Jack Stauss: It is time to restore the Colorado River through Glen Canyon

The time of excess water in the West, if it ever existed, is gone.

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Looking across Lake Powell to the Hole in the Rock, where a wagon train crossed Glen Canyon in 1879. May 5, 2022.

It is time to restore Glen Canyon.

The reservoir known as Lake Powell has lived out its purpose, to “harness excess water” for the Upper Basin. The time of excess, if it ever existed, is gone. In the coming two years, Powell is forecasted to drop within feet of power pool elevation. It is clear the West never needed it to thrive. It is time for a new path forward. A path that does not put humans above nature, instead it puts us within its laws and boundaries. This begins with restoring the Colorado River through Glen.

Why now? Because right now we have a brief moment before we launch over the edge of a seven-state, two-nation water crisis. Now because we have yet to see the worst impacts of climate change, which will continue to reduce flows on the river. Now because as the reservoir drops to unprecedented levels, it moves the insidious mud delta into the canyon. Now because Glen Canyon is already showing us it can be restored.

In my work I have gotten to see a slice of Glen Canyon. I have parked a boat at a beach once 170 feet under water. I walked away from the dead reservoir and up amazing living canyons – sinuous and winding sandstone, full of grasses, reeds and rushes. Wildflowers and orchids growing where there was once still water. Streams and creeks lead me to huge grottoes, alcoves, tall walls where ravens soar and canyon wrens sing their everlasting song to the desert. Chambers and arches so awestriking, it is beyond comprehension that they were ever flooded. Places that we thought lost forever. But we know now – when given the chance – they return quickly and in defiance of our meddling.

Now because inaction is dooming the canyon’s future. Glen Canyon was the heart of the Colorado Plateau. It stretched 180 miles through a national park-quality landscape. It was a splashy, playful section which transported travelers through a desert wonderland. The river met towering red rock walls soaring high against a blue sky.

Without Lake Powell burying it, I have seen that the canyon returns. But, with the load of silt that is moving like a brown glacier down the stream as a result of inaction on a quick drawdown, we could lose much of the glory that once was. Now is the time to release the river, which could stop this mud from clogging more of Glen Canyon.

Right now, we are being forced to plan for a future with less water. Climate models, rates of use and an over-allocation from the start tell us that we must adapt. Adaptation looks like new ways of using and storing water in the West. It means we cannot continue to pretend that the folly of giant dam building in the 20th Century is working. The water to fill these giant reservoirs does not exist. The water that does exist is being sent downstream and used to grow cattle feed in the desert. This is an unsustainable practice.

Now because, in 2026, our decision-makers will pass new guidelines to tell us how to manage this resource. We must change the outmoded and defunct paradigm in that plan. We have a moment – now – to envision and innovate a new path.

Now is the time to restore Glen Canyon because humanity needs hope. What will our legacy be? A parched and divided West? No. We must believe we can do better. Glen Canyon can be that hope. It can be the message we leave behind for future generations. They will know that we did what we could to restore a river, and save what was left. That we did what we could to make the world a more sustainable place for them, and for nature.

Jack A. Stauss

Jack A. Stauss, Salt Lake City, is outreach director for the Glen Canyon Institute.