Letter From a Drowned Canyon
The story of water in the West, climate change, and the birth of modern environmentalism lies at the bottom of Lake Powell.
One summer day I got into a rented powerboat with two friends, the photographers Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe, and we went up Dungeon Canyon to see what we could see of what had, until half a century ago, been one of the deepest, narrowest side canyons off Glen Canyon. As they would through our years of exploration, Mark and Byron took photographs, but this time they also experimented with a fisherman’s depth finder to take dozens of readings that Byron would stitch into a sonar picture of the underwater landscape. The results were akin to the sonograms expecting parents get of their in utero child, though Glen Canyon is not waiting to be born. It is, perhaps, waiting to be reborn, or to emerge from one kind of destruction to face others.
In 1963, Glen Canyon Dam was completed at the southern end of the canyon, near the Arizona-Utah border, and the Colorado River began backing up, turning a dry, complex red-brown landscape into a flat blue body of water called Lake Powell. The place became a power generator, a recreation area, and a water storage system for the states nearby. Both those who fought for and against the dam thought the reservoir would be there for centuries. They were wrong.
The day was cloudless and would have been scorching if not for the hot wind. The scenery around us was wonderful and, if you remembered that about four-fifths of it was underwater, terrible, like seeing a giantess sentenced to stand immersed up to her neck. Mark, Byron, and I were trying to see beneath the surface of the present to find the past. Somewhere below us, Dungeon Canyon tapered like a funnel. At its bottom was an intricate stone passage where, 50 years earlier, the environmental photographer Eliot Porter had walked across the sandy floor to make pictures of the dry world about to drown.
His photographs show a sculptural space of twisting stone walls, light filtering down to make one of them glow carnelian. Now you can only see this buried treasure in Porter’s 1963 best-selling The Place No One Knew: Glen Canyon on the Colorado, a book made as an obituary, a protest, and a rallying cry. A pioneer of color photography, Porter made images of the natural world, often in close-up or full of texture, often without the usual sky and spaciousness of previous landscape photography. His early books, published by the Sierra Club, were powerful lobbying tools and played a role in creating a new public appreciation and appetite for the idea of wilderness.
On a map, Glen Canyon before its submersion looks like a centipede: a 200-mile-long central canyon bending and twisting with a host of little canyons like legs on either side. Those side canyons were sometimes hundreds of feet deep; some were so cramped you could touch both walls with your outstretched hands; some had year-round running water in them or potholes that explorers had to swim across. Sometimes in the cool shade of side-canyon ledges and crevices, ferns and other moisture-loving plants made hanging gardens. Even the names of these places are beautiful: Forbidding Canyon, Face Canyon, Dove Canyon, Red Canyon, Twilight Canyon, Balanced Rock Canyon, Ribbon Canyon. Like Dungeon Canyon, they are now mostly underwater.
When the Sierra Club pronounced Glen Canyon dead in 1963, the organization’s leaders expected it to stay dead under Lake Powell. But this old world is re-emerging, and its fate is being debated again. The future we foresee is often not the one we get, and Lake Powell is shriveling, thanks to more water consumption and less water supply than anyone anticipated. Beneath it lies not just canyons but spires, crests, labyrinths of sandstone, Anasazi ruins, petroglyphs, and burial sites, an intricate complexity hidden by water, depth lost in surface. The uninvited guest, the unanticipated disaster, reducing rainfall and snowmelt and increasing drought and evaporation in the Southwest, is climate change.
Glen Canyon Dam is a monument to overconfidence 710 feet high, an engineering marvel and an ecological mistake. The American West is full of these follies: decommissioned nuclear power plants surrounded by the spent radioactive waste that will remain dangerous for 100,000 years; the bomb-torn land of military testing and training sites; the Nevada Test Site itself, cratered and contaminated by the explosion of a thousand nuclear devices. Las Vegas and Phoenix, two cities that have grown furiously in recent decades, are monuments to the conviction that stable temperatures and fossil fuel and water could be counted upon to persist indefinitely.
You can regard the enormous projects of this era as a continuation of the Second World War. In the West, this kind of development resembled a war against nature, an attempt to conquer heat, dryness, remoteness, the variability of rainfall and river flow — to triumph over the way water limits growth. As the environmental writer Bill deBuys put it: “Thanks to reservoirs large and small, scores of dams including colossi like Hoover and Glen Canyon, more than 1,000 miles of aqueducts and countless pumps, siphons, tunnels and diversions, the West had been thoroughly re-rivered and re-engineered. It had acquired the plumbing system of a giant water-delivery machine. … Today the Colorado River, the most fully harnessed of the West’s great waterways, provides water to about 40 million people and irrigates nearly 5.5 million acres of farmland.” Along the way, so many parties sip and gulp from the Colorado that little water reaches Mexico.
