Glen Canyon once harbored more prehistoric Native American archaeological sites than almost anywhere else in the Southwest (nearly three thousand were found during a hurried 1950’s pre-dam survey).
In Resurrection, Annette McGivney presents a vivid read of the history, environmentalism, politics, recreation, and the future, of Glen Canyon and the reservoir that filled it, Lake Powell. Even more striking is the photography, beautifully captured by longtime Utah photographer and resident, James Kay.
The book begins with McGivney’s tale of setting off on a kayak trip on the lake in April 2000, and being startled by the sound of the dead cottonwood trees reaching up and scraping the bottom of her boat. Drought had set in, and continued for the next several years, dropping the level of the lake nearly 140 feet.
Facts- in January of 2000, Lake Powell was at 95 percent of its capacity with about 24 million acre feet of stored water, and nearly 2,000 miles of shoreline. By April of 2005, the lake had dropped 140 feet to only 35 percent of capacity. Because of increasing demand for water, and below average precipitation, the lake has remained half empty since 2005, and the reservoir has shrunk from 250 square miles to fewer than 130. The ‘Place No One Knew’-the title of a Sierra Club book that documented Glen Canyon before the dam- was revealing itself in a big way.
A debate was started about leaving the reservoir in the state of emptiness, or attempting to inundate the exposed land once again. Dan Beard, former commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation under President Clinton and now a board member of the Glen Canyon Institute is quoted as saying “(The lower lake) provides a new reality about what is possible. It’s time for the federal government to consider operating the dam in a different way so that we can protect what is uncovered.” “Americans”, McGivney states, “are being given a second chance not only to experience Glen Canyon, but to save it.”
What is amazing is the images, captured by Kay, that show Glen Canyon and Lake Powel in a before and after sequence- between high water, and when the water levels dropped. So mesmerizing, I had to look at all of the pictures in the book before reading a single chapter. Canyons are revealed, trees, native plants and flowers have regained presence. Sediment, in some places deposited to a depth of 100 feet, have been washed away by flash floods, returning slot canyons to the original depth and state, down to the original levels of streambeds, after only a few years of drought.
The Colorado River now flows freely near Hite Marina, since abandoned. Here, due to accumulated sediment, the Colorado now flows 130 feet above its prereservoir bed.
McGivney does a fine job explaining the historical context of the reservoir. Powell’s initial explorations and recommendations to congress on the development (or difficulties of developing) the west, the dam craze of the 50’s and 60’s, and the environmental movement that saved Echo Canyon on the Utah/Colorado border, while the damming of Glen Canyon went virtually unnoticed. It was obviously after the fact that people realized the loss, and Glen Canyon became a ‘flashpoint’ for the modern environmental movement.
But should Lake Powell be drained? What about the water needs of the West? – divided into the upper and lower basins, with the demarcation at Lees Ferry.
She then describes in fine detail the “well oiled water delivery machine”, or rather the kinks in the plan that was instrumental in water development of the Colorado and its tributaries. “First of all, the river is seriously overallocated, when all of the water is doled out, there is a deficit of 3.5 million acre feet. Lake Powell also loses 750,000 to 1 million acre feet of water a year to evaporation and seepage when the lake is full. That’s enough to meet the needs of Los Angeles, and more than the entire state of Nevada.” Silt is another problem, as mentioned before, the receding areas are now buried in up to 130 feet of it, and the Lake will eventually succumb to silt suffocation.
McGivney does state the economic benefits of the lake, in the forms of recreation, communities supported by tourism, such as Page Arizona. However, its only natural that with a diminishing lake, the business will fade as well in the from of closed marinas that can’t reach the water, high gas prices of recent years-it takes a lot of gas to run a houseboat- which leads to large drops in visitation.
The politics of water will forever be debated in the west, and it certainly is a hot button topic. McGivney makes strong points, and the evidence is tough to refute, that Glen Canyon can make a complete recovery from decades of inundation. Kay’s stunning pictures affirm the evidence. In the end, McGivney makes her case for saving Glen Canyon, and then perhaps, the world. It may be a stretch of sorts, but the images are compelling.
The book concludes with maps and descriptions of seven fantastic hikes, including some areas that were once underwater and are now revealed by the diminishing lake.
Go and judge for yourself.