In 1963 the gates of Glen Canyon Dam shut, and the waters rose. Over the following 19 years, 186 miles of canyons sank under the water and mud, and with them sank over 4,000 ancient ruins and petroglyphs, and habitat for 79 plant species, 189 bird species, 34 kinds of mammals.
But what do the numbers mean? A vague worry we carry while we motorboat across a dwindling Lake Powell: we never knew this place. A sick ache when looking at the old pictures of this wild river. Like conservationist David Brower said: “When we began to find out it was too late.”
Now drought and overuse undoes the work of the dam, and Lake Powell drops. A 90-foot plummet since 1999, and climate models predict it will never refill. In the meantime, every year more than 160 billion gallons of water steam off of the lake surface, to join clouds that will rain somewhere else. Another 120 billion gallons leak down cracks in the earth every year. The energy generated out of the dam tapers off, with the fear that we’re eventually approaching ‘dead pool’: when the puddle of water that remains lacks the umph to turn the turbines.
We built the dam to control every drop of this river, and the river seeped and spirited away from us. I can joke that we should have learned from Princess Leah that the more you tighten your grip, the more slips through your fingers. But the truth of it is this drowned canyon is a heartbreak, and anyone who loves rivers ought to despair. What if we’ve killed the Colorado?
Rebecca Solnit came to my city this week, and we asked her to talk about hope. (She was brought by wonderful HEAL Utah, and graciously spent some time afterward with a few of us who are members of Wasatch Rising Tide, a grassroots climate justice group. It was one of those impossible moments when the person behind your favorite writing turns out to be even more compelling in person.)
What she had to say was this:
Change will always look impossible, up to the moment it happens. Some radical fringe fights for an idea while the ‘serious’ world guffaws. They are called insignificant, then unrealistic. And then sometimes their ideas are adopted. (When they are, the powerful decision-makers will loudly proclaim it was always inevitable, always what they wanted to do, to pretend those wild fringe-thinkers are powerless).
This is why hope can nestle down into even the worst times. Hope is at home in the dark.
Solnit’s words were with me while I talked about the Colorado River with Eric Balken, Executive Director of Glen Canyon Institute (GCI). For the last 20 years, GCI has faced the Sisyphean task of cajoling the southwest into decommissioning the dam.
I grew up in conservative southern Utah, houseboating on Lake Powell most summers, and I remember the choice words people there had for dam-decriers. The most printable is “crazy.” But Eric spoke with excitement and, yes, hope about how decades of consistent, careful work was eroding a different dam — an old blockage in the public imagination.
Suddenly the idea of opening the dam gates has gone mainstream. The worsening water crisis in the West means very hard-nosed and unromantic economists and hydrologists are beginning to agree with the wild-eyed white-water elders who ran the Colorado before 1963: the dam has gotta go.
One sign of the times: just last week the New York Times published the piece “Unplugging the Colorado River,” asking “could the end be near for one of the West’s biggest dams?” Here’s the idea it discusses:
”Since two of the nation’s largest reservoirs — Lake Mead and Lake Powell, just 300 miles apart — depend on the same dwindling water source but are each less than half full, they should be combined into one. Lake Mead would be deeper, and its evaporative losses would increase. But the surface area of Lake Powell would be substantially reduced, and the evaporating water from there would be saved.”
The consolidation could save 179 billion gallons of water each year, according to hydrologist Tom Myers, which is more than enough to supply the population of LA. Though the article delineates the massive water-rights wrangling resulting from any change to the dam would cause, it also quotes scientists who worked for the Department of Interior calling the dam’s demise a “no-brainer.”
Eric believes in the idea. “Look: filling Lake Mead and allowing Glen Canyon to restore wouldn’t solve all of the water problems of the West,” he says. “But it would rectify one of the great environmental wrongs of our time — and save a lot of water in the meantime.”
“Glen Canyon Dam has been considered the greatest environmental mistake in our country’s history. And it’s a mistake we don’t have to live with.”
In her book Hope in the Dark, Solnit writes: “The grounds for hope are in the shadows, in the people who are inventing the world while no one looks, who themselves don’t know yet whether they will have any effect, in the people you have not yet heard of [. . .].”
The way that GCI is quietly inventing the world is through radically reimagining what Glen Canyon — called “the place no one knew” — could be.
“We’re seeing it come back,” Eric says, with enthusiasm. “We’re seeing so much of it come back already, and more will come. The rebirth of that place — it will become one of the biggest river restoration sites in the country.”
Every year, GCI staff has been watching the side canyons around Lake Powell. “The changes year after year are remarkable,” says Eric.
When the ‘lake’ first retreats you’re left with a muddy, drowned landscape, he explains. A kind of dead zone. But then flash floods come through, the sediment washes out. Waterfalls return. Cottonwood and willows grow and deer and beaver venture back in. “The speed at which this happens is amazing,” he says. “Things come to life and you see the potential of this place — it’s night and day.”
Eric predicts a full restoration of Narrow and Cataract Canyons. Where Cataract used to end in flat lake-water and endless rowing, now the river continues, sediment is flushed out, the ‘bathtub ring’ has been scrubbed off the canyon walls, and 14 large rapids have been restored. While the decades of damming have surely shaped the main channel of the river, “the opportunity for restoration is way beyond what anybody has ever considered,” says Eric.
“Think about where the Glen Canyon is geographically,” Eric tells me. “It’s between Canyonlands and Grand Canyon National Park, two of the most popular in the world. By all rights, Glen Canyon should have been a National Park as well.”
I find myself caught up too in Eric’s excitement. Rebecca Solnit quotes theologian Walter Brueggeman: “Memory produces hope in the same way that amnesia produces despair.” Remembering how this river used to run can feed our hope. The Times article is instructive about hydro-economics, but the paragraph of hope is here:
”Vast tracts of land now submerged would be restored, and broad sections of river pinned between vertical canyon walls would be transformed into remote wilderness valleys, their floors once again inviting exploration on horseback or on foot. Dozens of archaeological sites, their walls covered in petroglyphs, would be revealed.”
The exploratory imagination of it: the wonders under that mud. As Eric puts it:
“What it comes down to is that there’s nowhere else like it in the world. It’s a sacred place to Native American tribes, and everyone who ran it before it was dammed agrees: it’s the most incredible place they’ve ever seen.”
“When the mainstream public begins to see what the restoration actually looks like,” says Eric, “people will have a lot more hope, to see the canyons come back.”
Written by Kate Savage, desert wanderer, river lover and freelance writer. Check out Holiday’s River Currents blog for more of Kate’s writing soon!Blog Home