The postwar era’s hubris led to the belief that nature could be tamed, that the world was big enough to absorb our damage and our toxic garbage. No one yet realized that the technocrats were simultaneously unleashing chaos, though in 1953 a little-known scientist named Charles David Keeling began measuring atmospheric carbon. In 1956, Keeling joined the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, where he remained active for almost 50 years. In 1958, atop the Mauna Loa volcano on the island of Hawaii, he established a permanent monitoring station that is now maintained by Scripps and his son Ralph. The measurements confirmed that atmospheric carbon levels were steadily rising, thanks to a couple of centuries of taking fossil fuel out of the ground and burning it so its carbon went back into the sky. Scientists had theorized this might be happening; Keeling proved that it was. The resultant curve of increasing carbon dioxide is known as the Keeling Curve.
The impact of this rising carbon was dubbed “global warming,” and it was finally discussed in Congress and the media in the late 1980s. We now know that the consequences aren’t just steady warming, but disruption that produces cold, heat, drought, flood, and every kind of instability. The impacts range from forest fires and crop failure to melting permafrost and glaciers. It’s what we’ve been making, together, since the Industrial Revolution gave us the means and the motives to burn ever-greater quantities of fossil fuel and otherwise transform the composition of the atmosphere. Into the first several years of the millennium, it was imagined as a problem for the future. That future arrived faster than anticipated. It’s now the present.
In the late 1950s, when Keeling was just a young scientist gathering data, no one imagined that the world might be so destabilized. It was a world without environmentalists or an environmental perspective. It had, instead, conservationists, and most conservationists of the 1950s were anxious to make it clear they had no desire to question or stop what was universally regarded as progress. In the Southwest, progress meant development of the upper half of the Colorado River. “All conservationists are undoubtedly in sympathy with further development of the upper Colorado River,” wrote former national parks director Horace Albright in a letter entered into the Congressional Record on July 14, 1955.
There’s a long backstory to how that moment came about. A short version might start with the 1922 agreement among all seven of the states in the Colorado River basin about how to apportion water rights on this river, which cuts a diagonal across the Southwest from its head in the Rocky Mountains and is augmented by tributaries large and small along its 1,450-mile length. One great dam on the Colorado — Hoover — already existed; built at the height of the Depression near the then-modest town of Las Vegas, it created Lake Mead. The Law of the River, as it became known, divided the seven states into upper- and lower-basin areas and allocated the same amount of water — 7.5 million acre-feet per year — to each.
In the wake of the Second World War, the sparsely inhabited upper-basin states — New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah — turned to the question of how to hang on to their share of water while meeting their obligation to deliver what was due to the lower-basin states: Arizona, Nevada, and California. The Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation proposed to do this with a series of dams, including two in Dinosaur National Monument on the Colorado-Utah border.
By 1951, the Sierra Club was making plans to challenge the dams in Dinosaur, so named because an extraordinary trove of dinosaur fossils was found there where the Yampa and the Green rivers come together in a dramatic geological landscape. Sierra Club board minutes for May of that year note, “The campaign of conservationists opposing the construction of dams in Dinosaur National Monument has caused the Bureau of Reclamation to plan for a serious battle in Congress.” Part of that battle was about whether Dinosaur was a beautiful place we should cherish or a backwater no one would miss — a senator testified that it was “like any quarry, a bleak and unattractive area.” David Brower, a Sierra Club board member until 1952 and until 1969 its first executive director, went to see the place for himself and found it worthy of defending.
To say “Sierra Club” in 2017 summons up images of a powerful environmental organization with nationwide reach and hundreds of thousands of members. That’s not what it was when the conflicts over Dinosaur began. Founded in San Francisco in 1892 by John Muir and a group of Bay Area residents, it had about 9,000 members by the mid-1950s. It was a California-based, Sierra Nevada–focused hiking and mountaineering society with a modest conservation and education mission, though it had fought — and lost — one great battle already, over the O’Shaughnessy Dam, which in 1923 drowned the Hetch Hetchy Valley inside Yosemite National Park to provide water and power to San Francisco. Like other mountaineering groups — the Adirondack Club, the Wasatch Mountain Club — it was genuinely a club, whose members shared class and cultural values.
