The Death and Rebirth of Glen Canyon

Before passing away in 2000, visionary conservationist David Brower conceded that the greatest regret of his life was allowing the construction of Glen Canyon Dam. Serving as the Sierra Club’s first Executive Director, he was credited for halting the construction of the Echo Park Dam in Dinosaur National Monument—a first for any environmental group. But the win came at a great price. In negotiations with the Bureau of Reclamation, Brower and the Sierra Club agreed not to oppose a dam slated for Glen Canyon in exchange for Echo Park’s protection. Due to its remote location on the Utah-Arizona border, few environmentalists had ever visited Glen Canyon. They didn’t know what would be lost when engineers from the Bureau set their sights on Glen Canyon during the dam-building heyday of the 1950s and 60s.

Glen Canyon has been described as “an eden in the desert” and “the lost Grand Canyon.” Early explorers like John Wesley Powell considered Glen Canyon to be one of the most beautiful stretches of the entire Colorado River system—even more spectacular than the Grand Canyon. To flood it today would not only be politically unfeasible, it would be illegal. The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 and The Endangered Species Act of 1973 compel all federal agencies to assess impacts of projects on species threatened with extinction, and perform thorough environmental reviews with public oversight. Had these laws existed before Glen Canyon Dam was commissioned in 1956, it would have never seen the light of day. The Glen Canyon–Grand Canyon region hosts a unique desert ecosystem, with a riparian corridor along the river that supports four now-endangered fish species.

Construction of the dam flooded 183 miles of the main canyon and hundreds more of little-known, but spectacular side canyons. The reservoir destroyed vibrant wildlife streamside and river terrace habitats. Before the dam, Glen Canyon was the biological heart of the Colorado River—home to 143 species of plants, 193 species of birds, and 34 species of mammals. Flooding inundated the fragile habitat, displacing wildlife and wreaking havoc on the entire ecosystem.

Not only did the dam destroy wildlife habitats in Glen Canyon, it’s put a stranglehold on the ecosystem downstream in the Grand Canyon. The Colorado is one of the most sediment-rich rivers in the world. As it cuts through a diverse range of geologic formations on its way through the Upper Colorado Basin, it collects nutrient-rich sediment that’s crucial to sustaining healthy fish populations. Once this sediment reaches Lake Powell, it sinks to the bottom of the reservoir, never to reach the Grand Canyon. This has devastated the Grand Canyon riparian corridor, as critical habitats are robbed of beach-building sediments and the nutrients they carry.

Compounding the effects of a nutrient-starved river, the water flowing through the penstocks near the bottom of the dam is unnaturally cold. At a frigid 40 degrees Fahrenheit, water entering the Grand Canyon puts several species of indigenous fish at risk. The pikeminnow (formerly the Colorado squawfish), the bonytail chub, the humpback chub, and the razorback sucker all thrive at 60–78 degrees Fahrenheit, or what used to be the normal river temperature through the Grand Canyon. Because the warm, silty water in which these fish species evolved no longer flows through the Grand Canyon, they are now endangered.

In 1994 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated the Colorado River in the Glen Canyon-Grand Canyon area as critical habitat for the survival of species like the humpback chub. In response to pressure from environmentalists, and under the power of the Endangered Species Act and the Grand Canyon Protection Act, the Bureau of Reclamation was forced to modify its water releases from Glen Canyon Dam to mitigate the negative impact on endangered species in the Grand Canyon. The modified flows prevent drastic daily fluctuations, and call for seasonal “high flow releases” to stir up sediment from tributaries in the canyon. While the reformed flows produce some relief in the form of nutrient-bearing and beach-forming sediment in the Grand Canyon, the relief is only temporary. When hydropower-maximizing flows resume, the cold, clear jets of water quickly cut through the wildlife-nourishing sediment beaches in the Grand Canyon.

Before the Dam: One of many cave drawings visible in the canyon before the dam. By Phil Pennington. View Photos...

Before the Dam: One of many cave drawings visible in the canyon before the dam. By Phil Pennington. View Photos…

While little can be done to restore the fragile ecosystem in the Grand Canyon with the dam blocking the river’s natural flow, the situation for the canyons upstream of the dam is actually a happier story. As a persistent water shortage has overcome the U.S. Southwest and lowered reservoir levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead, a spectacular metamorphosis is taking place in Glen Canyon. Believed to have been lost to Lake Powell forever, many side canyons have been resurrected back to life. Once under 30 or 50 feet of sediment, canyons like Fiftymile Creek, Lewellen Gulch, and Willow Gulch have emerged from the waters of Lake Powell, and have been restored back to their natural state.

Glen Canyon Institute recently visited one of Glen’s many side canyons with an author working on Patagonia’s DamNation book to document restored sections of the river. We camped out at Coyote Gulch and hiked down the Escalante River—one of the Colorado River’s tributaries that drains into Glen Canyon. Our hike began in a stretch of side-canyon that had previously been under water only several years ago. Marks of the reservoir could hardly be seen. The riverbed was clear and rocky, willows, cottonwoods, and grasses had reclaimed the streamside, and birdsong could be heard as we ventured further down the canyon.

For anyone who has visited restored sections of Glen Canyon, it’s clear that an unprecedented transformation is taking place. Canyons that had once been under 50 feet of water are now fully restored back to life, native flora and fauna have taken back their former habitats, and the sounds of trickling water from springs in the walls can be heard again. With numerous studies on Colorado River flows emerging every year, it’s becoming clear that neither Lakes Powell nor Mead will ever fill again. In addition, a study published in the Journal of the American Water Resources Association shows that prioritizing water storage in downstream Mead could save upwards of 300,000 acre-feet of water now lost to seepage in Powell—the same amount of water Nevada pulls from the river every year. Regardless of the mistakes society made in the past, it’s time to free the Colorado River through Glen Canyon and Grand Canyon. It’s time to Fill Lake Mead First.

Henrik grew up in Salt Lake City and is a proud supporter of Utah wilderness. He enjoys running, hiking, and backpacking in the Wasatch Mountains and Salt Lake Valley.

Photos and photo captions by Nick Woolley, founder of Backcountry Post and webmaster of Glen Canyon Rising.