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
  • GOVERNMENT AFFAIRS MANAGER
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) seeks a Government Affairs Manager to support our legislative and administrative advocacy efforts in Colorado. This new, mid-level position will report...
  • COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    San Juan Citizens Alliance, a leading grassroots conservation advocacy organization for over 30 years, seeks a passionate, dynamic, organized, and technology-savvy communications professional to help...
  • OPERATIONS AND FINANCE MANAGER
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness, a national grassroots organization led by women, seeks a resourceful, self-motivated, team player to serve as Operations and Finance Manager....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    ORGANIZATIONAL BACKGROUND Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) fosters community stewardship, education and awareness of our National Conservation Lands with a focus on Dominguez-Escalante, Gunnison Gorge and...
  • WYOMING STATE DIRECTOR
    Save the World ... or at least a piece of it! Join The Nature Conservancy and make a tangible and lasting impact by creating a...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR FOR AN ENVIRONMENTAL ADVOCACY NON-PROFIT NEAR YOSEMITE
    Demanding, but rewarding, advocacy work on forest, water, wildland, and wildlife issues. Applicants should have experience dealing with land management planning, public speaking, grassroots organizing,...
  • NEW AGRARIAN APPRENTICESHIP
    Quivira Coalition's 2020 New Agrarian Apprenticeships in Regenerative Ranching and Farming -Apprenticeships run 4/20 - 11/20 Applications accepted 10/15/19 - 12/1/19 NAP partners with skilled...
  • PHILANTHROPY DIRECTOR AT WILDERNESS WORKSHOP
    Wilderness Workshop seeks a full time Philanthropy Director to raise funds for our team. Learn more: www.wildernessworkshop.org
  • EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT WITH WESTERN RESOURCE ADVOCATES
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) seeks an enthusiastic and organized problem solver to join our growing team as an Executive Assistant. The Executive Assistant is instrumental...
  • WYOMING OUTDOOR COUNCIL
    Two positions: Development Director OR Development Writer, Communications Director. Full job descriptions at https://wyomingoutdoorcouncil.org/careers.
  • CONSERVATION PROJECT MANAGER
    Great Land Trust seeks to hire a Conservation Project Manager. Position is full-time, based in Anchorage, Alaska. First review of applications will be on October...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eagle Valley Land Trust Executive Director Position Description Summary of Position: The Executive Director, working with and reporting to the Board of Directors, has overall...
  • FINANCE & LOGISTICS COORDINATOR
    The Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, founded in 1928 as an independent nonprofit organization, is a biological field station located near Crested Butte, Colorado. Our primary...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    See Full Job Description
  • DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR
    Position: Development Coordinator Responsible to: Executive Director Time Commitment: 15-20 hours per week, or as otherwise agreed upon General Description: The Development Coordinator assists the...
  • EDUCATION CENTER MANAGER
    Friends of Cedar Mesa seeks a full-time Education Manager for the Bears Ears Education Center to provide day to day operational and administrative oversight. See...
  • TROUT UNLIMITED SCP SOUTHWEST REGIONAL DIRECTOR
    Seeking to hire an experienced advocate/manager to oversee the organization's sportsmen/women-driven advocacy in Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. Open until filled
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    for northern AZ collaborative conservation ranchlands group
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Partners are seeking an experienced and energetic Executive Director who is excited about the opportunity to lead our growing organization! A full description of the...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    High Country News Seeks an Executive Director to advance its mission, grow its audience and influence, and strategically and sustainably guide the organization through a...