Bushong: Resurrecting a Lost Paradise
It’s time to consider decommissioning the Glen Canyon Dam.
Glen Canyon Dam, located in northern Arizona near the Utah border, was the result of a compromise that prevented the inundation of Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado. Glen Canyon was such a well-kept secret at the time that David Brower, the environmentalist who orchestrated the compromise, had never even seen it. The canyon was already doomed when Brower eventually floated through it and realized the gravity of what America had sacrificed. He lamented the loss of Glen Canyon as “the darkest day of [his] life” and our nation’s “most regretted environmental mistake.”
Lake Powell was intended to provide a sustainable water supply for millions of residents in seven western states. At full capacity, it stores enough water to submerge all of Kentucky. But Lake Powell is now only 22.6% full, a casualty of overuse and drought. The water crisis is exacerbated by evaporation from Lake Powell and seepage into the porous bedrock that encases it. Enough water evaporates from Lake Powell in a single Labor Day weekend to satisfy the water needs of 17,000 Western homes for an entire year. Put another way, Lake Powell loses enough water each year to fulfill Nevada’s annual allotment three times over.
Far from providing water security, Lake Powell is now undermining its original purpose. Recognizing this, the Glen Canyon Institute has proposed a detailed plan to decommission Glen Canyon Dam. The water from Lake Powell would flow another 300 miles downriver and combine with Lake Mead, also at less than half capacity. This would drastically reduce both seepage and evaporation, providing over one million acre-feet per year of additional water for beneficial use. The current water crisis will impact everyone in the American West — including Dartmouth students who call this region home — and rectifying it will demand innovative and unprecedented solutions. If there was ever a time to consider decommissioning Glen Canyon Dam, it is now.
One of the strongest criticisms of this proposal is the loss of hydropower from the Glen Canyon Dam. How would it be compensated for? Glen Canyon Dam produces 3% of the total power used in the Four Corners area. Phasing it out would not be inconsequential, but there is already a surplus of power in the region. Electricity rates for those relying on Glen Canyon’s hydropower would increase a paltry $0.08 per month for residential customers and $.59 per month for commercial customers. Moreover, sending the water downriver would increase the power generating capacity of Lake Mead’s Hoover Dam, offsetting some of the lost hydropower from Glen Canyon. Perhaps most importantly, Glen Canyon’s hydroelectric output is likely short-lived. The Bureau of Reclamation’s most recent projections indicate Lake Powell could sink below the “minimum power pool” — the level at which hydropower can no longer be generated — by the end of the year.
The Colorado River Compact is another major impediment to decommissioning Glen Canyon Dam. This 1922 agreement allocates the River’s water among seven western states. The Compact significantly overestimated future river flow and did not account for climate change, contributing to an annual deficit in the Compact of nearly one million acre-feet of water. Nevertheless, the Upper Colorado Basin states of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming are still obligated to send a set amount of water downriver each year. Without Lake Powell, it would be difficult for Upper Colorado Basin states to meet their requirements. Decommissioning Lake Powell is not precluded by any statute, but would require states in the Upper and Lower Basins to renegotiate aspects of the Compact and other relevant legal documents. As concluded in a legal analysis by Larry MacDonnell, the feasibility of combining the two reservoirs is “not essentially legal but hydrologic and political.”
One of the greatest benefits of draining Lake Powell is environmental restoration. The Colorado River is the lifeblood of the Southwest. Waters laden with sediments and nutrients once supported a diverse assemblage of flora and fauna. The post-dam riverine ecosystem is now much less ecologically productive due to alterations in flow pattern, temperature, turbidity and sediment load. Of particular concern are five endangered fish species including the Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker whose continued survival is jeopardized by the dam. Decommissioning it would revive the sediment transport process vital to the health of the river and allow the region’s biodiversity to recover. The list of beneficiaries also includes recreationists who would seek out the restored canyon for its natural splendor and indigenous groups with deep cultural ties to the canyon.
Whereas the mere suggestion of removing Glen Canyon Dam would have been deemed ludicrous several decades ago, it is now the source of thoughtful discourse. Such a proposal is not entirely unprecedented: four major dams will be removed on the Klamath River in Oregon and California by 2024 solely to facilitate salmon recovery. This is a nationwide trend. In 2021 alone, 59 dams were removed across the United States. Even so, given the sheer magnitude of Glen Canyon Dam and its expansive influence, any decision on its future must receive input from all stakeholders — the affected states, local communities, indigenous groups, environmentalists and recreationists to name a few. It should seek to reconcile competing interests while bearing in mind that the current drought may reduce the Colorado River’s flow an additional 20% by mid-century, greatly intensifying the water crisis. If the impediments can be overcome and such a monolith removed, it would set a precedent for environmental restoration that would reverberate throughout the country.
Pragmatic reasons aside, there is something paradoxical about a dammed river in the American West, a region once defined by its wild character, untamed spirit and the freedom to roam. Must we be so exclusive in our possession of inalienable rights? A caged eagle is no longer an eagle in any meaningful sense of the word; what is a river if not free-flowing? As stated by the late Charley Bulletts, a member of the Kaibab Band of the Southern Paiutes, “water isn’t meant to lay like it does [in Lake Powell], it’s meant to flow like our blood line.”
Glen Canyon is a birthright of the American people, a national treasure stolen from us before we had the opportunity to fight for it. We are now in a unique position to remedy history. For all the irreparable harms we have caused to America’s natural endowment — the old growth slain, the prairie farmed, the vast bison herds exterminated — Glen Canyon still lies intact in all its grandeur beneath the water and silt. We need only rescue it. Several decades from now, somewhere deep within the canyon’s hallowed walls, a party of river rafters may commend our foresight at having resurrected a lost paradise. We would earn the praise of posterity evermore. Or perhaps a boat will continue to sit on the lake’s still surface, oblivious to what lies entombed below.