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Why unplug a dam?
Waste of precious water, aging of such structures join to drive scientific and policy debate in Ariz.

From the Sunday Boston Globe: July 6, 1997. OCR may have missed a word or two... reader adapt.



There was a time when, in my search for essences, I concluded that the canyonland country had no heart. I was wrong. The canyonlands did have a heart, a living heart, and that heart was Glen Canyon and the golden flowing Colorado River.

-- Edward Abbey



It is lovely and terrible wilderness... harshly and beautifully colored, broken and worn until its bones are exposed, its great sky without smudge or taint from Technocracy, and in hidden corners and pockets under its cliffs the sudden poetry of springs.

-- Wallace Stegner



The photographs and quotes above are from "The Place No One Knew: Glen Canyon of the Colorado" by Eliot Porter. Taken before thewater rose in 1963, this was originally a Sierra Club coffee table book. My copy is a 25th commemorative edition, reprinted by Gibb Smith Inc. of Salt Lake City. [Try a library]


TUCSON - Azure-blue Lake Powell and the 710-foot Glen Canyon Dam that holds it fill the blazing desert like an ocean and a mountain. Huge, implacable, and silent, they seem utterly unchangeable.

But are they? Not long ego the Sierra Club began urging the plug be pulled on the 180-mile-long impoundment, and strangely enough, the notion has caught on.

True, water lawyers and utility interests have ridiculed David Brower, the 84-year-old environmental icon, for leading the push to "let a river run through."

But a surprising coterie of scientists, bureaucrats, and Western water gurus have joined a receptive public in cheering Brower and the debate he has opened by questioning man's most absolute manipulation of the environment. More support may well come after PBS completes its broadcast this month of "Cadillac Desert," a scathing documentary series on the Western water wars.

And so experts are calling the debate about Lake Powell the ultimate version of an argument that will soon engulf dozens of lakes and dams in Colorado, the Pacific Northwest, even Maine.

"What is the useful life of a dam? That's a vital question to be asking," says Dan Beard, a past commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the dam.

And Jack Schmidt, a Utah State University geographer, goes further: "I personally think this can't happen politically. But I also know decommissioning dams and restoring streams are things we have to stars looking et. So I applaud Brower. He's brought up dam issues in a big way at the place that is definitely the 'big one."'

Lake Powell is the "big one" not only because of its tumultuous history of controversy, but also because of what is there - and what isn't.

What is not there anymore are thousands of Indian ruins, the natural flow of the red Colorado River, and Glen Canyon's incredible labyrinth of pink sandstone walls, delicate rock gardens, and wilderness beaches - once "the most serenely beautiful" canyons in the West, wrote the fate Wallace Stegner.

Inundated since 1963 by Lake Powell, these losses are what made Edward Abbey rage against the "damnation" of Glen Canyon in the book "The Monkey Wrench Gang," his dream of eco-warriors dynamiting the dam. And it's what prompted another Arizona monument, the former Republican Senator Barry Goldwater, to say that if he could change one vote in his Senate career it would be his vote to flood the canyon. Says Brower, who, as a Sierra Club leader in 1963 signed off on the dam: "I've been sorry for 30 years I let this place disappear."

What is there, by contrast, is the dam, a titanic 710 foot plug of concrete completed in 1963, and sun-blasted Lake Powell, the nation's second-largest artificial lake.

Built to store water for drought and produce electricity for the growing Southwest, these surreal structures have drawn to them a formidable array of interests. The 1,320-megawatt power plant supplies 75 percent of the Colorado system's power yield, enough to serve 638,000 households. Boat ramps and supply stations gave 445,000 boats access to the impoundment lest year so 2 million people could water ski, drift in houseboats, and fish. A town of 8,000 people has grown up at Page, Ariz., to service the dam, self sunblock to Phoenix Jet-Skiers, rent ice chests to wind-surfers.

These are powerful claimants to the lake - enough in the Southwest to silence much complaint. Which is one reason opposition will always remain staunch to Brower's draw-down notion.

