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The Glen Canyon Dam: Scourge of the Colorado

I’m writing this in response to this article about staging a flood in the Grand Canyon. Last week, water behind the Glen Canyon dam was released in an effort to reinvigorate the Colorado River’s dying ecosystem. The photos are from the construction of the Glen Canyon dam, unless otherwise noted.

There was a time when dams made a lot of sense. From the 1930’s through the 50’s the federal government commissioned hundreds of dams throughout the rivers of this hard land. Dams provided a clean, renewable form of power. They retained water for use in agricultural irrigation. It seemed like a win-win.
As with many good ideas, this one was beaten to death. What began as a way to provide power and water to the people while providing jobs for then-unemployed workers petered out in the 1960’s amidst controversy. Dams do have negative environmental impacts. In the Colombia River gorge, salmon could no longer swim upstream to reach their spawning grounds. The US Corps of Engineers had to build salmon runs so the fish could get back to where they once belonged. In the Colorado River, so many dams were built that the river no longer reaches the Sea of Cortez. Sorry, Mexico! No clean water for you!
The Glen Canyon dam was originally meant to be two dams constructed in Dinosaur National Monument. Pressure from environmental groups caused the government to rethink its plan, and a compromise was made. There would be one dam in northern Arizona.Before the dam, the Colorado River ran through Glen Canyon, carrying nutrient-rich silt downstream. It was a remote area, a series of crevices cut into the barren desert floor. It was peaceful but inhospitable to human life.

It was the land John Wesley Powell traveled on his reconnaissance missions in 1869 and 1871. The one-armed professor was truly a naturalist before his time. Powell made maps and took flora and fauna notes on the previously unknown land (to white Americans, at any rate). Based on his findings, Powell made recommendations on how many people this land could support. The government has ignored Powell’s astute observations, and now folks in Phoenix get to have green grass in their yards and flowing public fountains in blatant disregard of the kind of land they inhabit.
For his troubles, the reservoir behind the Glen Canyon dam was named Lake Powell. I’m not sure John Wesley would have approved.
Glen Canyon today is submerged. The beautiful Rainbow Arch is still there, but now motorboats full of fat tourists can cruise by like it’s just another sight to check off the ol’ travelogue. I camped beside Lake Powell with my friend Andy. It is a strange scene. Browns and reds of the desert give way to a totally out-of-place lake.
The dam’s reason for being is essentially moot at this point: the power it generates has to be carried for miles to the nearest city. Lake Powell has rarely been filled to capacity. The water utilized for irrigation could be much better used as it was originally intended: as a source of life for the Colorado River.
There is a sign at the visitor center near Glen Canyon dam. It shows a picture of the Colorado River from above, and beside it there is a caption. The caption reads, in part:

“…the Colorado has become the major source of life-giving water and power for a vast region, as well as a prime recreation region. But the Colorado has not yielded her treasures without struggle…” [my italics]

Will the flood work? I’m no scientist, but I don’t think a three-day flood will undo damage 50-plus years in the making. Ed Abbey got it right. The only way for us to undo the damage is by completely removing the Glen Canyon dam. There are plenty of dams along the Colorado that provide water to the Southwest, and the Glen Canyon dam is not one of them.

3 replies on “The Glen Canyon Dam: Scourge of the Colorado”

I just emailed the Glan Canyon Rec Area staff to kindly remove the dam next month 🙂 It is gratifying to see a growing movement for dam removal in the USA over the last decade or so. I sincerely hope more dams are removed—esp Glen Canyon dam. I would most certainly like to see the Dalles dam on the Columbia removed as well, not to mention all other dams on the lower Columbia 🙂 …the power of suggestion works wonders 😉

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