Lost Glen Canyon wonders reemerge as Lake Powell dries up

Side canyons are teeming with life after Utah’s largest lake drops 140 feet over two decades.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) La Gorce Arch in Glen Canyon on Monday, May 17, 2021.

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Glen Canyon National Recreation Area • Hidden within Lake Powell’s ever-changing shorelines are countless fingers running up side canyons, where flat water terminates at mucky stretches of sediments, deposited after the lake started filling behind Glen Canyon Dam. As the lake’s levels have fallen under the weight of drought and climate change, more of these canyon bottoms are seeing daylight, exposing a landscape that was sacrificed in the 1960s to feed the West’s agriculture and residential expansion.

Ghost forests of half-submerged, long-dead cottonwoods now protrude from the water and sediment. These trees are remnants of ecosystems that flourished along these canyon bottoms before the dam gates closed and turned the wild Colorado River into a 186-mile-long stretch of slack water in the heart of Utah’s redrock desert.

But the trees also hint at what could return in the coming years if lake levels fail to rebound. Already, signs of life abound in these formerly submerged desert oases.

“You typically think of a desert landscape growing very slowly, but in these side canyons, where they’re shaded and there’s more water availability or there are perennial streams, the speed at which recovery is happening is really pretty fast,” said Seth Arens, an ecologist with Western Water Assessment, a federally funded research arm of the University of Colorado. “In these riparian corridors, you’re seeing, not necessarily the ecosystem that existed pre-Glen Canyon Dam, but you’re seeing an ecosystem that’s diverse, robust, and lots of native species are present.”

Hiking the canyons

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Trees are exposed again in Iceberg Canyon on Tuesday, May 18, 2021.

The lower reaches of Davis Gulch, Iceberg Canyon and other Lake Powell side canyons might look like scenes from a Hollywood apocalypse, covered in lifeless sand. But walk up these canyons hardly a mile and you’ll see plants and animals returning to fill an ecological void. Willows and cattails sprout higher than your head, lizards scurry among the rocks, frogs leap around the streams and beavers have built dams in places where they could find enough willows to block a stream.

“Hear that buzzing? That’s the sound of a healthy ecosystem returning,” Eric Balken, executive director of the Utah nonprofit Glen Canyon Institute, said during a recent visit to Davis Gulch, a tributary to the Escalante River. He was noting the bees busily foraging among the willows and other flowering plants reaching head height in Davis Gulch, where the institute makes regular trips to document plant succession.

More plants and animals are filling these canyons since the lake level began dropping from its peak in 2000, according to Balken. Many of the plants are invasive, such as tamarisk and Russian thistle, but there are plenty of native willows coming back, along with 2-foot-high cottonwood seedlings, that will soon provide crucial habitat for songbirds.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Glen Canyon Institute executive director Erik Balken examines a small cottonwood tree in Iceberg Canyon on Tuesday, May 18, 2021.

“It’s just such a stark difference when you get out of the reservoir and into the restoration zones. On the reservoir, it’s just rock and water. It’s a pretty dead environment,” Balken said. “And then when you start walking up into the side canyons, you start to see the plants come back. You immediately start hearing the songbirds. You’re walking over ladybugs and other critters running around. You can just feel life coming back.”

The artificial lake has been a favorite destination for water sports, but that chapter in Glen Canyon’s history may be closing as federal water managers debate over what to do with Lake Powell, now about a third full. At 3,561 feet above sea level, the surface is 140 feet lower than the high water mark and continues to drop fast. Thanks to bone-dry soils and a low snowpack, not much snowmelt has reached the lake this year and the Bureau of Reclamation predicts the surface will drop another 35 feet, possibly more, in the next year.

Richard Ingebretsen, the Salt Lake City physician who founded the Glen Canyon Institute, figures a day is coming when the bureau will be forced to empty Lake Powell to shore up the equally depleted Lake Mead downstream.

Like many other conservationists, Ingebretsen contends the creation of Lake Powell was not only among the nation’s worst environmental mistakes but also that the reservoir highlights the folly of trying to bend nature to the will of man.

