsen, president of the Glen Canyon Institute. "You're who?" said Katie Lee.

Ingebretsen told her it was time to take another look at Glen Canyon. "I really want that dam out of the way," he told her. He wasn't talking about monkeywrenching or eco-terrorism, but a slow, step-by-step process based on science and public process.

As Ingebretsen talked, Katie Lee perked up. "I'll be a blue-nosed baboon if this isn't something different," she said. "That call was the first glimmer of light at the end of an incredibly depressing tunnel."

Ingebretsen, a Salt Lake City doctor and physics professor, had visited Lake Powell as a Boy Scout in the 1960s. What little he saw of Glen Canyon made a big impression, and later, running rivers and exploring Utah's desert, one question nagged him: "Why?"

He read everything he could find on Western water law and Glen Canyon Dam. The dam, he discovered, is above all a political structure. Lake Powell serves as a savings account for the upper Colorado River Basin states, allowing them to deliver 7.5 million acre-feet of river water to the Lower Basin even in dry years, as mandated by the 1922 Colorado River Compact. It is also a dowry, assuring that the Upper Basin will have the water necessary to develop and grow in its own good time.

But the environmental costs of the dam are incredibly high. The sediment that colors the Colorado red-brown is the river's lifeblood, providing nutrients for everything from microorganisms to fish.

Now, more than 90 percent of that sediment settles to the bottom of Lake Powell. The water that flows out of Glen Canyon dam is cold, clear and nutrient-starved. As a result, the river system downstream in the Grand Canyon is reeling; many native fish, amphibian and bird species are on the decline, while exotic plants such as tamarisk and non-native fish like trout, carp and catfish are taking over.

To make things worse, the sediment collecting at the bottom of Lake Powell contains heavy metals like mercury and selenium. As these metals build up, they can poison fish and birds. Motorboats add to the mess by dumping the equivalent of an Exxon Valdez oil spill into the lake every four years, says Ingebretsen.

The dam also stops floods that once maintained riverside beaches where native plants and animals thrived. Now, the BuRec controls the flows on a daily cycle based on demand for electricity, and the beaches are washing away.

The more Ingebretsen read, the more he believed there must be a better way. "I just started calling people," he says. "I decided to try and get everybody I had heard about who had run Glen Canyon together."

The response was so encouraging that in 1995, Ingebretsen created the Glen Canyon Institute to teach people about the canyon and the dam. For the first meeting, he invited David Brower and Floyd Dominy to Salt Lake City to debate the merits of the dam; they argued as bitterly as they had 40 years earlier.

Last year, at the institute's second meeting, Ingebretsen showed Brower's films of Glen Canyon, which had been buried in the Sierra Club's basement for years. Two weeks later, Brower went to the Sierra Club's board of directors and asked them to support draining Lake Powell. The board voted overwhelmingly in favor of the proposal.

A rising wave

Ingebretsen suddenly found himself riding a wave. Calls came in from around the country: college professors wanting to debate the move in their classrooms; students, river runners and desert rats wanting to get involved. Within a year, Ingebretsen dropped his medical practice to focus on the institute.

"I must have pushed the right button at the right time," he says. "Sometimes you just need someone to hold the parties. That's what I've done. I've just reserved the room and ordered the cookies."

But not everyone wanted to attend the parties. This September, Western lawmakers held congressional hearings to drown the idea. Sierra Club president Adam Werbach and the institute's David Wegner got a beating from politicians and experts who dismissed the plan as "loony," "impractical" and "certifiably nutty" (HCN, 10/13/97).

The hearings may have backfired. The Arizona Daily Sun editorialized, "Draining the lake is no laughing matter ... (The Glen Canyon Institute and the Sierra Club) are neither scientific nor public relations lightweights." The San Diego Union ran an opinion piece arguing that draining Lake Powell could save almost a million acre-feet of water each year that is lost to evaporation and seepage into the ground.

A week after the hearing, the New York Times published an opinion piece by Dan Beard, former head of BuRec, praising the proposal as "breathtaking," and something worthy of consideration.

"The dam-building era in the United States is over," he told a crowd at the Glen Canyon Institute's third annual meeting in October. Beard, who now works for the National Audubon Society, compared dams to nuclear power plants: They provide immediate, "clean" benefits, but carry huge costs over the long haul.

