For decades, desert lovers and environmentalists have dreamt about removing Glen Canyon Dam, called “America’s most regrettable environmental mistake,” by environmentalist David Brower, to restore the canyon flooded by Lake Powell to the former glory Ed Abbey said was “a portion of earth’s original paradise.”
It’s an idea that’s always seemed far-fetched, the home of starry-eyed fantasists. But climate change is taking it upon itself to drain the lake anyway. A megadrought, the driest the area has been in more than 1,000 years, is reducing Lake Powell to Puddle Powell, and in the process, revealing a little bit of the wonders long since hidden far below the surface of the lake, a surface roiled by powerboats and jet skis.
We’ve covered some of the wondrous sights and landforms exposed as the lake dries up, and a recent NPR story goes even further. Scientists are now predicting the lake will likely stay very, very low in the foreseeable future, raising the possibility of a planned phase out of the reservoir in the minds of some.
Slot canyons, grottoes, cliffs and spires — the kinds of natural features that draw millions to Grand Canyon and Arches National Park — are re-emerging from the waters. Willows and cottonwoods are sprouting on muddy banks. Pottery shards dot shorelines.
“The last time this span was out, Neil Armstrong hadn’t walked on the moon yet,” Balken says, steering a boat under one of the largest natural bridges in the world. Water reflects on its red belly like a kaleidoscope as Balken putters up the narrowing canyon ahead.
“Normally, we’d have to park the boat on the other side and hike around,” he says. “I can’t believe we’re doing this.”
For the last 25 years, Balken’s nonprofit, the Glen Canyon Institute, has been one of the loudest advocates for “America’s lost national park.” It calls for restoring the canyon by lowering Lake Powell, and for a broader rethinking of the values assigned to this stretch of desert.
“This place is so much more than a storage tank,” Balken says, walking up a sediment-laden slot canyon. “That’s what this [drought] is showing us. These places can recover.”
Advocates want to fill Lake Mead first, near Lake Powell, and only when that lake is full, let it spill over into Powell as a backup. Will that happen? It seemed impossible to imagine even a decade ago, but with less rain and snow filling the mighty reservoirs, a return to Abbey’s paradise suddenly feels within reach.
If your interest in Glen Canyon Dam is piqued, there are plenty of books on the subject. Check out Russell Martin’s A Story that Stands Like a Dam: Glen Canyon and the Struggle for the Soul of the West.
For a comprehensive look at the American West, including water, the desertification of the high country, and what it means to spend a lifetime observing ecological change in a place only barely hospitable to human life, pick up the great Wallace Stegner’s The Sound of Mountain Water: The Changing American West.