Only 25 years ago, draining Lake Powell was dismissed as ‘looney’ — then the megadrought started

A group of environmentalists plotted the restoration of Glen Canyon before it looked like a strong possibility.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Glen Canyon Institute executive director Erik Balken compares the "Cathedral in the Desert" in Clear Creek Canyon with photos in a historical photo journal of Glen Canyon, on Monday, May 17, 2021.

Cathedral in the Desert • David Brower sat back in his chair during the first board meetings of the Glen Canyon Institute in 1996 — white-haired, distinguished and almost entirely silent.

Three decades earlier, when Brower was head of the Sierra Club, he had been instrumental in preventing the Grand Canyon from turning into a series of back-to-back reservoirs, and he had forged the modern American environmental movement in the process.

But Brower never stopped regretting his decision to not fight against the Glen Canyon Dam, which is why the 84-year-old activist had agreed to join the board of the newly formed Glen Canyon Institute.

Brower would listen for hours as the suggestions flew back and forth across the table about how the Salt Lake City-based organization could best achieve its goal of allowing Lake Powell to drain and restoring a free-flowing river through Glen Canyon, recalled Wade Graham, who has served on the Glen Canyon Institute board since its founding.

Then Brower would lean forward and utter a sentence or two. With just a few carefully chosen words, Graham said, Brower would reset the entire conversation.

“This is going to be a multigenerational battle,” Graham recalls Brower saying in one of those pithy statements. “I’m not going to live to see it, you’re not going to live to see it, but if we lay the groundwork now, we can bring back Glen Canyon someday.”

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) LaGorce Arch in Davis Gulch near Lake Powell once provided passage for jet skis when the reservoir was higher. May 5, 2022.

The institute’s proposals did feel like a long shot in the late 1990s when Lake Powell was filled to its capacity.

The Glen Canyon Dam was functioning as intended. It was storing years of the Colorado River’s average annual flow, producing reliable hydropower, blocking sediment from filling Lake Mead downstream and creating a sprawling houseboaters paradise that was visited by millions of people annually.

In the final year of his life, Brower, who saw Glen Canyon as it was flooding, called it “one of the most egregious errors of the last century.”

But for others, the Glen Canyon Dam was seen as an almost permanent fixture of the landscape.

“It was like a pillar of civilization somehow,” Graham said. “Nearly the entire environmental movement in the West had already accommodated itself to the status quo.”

‘Looney’ environmentalists

Richard Ingebretsen, a physician who founded Glen Canyon Institute, remembers picking up a copy of The Salt Lake Tribune at a gas station in 1997. A front-page story outlined Ingebretsen’s proposal to restore Glen Canyon.

Then-Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) called the idea “looney” in the article.

“People just laughed at us,” Ingebretsen said. “I was on the news a lot, and I was traveling around and speaking a lot. People were aghast.”

(Photo by Bryan Enger, U.S. Department of Energy) Glen Canyon Dam, 2018

But Ingebretsen said he never got over his disdain for the reservoir that drowned Glen Canyon and over 90 side canyons, several of which he had first explored as a Boy Scout in the early 1960s. On that first trip, one of the leaders pointed to a cleft in the rock more than 100 of feet overhead and said it would one day provide passage for jetboats.

“I remember thinking, ‘That is bad. Why are they flooding this?’” Ingebretsen said. “It bothered me.”

By the time he first floated Cataract Canyon as a young man, the reservoir was full. Seeing the transition between roaring rapids and placid stillwater made him livid.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Richard Ingebretsen, founder and president of the Glen Canyon Institute, under the LaGorce arch in Davis Gulch on a trip on Lake Powell on May 10, 2003. Landmarks which had previously been submerged in Glen Canyon are now becoming visible with the lower water levels in Lake Powell.

“It broke my heart,” he recalls. Ingebretsen laid the groundwork for starting Glen Canyon Institute and arranged a 1995 debate between Brower and infamous Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Floyd Dominy, one of the dam’s biggest boosters.

Hundreds of people showed up to watch the old rivals make their case, but in the broader community, the argument for draining Lake Powell was still largely seen as environmentalist wish casting.

Megadrought begins

When Brower died in 2000, however, the big winter storms of the 1990s failed to materialize over the Rocky Mountains and Glen Canyon Institute began to find a new role: encouraging water managers to plan for prolonged drought.

Jeri Ledbetter, a river guide in the Grand Canyon who took over as executive director of the institute during those years, said all of the public planning from the Bureau of Reclamation and other agencies was about what to do with surplus water.

“Nobody in any position of authority,” she said, “wanted to come up with any criteria for what we’d do in the event [of serious drought].”

Ledbetter and her colleagues also found they had to also run a basic public education campaign around the history of the 180-mile reservoir. She remembers receiving one angry letter from a Utahn who had seen the Glen Canyon Institute proposal to drain Lake Powell by drilling bypass tunnels and letting the river flow around the base of the dam.

“How can you think of destroying this work of God?” the letter writer asked.

“There were a lot of people that really didn’t know that it’s a human-made feature,” Ledbetter said.

By 2005, Lake Powell had dropped to record low levels. Conversations slowly began to shift.

Graham and Peterson, who took over as director of the Glen Canyon Institute after Ledbetter, uncovered an inscription left by the reservoir’s namesake, John Wesley Powell, in 1871. It had been exposed by dropping reservoir levels and was buried by a few inches of mud, yet when Graham and Peterson located the rock and swept away the dirt, there it was, exposed to the daylight.

Peterson, like most observers at that time, assumed that the low reservoir levels would be short-lived and that the new revelations would be covered again.

