Floyd Dominy built the Glen Canyon Dam, then he sketched its end on a napkin

The president of the Glen Canyon Institute talks about meeting the architect of Lake Powell.

Sketches by Floyd Dominy show the way he'd end the Glen Canyon Dam.

This article is part of a special issue on the future of Lake Powell, looking at the reservoir as overallocation and severe drought dry the Colorado River. Read more about how life is returning to the side canyons, how the architect of the dam thought it could end and the case for getting rid of the Glen Canyon dam. See more stories here and order a photo poster from the lake here.

It was February 9, 1997. I was sitting in Boyce, Virginia, at a restaurant with Floyd Dominy, who was chief of the Bureau of Reclamation during construction of the Glen Canyon Dam. This was an unusual experience since we were in the process of forming a movement to drain his beloved “Jewel of the Colorado.”

I had come to know Floyd Dominy in October of 1995 when I invited him to Salt Lake City to debate David Brower at the first annual conference of the Glen Canyon Institute. I had kept my association with him, and in 1997 had occasion to go to Virginia. So I called him up, and he invited Eleanor Inskip and me out to dinner.

We met at his house in the afternoon. On his several-acre property were over one dozen dams; he is a beaver to be sure. In a large room in the basement of his home, a fire was burning on this cold day. On the walls were mementos of his days at the Bureau of Reclamation. A huge painting of Hoover Dam was on the wall behind his desk, along with other photos of dams.

I had several reasons to see him that day; one was to collect some bookends for David Brower. Some years earlier, Dominy and Brower floated down the Grand Canyon for John McPhee’s book, “Encounters with the Archdruid.” As a token of their experiences together, Dominy had promised to give Brower some bookends that were made from core sample drillings of Glen Canyon Dam.

(Bryan Enger | U.S. Department of Energy) Glen Canyon Dam in 2018.

Now 30 years later, Brower asked me to collect them from Dominy. When I reminded Mr. Dominy about them, he said that he had “changed his mind.” He did offer, however, to let me take photos of them for Brower.

Well, that was the best I could do, so I agreed. We set the bookends up on his desk with Dominy posing behind them. As I prepared to take the photo, Dominy said, “Wait, I want to put a book in between them!” He walked over to his bookcase, giggling all the while, and brought back the pamphlet he wrote called, Lake Powell, Jewel of the Colorado. He placed this pamphlet in between the concrete drillings from the dam, and I took the photo of Dominy, who was still laughing.

Dominy, Eleanor, and I went to dinner in Boyce. Not long after we sat down he asked how serious the movement was to drain Lake Powell. I told him that it was very serious. He just stared ahead for a moment and then said, “Well, I am sorry about the destruction to the Grand Canyon. Is it so bad to have a trout stream down there anyway?”

Eleanor replied, “Yes, Mr. Dominy, it is.”

Dominy countered, “Well, if you keep putting floods down there you will ruin everything. Clear water is hungry water and those floods will eat the Grand Canyon away.”

Then he offered something startling. “Brower has proposed to drill out the original bypass tunnels to drain the reservoir. Well, you can’t do that. It is 300 feet of reinforced concrete.” He lowered his glasses on his nose and continued. “There is a better way. All you have to do is drill new bypass tunnels around the old ones in the sandstone; then you can put waterproof valves at the bottom of the lake. They can be raised and lowered as you need, to let water out.”

With that, he pulled over a cocktail napkin and drew a sketch of Glen Canyon Dam, the old bypass tunnels, the lake, the river, and the new tunnels with the waterproof valves that will be used to drain the reservoir. His hands worked busily as he explained what he was sketching. He concluded, “This has never been done before, but I have been thinking about it, and it will work.”

I must admit I was a little stunned. First I was fascinated at how draining such a large reservoir could be accomplished because it seemed so simple. But to think that it was Floyd Dominy who had just sketched the plan was beyond belief. The man who built the dam, the man who called Lake Powell his own, had actually sketched for Eleanor and me the method to drain his reservoir.

I said, “Mr. Dominy, no one will believe me when I tell them that you drew this. Would you sign and date it?”

He answered, “Sure I will,” and signed the napkin, which I keep in a safe and special place.

Richard Ingebretsen is the president of the Glen Canyon Institute. This article was reprinted with permission from the Returning Rapids Project, a project documenting the Colorado River as Lake Powell shrinks.