"A dam can leave a legacy of environmental destruction that will take hundreds of years to correct," he said. "Why not spend (the millions of dollars we're already putting into mitigation for the Glen Canyon Dam) on restoring the canyon?"

It's a good question, says David Wegner, an ecologist who spent 22 years with the BuRec. Beginning in 1982, Wegner headed the Glen Canyon Environmental Studies, a massive study on the effects of the dam on the Grand Canyon ecosystem. His findings led the Bureau to flood the Grand Canyon in the spring of 1996 to wash sediment out of the river and rejuvenate the beaches (HCN, 7/22/96).

For the first time at Glen Canyon, the Bureau had taken the environment into account, rather than catering to power users. But the "Flood of "96" was only a Band-Aid, says Wegner. Within a year, more than 80 percent of the new beaches had washed back into the river.

"It was not a panacea. It was not a long-term solution. We knew that all along," he says.

"If you want to restore the Grand Canyon ecosystem, removing the dam is the only long-term solution."

Not surprisingly, the BuRec shied away from Wegner's ideas. Soon after the flood, it closed the Glen Canyon Environmental Studies office and offered Wegner a job elsewhere. "It was an insult," says Wegner. "It wasn't science. It wasn't what I was interested in." So he left and joined Richard Ingebretsen in hopes of pushing the Bureau one step further from the outside.

If Ingebretsen "reserves the room and orders the cookies," Wegner is the life of the party. Driven and eloquent, Wegner says there is a "window of opportunity," in which Glen Canyon and the Grand Canyon can be saved.

Endangered fish such as the razorback sucker and humpback chub still survive in river tributaries and murky backwaters. If we restore the Colorado River, these fish may recover, he says, but if we do nothing, "20 years from now, they may not still be here." The same is true for other creatures such as the endangered southwest willow flycatcher and leopard frog.

As for Lake Powell, says Wegner, "it hasn't become a toxic wasteland yet," but over time, it may. Glen Canyon will never be restored to its original state, he says, but much of the river system can still be salvaged.

To make their vision a reality, Wegner and Ingebretsen want to do the job the BuRec never did: take a close look at the environmental costs of the Glen Canyon Dam. Their tool is a "Citizens' Environmental Assessment," modeled after the studies that agencies put together under the National Environmental Policy Act. Over the next few years, the institute will pull together existing studies and information on Glen Canyon, put them into a report and take it to the public for review.

"If the public says "we're happy with what we've got," well, that's an answer," says Wegner. "But at least it's based on public input and scientific information and not based on what a couple of politicians back in Washington thought up." He hopes the Citizens' EA will prompt the BuRec to do a more extensive environmental impact statement, and to consider draining the lake.

So far, neither the BuRec nor the Clinton administration has shown any sign of budging on the issue. Elliot Diringer, a spokesman for the President's Council on Environmental Quality, is skeptical of the institute's approach. "It may be a way to muster support for their cause," he says, "but I know of no legal basis for this sort of EA leading to any action."

Wegner acknowledges that the institute is up against an often immovable Bureau, multimillion-dollar tourist and power industries and a century of accumulated water law, but he is still hopeful.

The flood of 1996 demonstrated that the BuRec can change. Tourists can, too; they can turn from floating the lake to running the river and hiking in the canyons. Likewise, the demand for electricity can be satiated through coal power, alternative energy sources and conservation. Finally, he says, if the public decides to drain Powell, the linchpin of the Colorado River Compact, the laws will have to change to accommodate it.

"Nobody is going to go up to Lake Powell and pull the plug on it tomorrow," says Wegner. "This is going to take time to do it right. All we're doing is starting the debate."

The end of a desert lake?

On Lake Powell, hordes of boaters flock to the Wahweap Marina for the long Utah Education Association weekend. The scene resembles a yacht club on San Francisco Bay more than the Utah desert. Folks loaf along the docks slathered in sunscreen and fuel up their houseboats and jet-skis. A pack of kids chases a football.

Many here haven't heard about the push to drain the lake, but those who have take the idea very seriously.

"It would be a travesty," says one man who has been coming here for 20 years. "A lot of people enjoy this lake.

"The trouble with that is, you get enough people talking about it, and some day they just might do it."

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