November 13, 1998
On the water
A variety of watercraft is available at Wahweap marina, a beautifully (artificially) landscaped stretch of Lake Powell shoreline. We chose to rent an 18-foot boat for a half-day. On the dock, we met Donna and her boyfriend, who asked us for a ride to Gunsight Butte. We were off.
Donna’s navigating skills were required to steer us from the marina into the open water of Lake Powell. Navigating from the marina can be a bit tricky as Antelope Island and Navajo Canyon can easily divert the boater trekking east from Wahweap.
Once on the water, ecology is soon forgotten. The deep blue waters, framed by the dusty red and brown geology of Lake Powell, are alluring. The mere presence of an immense body of water in the middle of this parched expanse is otherworldly. With majestic cliffs, buttes and pinnacles slowly unfolding as you cruise “up-river,” the undeniable magic of Lake Powell takes hold.
Glen Canyon Institute
Reasons for decommissioning Glen Canyon Dam
Water As much as one million acre feet of water is wasted annually because of evaporation and bank seepage, according to U.S. Bureau of Reclamation estimates. The reservoir does not supply domestic water except to the town of Page, and does not supply irrigation water to any farmland – only the new Page golf course. Meanwhile, the lower Colorado River, the Sea of Cortez and its estuary die due to so little fresh water and nutrients reaching the mouth. The people who live there must now buy bottled water.
Sediment The Colorado River delivers an enormous amount of sediment into the reservoir each year. Eventually the build-up of sediment will render the dam useless for power generation, flood control or recreation.
Endangered Species Native fish have been rapidly declining in Grand Canyon and in the Colorado River drainage due to the construction of dams.
Power When Glen Canyon Dam has gone off line at times, nobody even noticed. We have a surplus of power in the desert southwest. Also, the Hite Marina is the largest retailer of gasoline in the state of Utah. How much power are we “generating?”
Dam safety In 1983, the spillways nearly failed on a flood of only 120,000 cubic feet per second. Historical flows have exceeded an estimated 400,000 cubic feet per second. Year by year, as the storage capacity of the reservoir is reduced due to sedimentation, catastrophic failure becomes more likely. With Grand Canyon just downstream, this would be an ecological disaster. Also, below Hoover Dam, the economic consequences of a failure are staggering.
Short term vs. long term The reservoir is doomed, for reasons mentioned above. If we act now, there is a window of opportunity during which Glen Canyon could be restored. If we wait too long, the sedimentation will be too great. With Glen Canyon restored, future generations may enjoy this wondrous place – a beautiful canyon, rather than a vast, toxic mud flat.
The explorer could spend years floating and wandering around the endless geologic museum that is Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.
Gunsight Butte is about seven miles east of Wahweap and is one of the countless canyon waterways of Lake Powell. This one is short and wide – a small bay surrounded by desert. Several boats were docked here, and tents were scattered up and down the narrow shoreline. The sun was strong and the heat dry and this little oasis looked like a good place to spend a long vacation.
Hiking to the land of the belching fish
Not all the inlets and remote canyons of Lake Powell are idyllic, however.
North on U.S. 89 from Lone Rock campground is the town of Big Water. Route 231 proceeds east from Big Water and leads to an excellent but short hiking trail through Wiregrass Canyon. This canyon was apparently discovered only a few years ago. (Canyons in greater Lake Powell are still being discovered, some say.) The trail leads to a remote northwestern corner of Lake Powell.
The 3.5-mile trail winds in and out of striking brown and white sandstone formations – the swirled script of dry desert wind, blowing for countless generations.
In some places, the hiker is welcomed into fantastic grottoes and vestibules of sculpted sandstone. While dry year-round, the arroyos are subject to flash floods.
Several narrow side canyons along this trail are ripe for discovery and beckon like portals into the sacred galleries of the Basketweavers. Sandstone overhangs shield the hiker from the hot late spring sun.
While we envisioned arriving to a nice clean beach with the crisp, clear waters of Lake Powell providing a refreshing cool-down after the hike, we found something different. Wiregrass Canyon meets the water at a remote, forgotten edge of Lake Powell.
The trail ended at a stagnant pond, the terminus of a small secluded inlet. It was boiling with noisy fish. These rather discourteous fish had gaping red mouths and were not shy about snorting about in the pond. This place seemed to be the backwash of the reservoir, perhaps like many inlets along the course of the Lake Powell internment.
Fossilized in the sandstone around us, the primordial fish who swam in the ancient seas of the Colorado Plateau are entombed in the Wiregrass Canyon, silent.
Winding back out of the canyon, one easily forgets the belching fish. The shapes and patterns of rock change and turn in endless episodes, displaying the effects of geologic time.
Forgetting the dam
Lake Powell is the type of place where a family could enjoy the vacation of a lifetime, if they had enough gasoline. It’s obvious that few people would have discovered these remote, strange canyons without Lake Powell being here, including us.
But Lake Powell was created as part of a larger program of wrestling the mighty Colorado River into submission, generating power and storing water in the name of engineering and progress, not wise use.
The excess of energy here at Page questions the utility of the dam. Water for the Page golf course and energy to light the lights in Las Vegas don’t seem to be good enough reasons to drastically impact the course of a major river.
As the feds begin to more seriously consider decommissioning dams, draining Lake Powell would appear to match whatever criteria is used when a dam is put to death.
We’ll visit Lake Powell again, maybe even a little less guilty than the first time. But we’ll visit there feeling the dam is a temporary, and ultimately an unwise, if impressive, work of engineering.