Book Review on the Biggest Conservation Story of All Time and New Solutions… Resurrection: Glen Canyon and a New Vision for the American West by Annette McGivney with Photographs by James Kay and Foreword by Bill McKibben (Braided River, 2009)
How We Lost Glen Canyon
In the mid 1950s, David Brower, Executive Director of the Sierra Club, led a coalition of conservation groups in an effort to permanently banish industrial development from national park lands. The primary battle defending the sanctity of the national park system was over two dams proposed inside Dinosaur National Monument. The proposed dams in Dinosaur would have flooded 96 out of 104 river miles in the monument on the Yampa and Green Rivers.
David Brower in Congressional testimony used 9th Grade math to prove that if Glen Canyon Dam were higher, it could hold back and store more water than both proposed dams in Dinosaur. Congress removed the two dams in Dinosaur National Monument from the Colorado River Compact and passed the bill approving the construction of Glen Canyon Dam. Having never seen Glen Canyon, David Brower and many others did not know the extent or nature of the sacrifice made to protect the national park system. Looking back, especially after he floated through Glen Canyon on the Colorado River for the first time in 1958, David Brower mused that he and the coalition might have pushed on and possibly succeeded in saving Glen Canyon. (For more on David Brower see the blog post, “David Brower: Photographer and Environmentalist 1.”
Ironically, before World War II, Glen Canyon had been part of a proposed national park that would have encompassed more than two million acres spread across much of Southeastern Utah including most of what are now Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Capitol Reef National Park and all of Glen Canyon. The attack on Pearl Harbor interrupted these discussions and turned the attention of Congress to preparations for war.
Drought, Distortions, Glen Canyon Dam And A New Dream Of The West
The Bureau of Reclamation closed the gates on Glen Canyon Dam in 1964, but “Lake” Powell did not reach full capacity until 1980. The reservoir water level ebbed and flowed until the last time it was full in 1996, then drew down over 100 feet by 2003 and has remained nearly half empty or more than half empty ever since. It turns out that the Colorado River flow calculations that justified the building of Glen Canyon Dam in the first place were exaggerated, as were the rainfall estimates on which expansion and development interests based the entire settlement of the Western US plains and Southwestern desert. Tree ring studies and other climate measures show that the 20th Century was one of the wettest ever in the Western US. Today’s much lower rainfall and river flow rates are more characteristic of the region, though big dam proponents are officially calling the present conditions a drought. Nonetheless, scientists project that “Lake” Powell may never be full again. Odds are that both “Lake” Mead and “Lake” Powell will both remain as they are now, roughly half full or less for the foreseeable future.
Annette McGivney, in Resurrection: Glen Canyon and a New Vision for the American West, tells the story of the loss of Glen Canyon, but more importantly the rebirth of life in the side canyons since the reservoir has subsided. Glen Canyon today is the poster child for watershed recovery for both Glen and Grand Canyon, as well as for the resilience of nature in general. McGivney’s easy-flowing text accompanies the photography of James Kay, who for more than three decades has photographed the Colorado Plateau, the seismically uplifted high desert that the Colorado River cuts through in Utah and Arizona. James Kay knows this land and these canyons. His sensitive, artistic eye finds for us the devastation that was, and the haunting, unparalleled paradise that is Glen Canyon.
McGivney and Kay explored many of the tributary canyons together for this project, either by boat, by kayak, but most often on foot, backpacking from the reservoir up canyon; or from the rims of the sandstone tablelands above, down into narrow, winding passages and rock alcoves. These slot canyons, often hundreds of feet tall and in places only a few feet wide, are already verdant with newly rooted cottonwoods, willows, and grasses, as well as teaming with wildlife just as they had been for centuries before everything drowned under the full reservoir.
Annette McGivney quotes Richard Ingebretsen, co-founder with David Brower of Glen Canyon Institute, who asked, “Why keep two reservoirs half empty?” Glen Canyon Institute, founded for the ultimate purpose of reclaiming Glen Canyon and turning it into a national park, is working on a current campaign called, “Fill Mead First.” The idea is to keep “Lake” Mead full because it supplies many cities of the Southwest with water and generates their electricity. If “Lake” Powell were then drawn down, Glen Canyon could be restored and even made into a national park. Many who saw Glen Canyon before the reservoir say that it rivaled the Grand Canyon in beauty.
Canyon Photography On Par With The Best Ever
James Kay’s photographs in Resurrection certainly provide the proof of this claim to canyon beauty. Traveling by Kayak, powerboat and most often on foot, Kay has shown us as never before, the side canyons and back alcoves of Glen Canyon reborn. His style is both effectively documentary, yet artistically strong. Kay’s experience in the canyons of the Southwest has given him not just an eye for form; he has an eye for gracefully capturing the forms of canyons. His understanding of natural light and how to use it to best portray the curves, edges, near and far, contrasts, shadows and indirect illumination of layers on layers of weather-sculpted sandstone.