The campaign on behalf of Dinosaur expanded the club’s reach beyond the Sierra Nevada. On October 31, 1955, the organization placed the first full-page advertisement by a conservation group in a major newspaper. When, on behalf of the club, Brower went to Congress, he mounted three arguments against the dams. The first was technical, about the relative amount of evaporation from different configurations of dams and reservoirs. The second was that Dinosaur was part of the national park system and that nothing should violate national parks and monuments. The third was that the United States did not need the hydropower when coal, oil, and nuclear were abundantly available energy solutions that were cheaper than building dams. It’s an argument no environmentalist would make now.
The conflict over dams in the Colorado basin went on for years. The sites kept changing, but the appetite for dams was relentless. In those years, there were proposals, all eventually defeated, to build dams in the Grand Canyon and Kings Canyon National Park. Permission to dam Dinosaur was never granted, but plans to dam Glen Canyon moved forward with little resistance.
Many conservationists argued for a dam in Glen Canyon as a trade-off, feeling they had to be cooperative and believing that if there was going to be a dam, then the little-known, unprotected, remote place was one they were willing to sacrifice. They were finding their way through new territory that required them to learn not only about dams and water and the landscapes of the Southwest, but about themselves — who they were and what they stood for and who they dared stand against. As the fate of Glen Canyon was sealed, members of the Sierra Club leadership went there and learned how magnificent the place was. They regretted their decision, but it was too late.
On October 15, 1956, President Eisenhower pushed a telegraph key that sent the signal to detonate the first round of dynamite. Construction of Glen Canyon Dam began with this warlike gesture by the former supreme commander of the Allied forces in Europe. A temporary dam was built upstream of the site, and two 3,000-foot-long diversion tunnels were blasted into the canyon walls to send the river through while the dam was built. Rafters explored the canyon, conscious that it was doomed, and Porter made his expeditions to document it. Many Navajo residents of the region were horrified; the confluence of the Colorado and the San Juan rivers, a place of great significance to them, was about to be erased.
“Glen Canyon died in 1963 and I was partly responsible for its needless death” was how Brower began his essay for Porter’s book on the place. In March of that year, water began backing up behind the new dam, but the scale of the reservoir was so vast that it did not reach maximum water level until 1980. Full, its surface is 3,700 feet above sea level, but it will never be full again.
The first two summers I explored Lake Powell with Mark and Byron, we rented a houseboat that towed a powerboat, bemused and a little appalled by the ease of propelling an awkward mobile home on pontoons across a vast body of water that shouldn’t have been there. But the boats got us to the beauty that still rims the lake. The sandstone formations that rose above water level were stunning, majestic.
One sublime afternoon we took the powerboat out and motored for hours among the mazelike channels that had once been side canyons, sometimes taking the boat under overhanging cliffs, along canyon walls with overhanging arches, into shadow and out into the sun again. Long dark bluish streaks on high rock faces reached the water and must have extended much farther down; now they met their own reflection. We took the boat up a channel so narrow we stopped where the water ran out. We camped for two days in a shadowy cul-de-sac atop water so deep it was terrifying. We swam across the unseeable depths anyway in the cool, still water. It was an enchanted place in both senses — sublimely beautiful and under a spell that made it something other than itself.
In some places, sunlight reflected off ripples of water to cast reflections on the overhanging walls, like pulsing nets of light; in others the blue water reflected the orange rock so that the ripples were an impressionist’s weave of contrasting color. The seam between deep blue water and dry orange-red sandstone was confusing, and not only to an eye trained to assume they did not belong in the same picture; there were times I looked across all that expanse and found myself assuming somehow that the place itself was Photoshopped. In other, shallower places, the water was green, and one day Byron photographed all the shades and made a chart of the results. Red-barked tamarisks, an invasive species, grew on the banks and would drown when the fickle waterline rose; tiny clams grew below the waterline and would die when the water sank and left them stranded. High above the current waterline, clamshells traced where it once was. Litter and lost belongings lay along the shore, and sometimes the stagnant shallow water was disgusting, stinking with dead fish, surface gunk, and clouds of flies.
