Landscape Photography Blogger’s 100th Blog Post
For more about why dams are bad for rivers and how dams are being removed in a grassroots nationwide movement to restore the main arteries of life on Earth see the blog post, “A River Will Run Through It.” For more on how reservoirs infringe on wilderness read the blog post, “The Making of ‘Rainbow Bridge from the Upstream Side.’”
A Lament for Glen Canyon by Philip Hyde 1
Originally published in The Living Wilderness Magazine September 1980
(See the photograph full screen Click Here.)
Burn another candle to the memory of Glen Canyon—this time for a remnant of the great Utah-Arizona canyon system that most lovers of that rugged country thought safe from the clutches of the sprawling reservoir behind Glen Canyon Dam. This time for the mouth of Coyote Gulch, that fine water-sculptured meeting of Coyote with the beautiful Escalante Canyon. And for an Escalante stretch above their junction.
Why in memoriam? Because after 17 years of waiting for the filling of the reservoir euphemistically named “Lake” Powell, this spring it finally happened. And as it did, a lot of people discovered one more error in the calculations made in the planning of Glen Canyon Dam. The maps for the reservoir area originally showed that the maximum pool (highest water level) would reach only to a point well below the Coyote mouth. This June, however, a surge of spring runoff from an unusually heavy snowpack on the Colorado River’s headwaters in the Rockies brought the reservoir level to its operational maximum (3,700 feet above sea level) for the first time since the gates of the dam’s diversion tunnels were closed in 1963. The surge flooded a sixth of a mile or so of Coyote Gulch to a depth of as much as 11 feet and backed up about a quarter of a mile beyond Coyote in the Escalante River Canyon. Thus it proved, the maps were wrong.
Hikers who had thought this the province of land-based, self-powered exploration and enjoyment suddenly found themselves cut off from access, unless they had a boat. Cut off from Escalante Canyon upstream, from the wonderful climb over ledges to the base of Stevens Arch, from Stevens Canyon.
No great loss, says the renamed Bureau of Reclamation (now the Water and Power Resources Service—WAPRS, pronounced woppers), which built and operates the dam. The hikers can swim, or float across on their air mattresses, or scramble up the ledges on a newly cairned detour trail that will even save the hurried some time over the old creek-bed route. Maybe just as well, agrees the National Park Service, which manages visitation in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Coyote was getting too much use anyway, and the water might help divert users to other Escalante entrances—although not the motorboaters, who already are acknowledging their own improved access to the Escalante and Coyote with deposits of beer cans and other “garbage.” “The wilderness ethic of boaters is different,” says an Escalante ranger.
Coyote is indeed wilderness, as is the rest of the superlatively wild Escalante canyon system, although not yet legally so. The lower dozen of Coyote’s 18 miles (as the crow flies) are part of a 588,855-acre Glen Canyon Wilderness proposal (another 49,000 acres could be added later) already recommended by the Secretary of the Interior and awaiting clearance for presidential submission to Congress. The balance of the gulch is on Bureau of Land Management lands, but BLM favors adding it to the recreation area and wilderness unit. But Lake Powell’s clutching fingers are complicating the wilderness prospect, too. Because Congress gave dam needs priority over all else in Glen Canyon, planners decided to make the wilderness boundary the reservoir water line. Thus when Lake Powell expands, the bordering wilderness would diminish. Sometimes Coyote’s mouth would be in, sometimes out. Therefore, what would be its status? “It’s a slippery one,” admits one official.
Park Rangers already are trying to manage the Coyote Gulch and the Escalante River as de facto wilderness, and they are understandably worried not only about the littering by the boaters but by campfire rings and other problems of growing public use. This fall they expect to introduce a permit system in order to control use and combat abuses. This is to the good. But there doesn’t seem to be much official concern about the direct impacts of the flooding—the lasting water damage to canyon walls desert-varnished by eons, or the mess left by silt and debris that collect at the reservoir slack water, or worse, the permanent dirty “bathtub ring” that any fluctuating reservoir inevitably leaves behind, and that Lake Powell will too.
Obviously, the former Bureau of Reclamation had a point to make: that it could fill a reservoir whose benefits and cost justification were based on miscalculation of the amount of water available in the Colorado River. One could use the services of an investigative-reporter team, or perhaps an indefatigable Ph.D. candidate armed with the Freedom of Information Act, to find out just how close Glen Canyon Dam has come to paying off anything during these 17 years of painfully slow filling of the reservoir…
Continued in the next blog post, “Glen Canyon Lament By Philip Hyde 2”
To read more about Philip Hyde and the defense of wild places, see the tribute blog post, “Celebrating Wilderness By William Neill.” For more on Glen Canyon and the photographs of it by Philip Hyde see the blog posts, “Glen Canyon Portfolio 1,” “Glen Canyon Portfolio 2” and “Glen Canyon Portfolio 3.”