Nature is going to win eventually, but, with Lake Powell, that outcome seems to be arriving early.

[Related: As Lake Powell recedes, Gregory Natural Bridge rises]

While many mourn the potential loss of a world-class water sports destination, river lovers like Ingebretsen are celebrating the return of natural features like the rapids in Cataract Canyon and Gregory Natural Bridge. Among the largest natural bridges in the world, Gregory, which spans Fifty Mile Creek off the Escalante River’s main channel, would be a destination in its own right, but it has been underwater since the 1960s. Sometime this summer the bridge will see daylight as the lake level continues slipping.

“As time goes on, they are going to be restored and people are going to love it. People are going to enjoy going up these canyons and see these natural features that have been underwater and miraculously all of those things have been preserved like the waterfall at Cathedral in the Desert,” Ingebretsen said. “All these slot canyons are coming back ,and the flash floods are washing them clean. We are getting spectacular places back. These places are world class. People are going to miss Lake Powell, I understand that, but they are going to love Glen Canyon.”

(Paul Fraughton | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Cathedral in the Desert pictured in May 2007.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Cathedral in the Desert in May 2021.

A boating paradise no more?

The reservoir’s steady shrinking over the past 20 years threatens its flat water recreation that supports a tourism economy anchored in powerboats and fishing. Most of the lake’s boat ramps are unusable because they no longer reach the water, making it a challenge to get boats on and off the lake.

The marina at Hite, on the north part of the lake, hasn’t functioned in years, and the Bullfrog marina’s days could be numbered. These dropping levels have been a constant headache for marina operators and the National Park Service, which issues frequent advisories alerting visitors to closures and service limitations.

As the lake was filling behind the 710-foot-high dam, the park service established the 1.2-million-acre Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in 1972 “to provide for public use and enjoyment and to preserve the area’s scientific, historic, and scenic features.” Since its inception, the recreation area’s emphasis has been on boating and beaches.

But as those opportunities decline, the park service is looking to adjust operations in response to the changing landscape, according to Ken Hyde, Glen Canyon’s chief of science and resource management. In the meantime, officials are taking note of what’s transpiring in the side canyons.

“We’re very interested in seeing how the native plants and animals and fish continue to adapt to these changes and take advantage of emerging areas that used to be under quite a few feet of water,” Hyde said. Because Utah is in a severe drought, he is not expecting to see an explosion of new vegetation.

“It’s going to come back first where the springs and seeps and the hanging gardens were at,” he said. “A lot of those are tied to the water pockets that are up on top of the sandstone bluffs. And they’re not filling up because we’ve got two summers with no monsoon activities.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Abandoned buoys that used to protect the Three Roof Ruin from boaters during high water sit at the bottom of the Escalante River in Glen Canyon on Monday, May 17, 2021.

Coming attractions

Federal land and water managers should do their best to assess the natural features that are coming to light at Lake Mead and Lake Powell as they decide how to adjust operations at the nation’s two largest reservoirs, according to Jack Schmidt, a Utah State University hydrologist who heads the Center for Colorado River Studies.

“All of these resources at Lake Powell that are popping up, whether they’re rapids or they’re ecosystems, are a wonderful wrinkle in the wonderful complexity that reminds us that it’s a crazy quilt of competing objectives,” Schmidt said, “and there are good and bad impacts every which way you turn.”

For example, as Lake Powell gets lower, the water coming through its hydroelectric turbines into Grand Canyon is getting warmer, closer to its natural temperature. While that could help endangered native fish, warmer water is hard on the Colorado River’s trout fishery and could affect the quality of the drinking water Las Vegas draws from Lake Mead, according to Schmidt.

Like it or not, nature is reclaiming many places lost to the reservoir, and nonprofits are stepping in to document the transformation. Fascinating stories are unfolding on the 25 miles of the Colorado River now flowing through the exposed lake bed in Cataract Canyon, according to Mike DeHoff, a Moab river runner who cofounded the group Returning Rapids.

