Taking Back Glen Canyon


Bullfrog, Utah

Each summer I do penance at Lake Powell for the eco-sins of the West. This summer was no exception as I worked on the Trash Tracker houseboat picking up trash in 108 degree heat along 1,900 miles of shoreline. Our team found the usual amount of beer cans, soda cans, diapers, toys, plywood, pillows, water bottles, fireworks, and golf balls. In five days we picked up almost 50 full bags of trash, though in the oppressive heat we covered less ground than usual in our aluminum National Park Service trash barge optimistically named “The Eliminator.”

We saw more toilet paper and human feces than we’ve ever seen before. Just ask Ranger Terry Bell who had to dedicate some of her time this summer to go on “poop patrol” around the lake to prevent spread of fecal chloroform bacteria.  Human waste is hazardous material.

Looks like the motorboaters and houseboat users haven’t a clue about “Leave No Trace” ethics. At Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, which surrounds Lake Powell, the normal insanity and recreational mayhem is only getting worse. The lake shore is an environmental wasteland of weeds, tamarisk, exploded fireworks, and fire rings full of broken glass and melted aluminum. After three stints of picking up trash, I’ve come to a revelation.

Forget draining Lake Powell or Lake Foul as the enviros call it. Draining the lake is not happening anytime soon because of  legal water rights required by the Upper Basin States, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico, to be delivered below Lees Ferry to the thirsty Lower Basin States of Arizona, Nevada, and California. Global warming is accelerating water conflicts. Despite the well meaning efforts of the Glen Canyon Institute and Living Rivers, nobody’s draining Lake Powell other than to supply water to Lake Mead.

Ed Abbey wanted to blow up Glen Canyon Dam but he didn’t get the job done. Two decades ago Earth First! had fun with their eco-guerilla tactics of tossing a large black plastic wedge over the dam to make it look like a crack. Nice gesture, but ineffective.

I’m tired of waiting the thousand years or so that it will take before the mighty Colorado River, which drains 243,000 square miles, finally silts up behind the dam and turns it into a huge waterfall. I want Glen Canyon back for paddlers and those who row. Now.

The speedboat and houseboat crowd have had the lake since it began to fill in 1963, and what have they done with it? They’ve trashed it. So it’s time to take back Lake Powell for the kayakers, the canoers, the rubber raft folks, for all the river people and boatmen who know how to pick up their trash, how to use fire pans, and who certainly know how to poop into portable toilets or groovers, nicknamed after the first river running toilets which were .50 caliber surplus ammunition boxes. Sit on one and your butt cheeks will have definite groove lines.

I’m not kidding. With a shoreline longer than that of California, Oregon and Washington, why do mechanized, motorized watercraft, including those insanely loud and ridiculous jet skis that buzz around in circles like angry hornets, have control of the lake? No wonder the noisy waterborne crotch rockets have earned the nickname “lake lice.”

I’m raising my canoe paddle. I want to be heard. I want a section of Lake Powell closed to the gas-guzzling, climate-warming motorboat crowd. I want a section just for paddlers, and I think the Escalante arm or the flooded Escalante River section would do just fine. A new industry could be created for shuttling paddlers and their boats into remote canyons.

In honor of all the boatmen who drifted down through the marvels of Glen Canyon before the dam, it’s time to take back a portion of it. Here was a place so beautiful that John Wesley Powell wrote on August 3, 1869, “We have a curious ensemble of wonderful features—carved walls, royal arches, glens, alcove gulches, mounds and monuments. From which of these features shall we select a name? We decide to call it Glen Canyon.”

Yes, the canyons are flooded and over 2,000 Ancestral Puebloan sites and ruins are underwater. Yes, as Lake Powell started to fill, the eminent Western writer Wallace Stegner wrote, “In creating the lovely and the usable, we have given up the incomparable.” But solace can still be found amidst those red rocks, blue skies, and green waters. For too long, environmentalists have shunned the lake. Instead, it’s time to embrace it.

The secrets of Glen Canyon are still there. At the heads of the 93 canyons which form the lake there are hidden springs, tiny pools of water beneath original narrow leaf cottonwood trees shimmering green against curved, arching sandstone walls. There are deep silences and a profound sense of geologic time. Glen Canyon has been lost, but it can be found. Now.  Without draining the lake. But getting there takes a paddle or an oar instead of a motor.



Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at gulliford_a@fortlewis.edu

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