In the past few years, the Glen Canyon Institute, Sierra Club, SUWA, and others have made quite a push to generate support for draining Lake Powell. It's an action that many of us wish could happen, but it won't happen. There are several reasons. Even though many people's sentiments are toward red rocks, wilderness and solitude; the hard realities are industry, commerce, and recreation.
There was a time when we might have saved Glen Canyon. But that time was 50 years ago. It's too late now. We've become addicted to the watery playground, the cheap hydropower, and the vast supply of good water. Several cities, states, and industries have siphons in the lake now and they won't give them up anytime soon.
The ideas behind constructing the dam were sound. In the early days, most of the water in the Colorado River ended up in the Pacific Ocean. Because of rough topography, only a small percentage could be diverted from the river and used. And then too, the flow was seasonal with most of the water coming in the early spring when it wasn't needed for agriculture. Countless billions of gallons flowed past our farms, ranches, and cities, and then mixed with salt water in the Gulf of California. To the ever-practical children of American pioneers who were in control of things at that time, the water was wasted.
There is only one way to store water, and that is to hold it behind a dam until it is needed. The Army Corps of Engineers constructed a whole series of dams on the Missouri River in the first half of the 20th century, and then turned their focus on the Colorado. The first venture was Boulder Dam in Nevada. After that, a dam was proposed for the Grand Canyon, and then a series of smaller dams upstream from the Grand Canyon.
Predictably, the Grand Canyon dam idea was shot down, and the fledgling environmental groups of the time fought to keep a dam out of Echo Park, on the Green River near Vernal. Glen Canyon was flooded as a compromise. Unfortunately, it was "the place no one knew" (the title of a book). And now, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, and California all benefit from Lake Powell. The dam provides cheap hydropower while the reservoir provides water and billions of dollars from recreation.
The lake will never be drained, and the reason was brought home to me forcefully last year. A group of us were sitting on a rocky shore, looking down on the dark water of Lake Powell. Before us stood a man who was on the board of directors of the Glen Canyon Institute.
The GCI man went into a very impassioned speech about why the lake should be drained and the canyon restored to its natural condition. He was preaching to the choir. Those of us gathered that day were from two families who had lived in the canyon before the lake was there. We knew what had been lost.
Jack Winn, a resident of Moab, listened to the GCI man for a while, and then he said, "They'll never drain this lake. You people won't let them."
The GCI man was taken by surprise. "I represent an organization that is doing everything we can to drain this lake," he said with some exasperation.
"Yes," replied Winn, "but we need the power and we need the water. Where are we going to get them if we drain this lake?"
"They can build power plants somewhere else," the man replied. "And they can build dams somewhere else too."
"No they can't," Winn replied sadly. "You people won't let them. You killed the Kaiparowitz power project a few years ago, and you sue every time anyone starts talking about building another dam or another power plant. I hate this lake too, and you people are making sure that it stays here."
Silence hung heavy in the air for a time. Only the sound of waves lapping against sandstone interrupted our private thoughts.
I read the opposing editorial about draining Lake Powell over and over again trying to get the focus of it. I began to realize that the issue wasn't about draining or not draining the reservoir at all. It really boiled down to the same old tired argument that environmentalists won't let any progress be made. That is not the case at all.
Of course if you lump every environmental group together and take the extreme to define them, that will be the case. Most groups are looking for ways to progress without destroying things in the process. Putting dams in places where they should not be put is one example.
Dams are a technology that has to be done right in order to do what they are designed for. Water storage and power generation are the main issues. Recreation is a bonus. Solid canyon walls that also have a guaranteed source of runoff make for a good dam. Deep is also good because it minimizes evaporation. We used up many of the best sites generations ago. The Colorado River has always been known as a super silty waterway. Its flow fluctuates greatly depending on the time of year and whether or not we are in a drought cycle. The treaty that was signed designating Colorado River Water Rights was based on water flows from an unusual and rare high water cycle.
By damming up and siphoning off the Colorado at every point we can, we have effectively stopped a once mighty river from reaching the sea. It dries up before it reaches its delta. Will breaching the dam fix that? No. But it would allow the area below the dam and the canyons that make up the reservoir to begin to heal.
It is only a matter of when before the lake is rendered unusable anyway. The silt that is carried into it has begun to fill it even faster than expected. The evaporation rate of the water is incredible. Open water storage in a hot arid climate makes no sense at all. As the lake fills up from the bottom with silt it will become more and more shallow. Shallow water evaporates faster. So eventually, even a series of great water years won't be able to help.
The great construction era is over. We cannot rely on building our way out of trouble any more. Our population is encroaching on the areas we always thought would be available to put power plants, dams and mines on. No one wants these in their back yards. It is amazing how quick people will side with environmentalists when a methane well is proposed in a few miles of the dream home they just built so they could be out in the wild.
We need power, water, and recreation sites. We want them to be safe, secure and some where else. Environmentalists fight those battles for us. We join in when the fight affects our way of living. We also point fingers when it only affects someone else. I am humored by the new wilderness area that our congressional delegates pushed through so they could stop the Goshute tribe from operating their nuclear storage site.
We no longer can see hundreds of miles here in our own valley because we have three power plants here generating power for us and many others. We live with it because it creates good paying jobs and allows us to have a good local economy.
We also are told that they are operating fairly clean. I know that there is technology that can be added to make the plants even cleaner. It would cost the companies money to install this technology and create a bit of down time. Why don't we, as a community, demand the cleaner technology? Because we are afraid the plants would close and our economy would be devastated. So we live with this pollution.
It is easy for industry to point the finger at environmentalists when they want to do things as cheaply as possible. Environmentalists aren't necessarily saying don't do it, they are saying do it right so we all can live a healthy life.
Lake Powell will stay and slowly fade away. It will serve as a reminder that we cannot conquer our environment, we must find ways to live in harmony with it. I truly think that is why we were given the power and the brains to develop new technology. We have been entrusted as caretakers of all that is here, not its conqueror.