Lake Powell has become a popular recreation area, visited by millions every year, full of bulky houseboats; sleek powerboats cut across the water. Here even pleasure has been industrialized. Downstream in the Grand Canyon, people mostly camp and travel by raft, but the flooding of Glen Canyon has made it an easy place to explore. Or did: The surrounding area is full of houseboats up on blocks, apparently because many vacationers are abandoning the shrinking reservoir.
We wandered on foot across great domes of solid stone, up canyons that had remained above water level or reappeared, into the dryness that spreads in all directions beyond Powell and the delicate tributaries that feed the Colorado. Small streams poured down slot canyons and made clear pools. Short desert plants cast precise shadows on the red sand that also bore the trails of birds and of lizards, whose tails drew neat lines between their footprints, subtle and tiny, like evanescent hieroglyphs. Our footprints joined and sometimes obliterated theirs.
Over and over we found lithic shards — stone chips from indigenous toolmakers long ago — on the shore, pinks, reds, oranges, greens, as though the artisans who’d sat in these places had chosen their materials for beauty as well as utility. Inland from a muddy place at the high end of the reservoir, Mark found a gorgeous potsherd bigger than his palm, textured on one side, painted in black and white on the other, and then hid it again. We saw the setting sun turn the canyon walls glowing orange, saw stars come out by the tens of thousands on moonless nights far from any artificial light. We also saw jet skiers, floating latrines, and the marinas where you could buy diesel fuel and popsicles. Then we went upriver, or up-lake, or up-reservoir, or whatever you call it when you go to the upper end of this strange disappearing body of water.
1955 is a foreign country some remember but none will ever visit again. Its certainties have been shattered and its assumptions revised beyond recognition. The Sierra Club itself was transformed by its win over Dinosaur and its loss at Glen Canyon into a tougher, more far-reaching organization with a much higher profile. Over the ensuing years, debates over nuclear power and pesticides stretched its sense of self and mission. The old idea that you could just put a border around a beautiful place and consider it saved was fading. In the late 1950s, the news about radioactive fallout across the United States from the aboveground nuclear tests at the Nevada site was one reminder of systemic connection; pesticides were another. Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, Silent Spring, made it clear that our modern poisons spread beyond the places to which they were applied and ended up in us as well as in wilderness. What you did here mattered there. When you switch from thinking about protecting particular places to address the interconnectedness of all things, you turn from a conservationist into an environmentalist.
Many of the old-timers on the Sierra Club board believed that you had to be civil and reasonable and willing to compromise. They were conservationists. A newer generation was willing to fight harder and demand more. In the 1960s, they opposed siting a nuclear power plant at Bodega Bay on the California coast, building a ski resort and roads in the wilderness, and logging redwoods, and its members fought one another and their executive director about what the mission was. Other environmental organizations arose, some more radical, often with a more specific focus: whales, rain forests, eventually environmental justice and climate. The news on how everything is connected to everything else got more complicated, as air and water pollution became bad enough that the Environmental Protection Agency was established in 1970, the Clean Water Act in 1972, and the Endangered Species Act in 1973.
Lake Powell’s fate is inseparable from that of the global climate. The 15 million acre-feet of water the river was supposed to supply annually for human use was an unrealistic over-allocation even before climate change spelled out a hotter, dryer future for the Southwest. In the past five years, water levels have dropped by 75 to 100 feet. Thus there is a chalky ring the height of a several-story building along hundreds of miles of shoreline at the downstream side of Lake Powell. The ring is evidence of change: What used to be a body of water about 186 miles long is now about 153.
The Colorado is a silty river, and one of the arguments put forth against dams on it was that the reservoirs behind them would silt up relatively rapidly. On the other hand, one of the contemporary arguments for Glen Canyon Dam is that it’s extending the life expectancy of Lake Mead downstream by holding back much of the silt that might otherwise settle in Mead. One of the arguments against it all along was evaporation.
It may not sound like an exciting subject, but put it this way: Imagine a huge lake that disappears, to be replaced by another lake that disappears, year after year. Between 450,000 and 900,000 acre-feet of water annually evaporates out of Lake Powell. Water also seeps into the sandstone of Glen Canyon. Putting the river water in a leaky lake under a broiling desert sun wastes about a million acre-feet a year. Lake Mead loses a similar amount to the sky, so the two reservoirs together lose around 10 percent of the flow of the Colorado River through evaporation and seepage.
