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My children are 10 and eight, so I know from bathtub rings. This one was a doozy: as chalky and unmistakable as a third base line. Hiking last week along the Escalante River in southern Utah, gawking at red-rock cliffs rising 1,000 feet on either side, I found that my gaze kept returning to that horizontal line in the Navajo sandstone, which ran 10 or so feet above my head.
That line was the high-water mark for the Powell Reservoir before the most severe drought to hit the region in a century began six years ago. The reservoir was created in 1963 with the completion of the Glen Canyon Dam, which stemmed the flow of the Colorado River at the Utah-Arizona border. Once sloshing with 8.8 trillion gallons, Lake Powell is down to 4.2 trillion. While this is depressing for houseboaters whose moorings now rest a mile from the water's edge, the phenomenon of the Incredible Shrinking Lake is by no means universally lamented. Receding waters have uncovered many of the wonders of Glen Canyon, whose gorges and spires and 700-year-old Anasazi ruins were sacrificed four decades ago in the name of progress.
"This canyon is like the Comeback Kid," said Chris Peterson, who'd stopped hiking for a quick dip in a pool beneath an alcove. Peterson, 29, is the executive director of the Glen Canyon Institute, whose controversial goal has been to drain the lake and restore Glen Canyon. "Now," said Petersen, "Mother Nature is draining it for us."
Hydrologists predict the lake level will continue to drop. If and when it begins to rise again, said Petersen, "we want the public to say, 'Wow, this place is as beautiful as Yosemite, and we don't want it filled back up.'"
The friends of Glen Canyon are paddling upstream on this issue. Utah congressman Chris Cannon, who has described the idea of pulling the plug on Lake Powell as "dumb" and "silly," told me recently, " Los Angeles would be bone-dry if we didn't have Glen Canyon [dam] and other reservoirs." Utah senator Orrin Hatch's office was happy to pass along a four-year-old quote in which Hatch described the proposed draining of Lake Powell as "a ludicrous idea. It would wreak environmental and economic havoc on the entire region."
Hatch has a point. In addition to depriving millions of a beloved flatwater recreation area, the emptying of Lake Powell would need to be carefully monitored. The reservoir sits atop small amounts of uranium tailings and has become a repository for some naturally occurring heavy metals, which, pre-dam, were whisked harmlessly to the sea. Of course any environmental harm wrought by decommissioning the dam would be in addition to the vast damage its construction has already visited on Glen Canyon--in which some 100 million tons of silt and sediment have been trapped--and the Grand Canyon, which lies directly beneath the dam. The unnaturally cold, regulated and silt-free flows released from the dam have destroyed critical habitat for numerous Grand Canyon native species of fish.
Foes of the dam contend that the hydropower it generates--about 3% of the electricity used in Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico combined--could be easily replaced. Why should it be? asks Leslie Joseph, executive director of the Colorado River Energy Distributors Association. "The dam is doing what it was intended to do," she says. "[Besides] could you imagine if the lake weren't there? Where would these big cities get their water?"
They'd get it the way they always did before, without help from Lake Powell, which was created to provide insurance against dry years in the West. The Bureau of Reclamation's own data shows that Lake Powell brings little water to downstream users that an unfettered Colorado wouldn't deliver on its own. In fact, the lake loses nearly a million acre-feet annually--enough to slake the thirst of Los Angeles for a year--because of evaporation and bank seepage. The water could be stored much more efficiently in underground aquifers and off-stream storage facilities, as it is elsewhere in the West.
Further downriver, Petersen recalled how he got involved with the institute. "When I found out that [the equivalent of] 30,000 dump-truckloads of sediment are deposited in the reservoir every day, and that our grandchildren are going to have to pay for that cleanup project, I decided to get involved," he said. "The longer we wait, the more expensive it's going to be."
Another option is to restore a free-flowing Colorado. The river can heal itself. It's already happening.