“Everybody knew it as the ‘jewel of the Colorado,’” he said, referring to the name given to Lake Powell by Dominy. “It was a filled-up, beautiful blue reservoir against red walls with a tiny bathtub ring at best for most of the time.”

Reality of climate change sets in

A series of relatively wet winters brought the reservoir level back up, and for a brief time, it looked as if the drought could be breaking. But climate scientists were projecting a much grimmer future for the Colorado River Basin.

Eric Balken, who has been executive director of Glen Canyon Institute since 2015, began working at the organization as an intern soon after he graduated from high school.

One of the early projects Balken was involved with was promoting the findings of a 2008 paper from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography that looked at increasing water demand in the Upper Colorado River Basin and models that projected lower runoff due to climate change.

“It was a total bombshell of a paper,” he said. “It said that based on the climate data that they had, Lake Mead and Lake Powell could easily dry up in the decades to come and that, if nothing else, they would most likely be mostly empty most of the time.”

In retrospect, those findings have proven prescient. Both Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the nation’s two largest reservoirs, are at their lowest levels since they were first filled and it’s unlikely they’ll ever fill again.

The Glen Canyon Dam is on the verge of losing its ability to generate power, and the Bureau of Reclamation recently expressed concerns that allowing the reservoir to drop further could cause significant damage to the lowest outlet works in the dam.

For years, Balken, Ingebretsen and others have been encouraging Reclamation and water managers to prepare for this day. They’ve long argued that adding new tunnels at the base of the dam would add much-needed flexibility from a water management position, including the option to store Lake Powell’s water in Lake Mead and increase hydropower production on the Nevada reservoir.

Those ideas don’t seem quite so “looney” any longer, though federal agencies have given little indication that such a plan is being actively considered.

Will the Glen Canyon Dam be a ‘liability’?

The Glen Canyon Dam could stop producing electricity in the next year or two, even with the emergency measures the Department of Interior announced last month. When that happens, Balken said the reservoir will start to become more of a liability than an asset to providing Colorado River water to the 40 million people in and around the basin who rely on it.

And if Lake Powell drops below the dam’s hydropower intakes, it will become extremely difficult to manage from a recreation standpoint.

The reservoir level will swing more dramatically the lower it gets, and it could begin to shift by more than 100 vertical feet in a year. All but one of Lake Powell’s boat ramps are currently closed and the topography of the landscape makes it difficult to extend them.

“So you sort of lose the recreational benefits and you lose the hydropower benefits,” Balken said of the worst-case scenario for the future of Lake Powell. “And then most importantly, at a certain point, the Upper Basin states aren’t able to meet their delivery obligations and the Grand Canyon is going to suffer from that flow regime.”

What water managers should be doing, in Balken’s mind, is what Glen Canyon Institute has been calling for decades.

“The best-case scenario is that the agencies take seriously this idea of phasing out the reservoir,” he said, meaning the installation of bypass tunnels at the base of the dam. “Whether we like it or not, some version of this is most likely coming. … We have to start planning for that, even if it’s not certain.”

Balken added that those discussions should include tribal governments in the region, which were excluded from the decision to construct the dam.

Wonders revealed

Colorado River management decisions are complex and the challenges are enormous, Balken acknowledged, but more people are recognizing the value of the places that have been revealed as Lake Powell’s level has plummeted.

Lake Powell Resorts and Marinas, which provides boat rental services on the reservoir, has started advertising places like Gregory Natural Bridge and Cathedral in the Desert, two famous features near the Escalante River that were covered with water until recently.

“There are many examples where current conditions provide guests with a unique opportunity to discover natural landscapes and formations,” the company wrote a recent email to guests.

Graham, vice president of Glen Canyon Institute’s board, and Peterson, an artist who was the institute’s former director, visited Cathedral in the Desert with The Salt Lake Tribune earlier this month, the same day Balken was touring the feature with a film crew from CBS.

Standing in the Cathedral, Graham and Peterson recalled debates from their early days advocating for Glen Canyon restoration.

Many critics of their organization’s work were quick to declare that even if Glen Canyon was worthy of national park status before the dam, it was too late. The sediment deposited by the reservoir, the unsightly bathtub ring that had formed on the canyon walls at the high watermark, and the immense ecological disruption would be impossible to overcome.

But it has become more difficult to make that argument today. Thirty feet of sediment washed out from beneath the Cathedral in several monsoon rainstorms last year, restoring the chamber made famous by 1950s photographs that showed tiny human figures staring up at the 60-foot waterfall and vaulted canyon walls. The top of the bathtub ring is already disappearing.

In nearby canyons, beavers, fish, toads and willow groves have returned in just a few short years.

The speed of the changes is drawing people back to certain places year after year to see the canyon’s transformation.

Jack Stauss, Glen Canyon Institute’s outreach director, calls the new areas being exposed the “moon zone,” offering visitors the opportunity to set foot in canyons that haven’t been walked in for over half a century.

That sense of discovery drew Samantha and Robert Garlow of Yakima, Wash., to the Cathedral in early May. The couple was on a road trip through Utah when they heard about the changes happening on Lake Powell, and they became determined to see the Cathedral. When they realized that hiking and paddling in with their two- and five-year-old children would be too difficult, they rented a fishing boat and motored to the spot.

Samantha Garlow said she’d never been to Lake Powell before, but after the visit, she wanted to return.

“I’m super intrigued by what this is going to look like next year,” she said. “It’s amazing to be here. It just gives you a different respect for this area, the way it was and what it’s going to be.”

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.

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