A couple of years ago I was on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.
I had just been on a “Canyon” trip and I wanted to get
the view from above. You know, the big picture. So Michelle and
I drove around on some dirt roads until we made our way out to Fire
Point where we camped for the night. From there we could gaze into
the upper reaches of Tapeats Creek, and over to what we believed
was Kanab Creek and then out over a vast horizon of strange landforms
that were unknown to us.
The next night we hiked out onto the Powell Plateau and spent the
night at Dutton Point. From there we could see up the Inner Gorge
through the Gems. We could see where the canyon makes its great
bend at Elves Chasm, we could see the temples and buttes and all
the layers of sediment from river to rim. The canyon is indeed,
“The most sublime spectacle on earth.” But then I don't
need to tell you that.
Also on that trip, we visited the usual drive-to overlooks where
we scurried around with the masses to gaze into the canyon's
depths. At Cape Royal, we happened upon a ranger talk so we thought
we would listen in. She was talking about the Stanton-Brown expedition.
She began by saying how, on the third day of the journey, Brown's
boat capsized and he was drowned. Michelle and I stared at each
other in disbelief. The third day! Never mind the hundred miles
or so in Labyrinth and Stillwater Canyons. Never mind the 40 miles
of cataracts below the confluence where, woefully unprepared they
experienced the wreck and subsequent loss of their food supply boat.
And then, why mention that immediately before entering Grand Canyon
they had journeyed through wondrous Glen Canyon, perhaps the most
beautiful canyon in the whole system if not the world.
No, she didn't mention any of that. Not even in brief. For
her and her audience, it was the third day of the journey that Brown
capsized and drowned. It was as if their expedition like all Colorado
river trips began at Lees Ferry. It was as if the Colorado River
suddenly appeared, emerging from a seep in the Coconino Sandstone
to merge with the Paria and then carve its way on down through Grand
Unfortunately, this belief is not held only by misinformed, geocentric
park rangers. Many well meaning, dedicated, and passionate Grand
Canyon river guides, outfitters, and scientists also appear to share
in this belief, and their combined voices have been shown to have
an impact on Colorado River management. An impact which does not
always benefit the Colorado River system at large and can in effect
damage relatively unimpaired portions of the system in its attempt
to protect Grand Canyon. The spillway enhancement project comes
to mind and the lack of consideration given to its effects on Cataract
Canyon, the San Juan, Escalante, and Dirty Devil rivers, not to
mention Rainbow Bridge and the upper reaches of a hundred tributary
But now we have an even bigger issue at hand. The very existence
of Glen Canyon Dam and the draining of Lake Powell. I've been
following the arguments in the bqr and I must say I am flabbergasted
that there exists among the Colorado River community anyone who
would not gleefully partake in the rapid destruction of Glen Canyon
Dam. But then, I've been forced to realize that this is a
community raised on the clear, icy, trout-laden flows that emit
from the dam. A community which has learned to despise the turbid
flows of the Little Colorado, and who has come to enjoy the predictable,
daily fluctuations which Glen Canyon Dam provides. A community which
sees Grand Canyon (understandably so) as the center of the universe,
but which not so understandably seems to believe the Colorado River
begins at Lees Ferry.
I believe the time has come for gcrg to come out in support of the
Colorado River. Not just the Colorado River in Grand Canyon, which
as we all know, bears little resemblance to the real thing, but
the Colorado River in all its mud-filled glory in all of its canyons.
And that includes Glen Canyon.
I believe that there is a way to drain Lake Powell, restore Glen
Canyon, and mitigate the environmental and economic impacts at the
same time. I suggest an incremental approach. We begin with an immediate
lowering of the reservoir by 100 feet. This is nothing drastic.
During the drought years of the late eighties and early nineties
the reservoir dropped to a level 90 feet below full pool with no
serious negative impact to water or power users, motor boat enthusiasts,
river runners, or small town local economies. Meanwhile, the benefits
to the river system are great.
Current would be restored to lower Cataract Canyon, the San Juan,
Escalante, and Dirty Devil rivers and the silt cleansing process
would begin. The stagnant waters of Lake Powell would recede to
nearly a mile from Rainbow Bridge and Navajo elders could once again
practice their ceremonies in peace. The upper reaches of Glen Canyon
side canyons would begin to heal, and clean-up crews could begin
to scour newly exposed shoreline for toxic refuse. Also, with this
loss of pool, “flood control” for Grand Canyon would
be provided without implementing the destructive spillway enhancements.
I think that five years should be a sufficient time period for the
first 100 foot drop in pool for Lake Powell. That would give the
folks at Hite Marina, at the upper end of the reservoir, time to
make some plans for the future. With the boom in desert recreation
over the last few years they should have no problem turning their
facilities over to other forms of recreation such as hiking, biking,
and river running in the soon-to-be-restored, Glen Canyon.
After this five year break-in period, I propose that the level be
dropped another 100–200 feet. This would restore current almost
completely to the major tributary rivers of Glen Canyon as well
as Cataract Canyon. In Cataract, the mouth of Clearwater Canyon
which Powell called “Eden” would be reclaimed. Lower
Dark Canyon too would reemerge as well as the infamous rapid that
bears its name. In Glen Canyon, Cathedral in the Desert would reappear
and the cleansing would begin. Hundreds of side canyons would be
freed up of the stagnant waters and spring floods would begin to
wash the silt and muck down into the main canyon eventually to be
carried away by a river reborn. And of course, crews made up from
the local towns would begin to scour the newly exposed shoreline.
From then it would just be a continual process with a timetable
to be determined. I would think that in 25 years or less, we could
have the Colorado River back down in the bottom of Glen Canyon.
Now I'm not foolish enough to think that it would be fully
restored to look like the pictures in The Place No One Knew, but
look at how Havasu is doing. I think the higher elevations in the
canyon that were exposed first would be coming along nicely as would
the tributary side canyons for which Glen was famous. This gradual
process would not only allow for the restoration of Glen Canyon,
but it would also give us time to come up with and implement new
water and power policies. Something that most certainly has to be
done anyway in the not too far off future.
One thing troubles me on this whole issue outside of the obvious
opposition that is to be expected. And that is the unforeseen opposition
from within the river community. How can we take people down the
Colorado River and preach the virtues of wild places, wild rivers,
and open spaces, all the while clinging to the clear and cold, regulated
flows of Glen Canyon Dam and how great it is that we don't
have flies and our coolers stay cold? How can we take people down
the Colorado River in Grand Canyon all the while not caring about
places like Cataract, the San Juan, Escalante, and Dirty Devil Rivers?
How can we, as John Weisheit pointed out, manage an artificial ecosystem
that will only last the life of the dam anyway? Do we really only
care about ourselves, in this moment, in this microworld? Are we
no different than the shortsighted dam builders and water boosters?
If Grand Canyon River Guides won't come out in support of
draining Lake Powell, then who will?
Eric is a guide member of gcrg and has guided in the upper basin
on Cataract, Desolation, and Westwater Canyons for eight years.
He has been a proponent for exchange between gcrg and cprg in the
hopes that our combined voice will help shape policies concerning
the Colorado River system.