“People think a river is just its water, but it’s not. There’s so much more to it. It’s the riparian areas, the flora and fauna on its banks. How vital it is, especially in years like this where you have a drought,” he said. “There’s so much more wildlife down in the river corridor now.”

The Dominy formation

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The bottom of the Escalate River can be seen after being underwater for dozens of years in Glen Canyon on Monday, May 17, 2021.

After Lake Powell filled, many of Cataract-famed whitewater rapids were buried in sediments that otherwise would have formed beaches in Grand Canyon and ultimately been carried down to Lake Mead. The river is now cutting through these exposed deposits, and so far seven rapids have returned, DeHoff said. His group has been using time-lapse cameras to document the return of whitewater at Gypsum Canyon Rapids.

(Todd Adams | The Salt Lake Tribune) As Lake Powell's water levels dwindle, the natural landscape of Glen Canyon is reemerging. Here are locations of some of the areas now reappearing.

Their research has determined that the river is scouring about three feet of sediment a year, according to DeHoff.

“Given the chance, the river is proving it can restore itself,” he said. “All the qualities that go with the river are coming back in Cataract.”

By comparing photos shot today with historic photos, DeHoff’s group has been able to determine the depth of sediment deposits in select places.

“It’s 150 feet deep,” he said. “It covers the entire canyon. So where there used to be riparian areas, cottonwood trees, all that is just covered with mud.”

DeHoff calls these sediment deposits the “Dominy formation,” a half-joking reference to Floyd Dominy, the Bureau of Reclamation commissioner who spearheaded the damming of the Colorado River in the 1960s. Dominy downplayed the Glen Canyon Dam’s negative consequences, such as the inundation of countless archaeological sites and the capture of river-borne sediments.

Instead of reaching the Grand Canyon, these fine grains settled onto the bottom of Lake Powell, and the water released from the dam is much colder and clearer than what would naturally flow down the Colorado. The dam radically transformed the environment at one of the nation’s most revered national parks, resulting in the loss of native fish and sandbanks. Yet Dominy argued the dam was, on balance, improving the environment for people.

Now the dam’s critics, like Ingebretsen and his Glen Canyon Institute, are taking a lead role in documenting the canyon’s restoration.

Two years ago, the institute ferried a team of scientists up Lake Powell’s Escalante Arm, where they explored Fifty Mile Canyon, noting as much life as they could. The biodiversity they recorded was remarkable: 244 species of plants; 93 species of lichens and fungi, 160 species of insects and other invertebrates; and 47 species of vertebrate animals.

Hanging gardens, ecological communities anchored by maiden hair fern, were forming along seeps on sandstone walls, and native willows were taking root. The team recorded members of all six bee families that inhabit North America, including two species that are yet to be named.

Modern artifacts

During his recent visit to Glen Canyon, Balken piloted his rented boat up Iceberg Canyon on a whim during the return trip to Bullfrog Bay.

The cottonwood branches protruding from the lake indicated that the canyon bottom once supported a lush forest. The farther up the canyon the boat traveled, the higher the dead trees rose from the water. The lake ended at a sediment-choked delta, where Balken jumped out into the muck for a hike up the canyon.

Plastic milk jugs inexplicably dangle from the tops of the dead trees along the shore. Balken surmises the jugs were tied to the trees back when Lake Powell just covered their upper branches to warn boaters of the hazard beneath the surface.

In one arm of the canyon, the dropping lake level has left a 5-acre fish-filled pond formed behind rockfall.

The artifacts of houseboat recreation are embedded in the sand almost anywhere you look. Sunglasses, life jackets, footwear, camping gear, fishing rods and assorted gear, buckets, water craft accessories, deck furniture, even golf balls. Huh? Apparently, whacking golf balls against the canyon’s sandstone walls is a thing on Lake Powell.

Balken marvels at the diversity of junk that finds its way into the lake. Some objects defy identification.

“Every trip down here turns into a cleanup mission,” he said as he picked up as much trash as he could carry in hopes of speeding Glen Canyon’s return to a state of nature.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Iceberg Canyon on Tuesday, May 18, 2021.