"Really, draw-down is a preposterous idea from a water and power and economic perspective," says Larry Dozier, general manager of the Central Arizona Project, which delivers water by canal to Tucson and Phoenix. "You would cause an economic disaster in Page. You'd kill a blue-ribbon trout fishery. And you'd have to build a big coal-fired generating plant to replace the lost electricity," he says. Concludes Dozier: "The Sierra Club has been way too rhetorical about this."

And yet, rhetoric has its place in public debate. So does vision. And for that reason, neither scientists, nor utility executives, nor recreationalists have been able to dismiss the Sierra Club's pipe dream this spring. Specifically, they realize Brower's vision probes at least three vital issues of reclamation.

The most obvious is ecological cost. Quite simply, Lake Powell - by inundating hundreds of miles of streamside plant life - has turned a dynamic river-rue of cottonwood groves, songbirds, herons, owls and beaver into a barren reservoir. In doing so, the dam and lake have hastened several fish species toward extinction, destroyed critical beaches in the Grand Canyon, and effectively converted a wild river to a remote-control machine. They have also deprived the nation of "potentially a superb national park," Stegner wrote.

Accordingly, Brower's call is in part moral.

"Shouldn't we at least contemplate trying to undo an error that killed one of the world's great places?" he says. "Of course we should."

But this ethical conflict between development and conservation is old and unresolved territory. What is driving the current debate involves two more technical issues: the astounding amount of water Lake Powell wastes, and the need to begin talking now about what should be done with old dams.

As a water project, Lake Powell is terribly inefficient, and growing more sot Almost a million acre-feet, or 8 percent of the Colorado's flow, disappeared from the river in 1996, partly through absorption into the lake's porous Navajo sandstone walls. Almost 600,000 acre-feet - more than enough to supply Tucson and Phoenix together - apparently evaporated into the dry air.

As Lake Powell rises, the water losses are expected to increase. Water experts say that alone guarantees that as growth continues in the West, and water prices spiral from the dozens of dollars an acre-foot to the hundreds, the water establishment itself will contemplate draining Lake Powell.

"The fact is, the value of the lost water will become too high to lose," says Schmidt, the geographer. "Even the water development community will say this. So this isn't just some environmentalist wacko posture."

But the draw-down dream raises a broader question: What comes after a dam, in the West or anywhere? Here, Glen Canyon provides the starkest imaginable place to think through a problem that confronts "literally hundreds of structures around the country," says consultant Dave Wegner, a former Bureau of Reclamation scientist.

After all, Glen Canyon Dam - for all its immensity - has a finite life of a few hundred years, thanks mostly to the impermanence of concrete and the yearly accumulation of 66 million tons of silt at its lake bottom. That means the nation had better stars thinking about the inevitable task of "decommissioning" this and other impoundments. Just how hard that will be remains an open question.

First, the exposure of millions of tons of sediments, deposited in oxygen-free strata under the lake after runoff from upstream uranium land, could render the revealed canyon a wild and scenic toxic zone. This alone might cost hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up.

Next, immense mud flats and plateaus will need to be cleared of tons of the usual detritus that comes to light when a lake is drained - such things as sunken boats, sodden garbage in plastic bags and old batteries.

And then there remains the ugly white "bathtub ring" stain seen on the canyon walls in low-water years. This saline rim would probably fade in a few decades, the Sierra Club says. But it also might not, counter some specialists.

"For people to think we're ever going to restore this ecosystem to where it was in 1869 when John Wesley Powell floated through is fantasy," says Wegner, who masterminded the 1995 experimental flood release from Glen Canyon Dam to simulate nature's torrents in the Grand Canyon. "Still, we should stars seeing what we can do. We can rehabilitate if not restore, and we should get started.

"This is a dam neither necessary nor right, so the question becomes, is removing it feasible? As a scientist, I say it is."

And so, if the Sierra Club stands accused of glibness, it also is garnering kudos as the sac, red, dominated Colorado slides from remote-controlled lake to lake, wasting water and dropping silt.

For many, David Brower's vision epitomizes an emerging environmentalism that wants not just to save what exists but also to restore what has been lost. For that reason, the nation should at least hear him out.

Mark Muro writes editorials for The Arizona Daily Star in Tucson.