The reservoirs were built to bank surplus water in wet years to use in dry years, but there is no surplus, and there have been too many dry years. Until this decade, the Bureau of Reclamation, which built the dams, avoided mentioning climate change. But at the end of 2012, it admitted that the Colorado water storage system was failing and climate change was a major reason why. The bureau’s publication Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study declares: “Droughts lasting 5 or more years are projected to occur 50 percent of the time over the next 50 years. Projected changes in climate and hydrologic processes include continued warming across the Basin, a trend towards drying … increased evapotranspiration, and decreased snowpack … ”
In other words, what we used to call drought is no longer expected to be exceptional, and there is not nearly enough water to meet the demands we have put on the Colorado River system. The 2012 report is a radical departure from earlier estimates but is still a conservative estimate. As of late summer 2016, Powell was 56 percent full, Lake Mead about 38 percent. Together they hold less than half the water they were intended to. Scientists and environmental journalists have speculated for years on whether or when they will reach dead pool — the point at which the water level is below the dam gates, electrical power is no longer being generated, and the river no longer flows. Dead pool is catastrophic failure.
One solution is to abandon Lake Powell. More than 20 years ago, Utah native Richard Ingebretsen founded the Glen Canyon Institute. It’s dedicated to bringing back to life and light the places the waters buried. When the institute was founded, its mission was regarded as radical, unrealistic, and unreasonable. Now it’s a mainstream idea gathering adherents as it comes to seem like the only sensible solution. Abandoning Lake Powell doesn’t mean taking down the dam, an impossibly expensive proposition that would then leave huge mountains of silt to pour downstream, clogging the Grand Canyon for generations. Many years ago, when Ingebretsen visited Floyd Dominy, the engineer who headed the Bureau of Reclamation when the dam was built, the latter sketched out how easy it would be to restore Glen Canyon. To Ingebretsen’s amazement, since you wouldn’t expect the man who built and defended the dam to tell you how to jettison it, Dominy told him, “All you would have to do is drill new bypass tunnels.” The dam would stand indefinitely, a tall irrelevancy. The river would flow around it through those tunnels. It’s not a return to the river that drowned, but it is potentially a return to a flowing river upstream, to a place called Glen Canyon rather than Lake Powell.
That may need to happen soon to save Lake Mead, since there is not enough water for both reservoirs and since consolidating water in one would reduce evaporation. Doing so means doing many other things. One is recognizing that we are going to have to use less water in the Southwest. It means giving up the electricity generated by the turbines in Glen Canyon Dam. It means recognizing that the politicians and engineers who planned Glen Canyon Dam failed to imagine a future that looked like this. For the Colorado River, victory and defeat are hard to tell apart, and they may be the wrong terms for the end of an era and the arrival of another.
In 2012, Mark and Byron and I went to some low cliffs on the upper end of the canyon, near where the Dirty Devil River pours its water into the Colorado. Sometimes another car or a truck pulled in off the road and someone got out to walk around, often seeming to look for something they didn’t find before they got back in their vehicle. Mostly we had the place to ourselves. It was less accessible than it had once been — you could no longer walk on the soft silt or boat down the shallow channel.
At the upper end, there was no silt bathtub ring. The stone was a duller yellowy color than the red sandstone downstream, but beautiful for its whorling complex of bulbs and domes and potholes, a Constantinople of forms inhabited only by lizards, flies, and a few birds. Great rafts and piles of iron-gray driftwood marked where the water’s edge had once been, and old campfire rings sat not far above them. The usual lines of stranded clamshells marked where the water had once lapped at the upper end of the cliffs. Dozens of feet below spread a shallow meander of what was no longer a lake but not yet a river, struggling through stuff that looked like pancake batter. There were high walls of silt on the far side of the water, stacks of the choking stuff that once would have been dispersed by powerful currents.
We came back two years later, and what had been raw silt was covered in green plants, and a shallow river channel had begun to form. The water had gathered its strength and begun to carve out a route for itself.
We came back again in 2016 to what had become a familiar landscape. Mark found exactly the vantage points he’d used in earlier years and pulled up his pictures from 2012 and 2014. With the prints in hand, we could see that the river had carved its channel deeper, the plants were lusher on the banks of silt, and the natural processes were, if not restoring the river that was, creating the river that will be. “Nature bats last” was a favorite motto of the radical environmentalists of the 1980s, but what “nature” means now that human beings have altered the climate itself is hard to say. What’s not hard to say is that Lake Powell is dying, and from its corpse the Colorado River is emerging.