Some of Kay’s compositions are simple. For example, one photograph in Resurrection depicts a massive wall of rock that juts out into “Lake” Powell like the prow of a ship. The vantage point of the image is from a boat close to water level. At the bottom of the wall that is about 200 feet tall, we see a small boat dwarfed by the immensity of stone above. The photograph is a work of beauty, while at the same time it accomplishes the practical task of dramatizing just how far the reservoir has receded from the high water line marked by a gray-tan mud stain, or “bathtub ring,” as people call it. The top half of the cliff is the beautiful red-brown of native rock, while the bottom half of the cliff is coated with ugly mud stain.
Other images give us the haunting, far away longing of luminous reflections or newly sprouted grasses, shrubs, cottonwoods and other lush greenery. Some photographs are purposely ugly, some are otherworldly and nearly abstract, while still others incorporate hikers in soaring walled narrows or show us intimate rushing water. If you love the desert and canyons, this is a book and a place different. Yet despite how unusual this place is, those who see it as nothing more than a holding tank, a cash register or a recreation area for motorized tourism, have seemingly never stopped to see it the way James Kay shares it.
The Desert, Progress, Jobs, Money And Other Myths
Despite US Bureau of Reclamation and pro-development rhetoric, the only two justifiable reasons Glen Canyon Dam was ever necessary, and remotely remains necessary, were the Politics surrounding the agreement between the seven Western states that share the water; and the Income from recreation on “Lake” Powell. The viability of Hydropower generation has nearly run out with low water levels often not providing enough gravity water drop to turn the turbines at sufficient speed. Besides, the 1992 Grand Canyon Protection Act no longer allows the fluctuation of water levels caused by increased dam releases during peak power usage.
Politically in relation to water use, the three Upper Colorado River Basin states: Utah, Colorado and Wyoming, for good reason mistrust the four lower basin states: California, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico. The lower basin states have all along taken more than their share of Colorado River water. Glen Canyon Dam provides a physical obstruction by which the upper states can regulate the flow to the lower states and keep them from taking more than their allotment, if and when the upper states catch up with the lower states in their land development and thirst for water.
Even though the desert does not inherently provide the water to support the building of industry and commercial buildings, suburbs, golf courses, and abundant water features, the seven Western states of the Colorado River system have been in a race to develop as fast as they can to be sure they obtain as much Colorado River water as possible in relation to the neighboring states. John Wesley Powell, whom the reservoir was named after, warned against developing the West beyond its water capacity. He recommended a number of water saving approaches that have been implemented by a few wise communities, but ignored by most.
Indeed, McGivney reminds us that the cities of the desert tend to flaunt the image of the manufactured oasis. The Phoenix Convention and Visitors Bureau in 2005 adopted the slogan, “The Desert is a Myth.” A July hike in any direction beyond the edge of a Phoenix suburb like Anthem, for instance, and it becomes readily apparent that the desert is real and it is the lush golf courses that perhaps are already, or soon will be a mirage. Land development in the West has achieved similar temporary high profits and blindness to long-term consequences as recent Wall Street derivative speculation and the banking system near meltdown.
Nonetheless, it is less the cities that would run dry without “Lake” Powell than the farming of water-intensive crops like alfalfa, hay and cotton, grown not to supply market demand, but to take advantage of government subsidies and tax breaks. Dams are portrayed as symbolizing progress and economic growth, but special interests are the primary benefactors. In Utah, for example, mining, ranching and industrial agriculture represent less than 3% of the economy, but they use 85% of Utah’s water. Even though industrial agriculture comprises a decreasing portion of the Western economy, the industry is one of the largest contributors to political campaigns. Thus, even though dam projects, expanded water pipelines and other water infrastructure will not sustain society long-term, these outdated public works continue to garner support of those in political power.
A Dying Motor Tourism Industry And The Future
The motorized brand of tourism that thrived on “Lake” Powell in the 1980s and 1990s, has generated significant income for concessionaires and boat operators, who also provide proportionally large support to politicians and boost the local economy. In 1992, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area hosted a record 3.5 million visitors, nearly as many at this peak as visited the Grand Canyon. Yet today with the shrinkage of the “lake” area, the closure of two out of five of the marinas and high gasoline prices area hotel stays and other tourism has dropped by 40 percent. Nearby national parks such as the Grand Canyon and Zion each increased visitation in the last decade. Indeed, the economy is playing a major role in the dying of motorized tourism nearly everywhere. Less disposable income, especially among the upper-middle class and upper class has led to less motorized lake recreation. In the past many high earning tourists have spent discretionary money on Jet Skis, Houseboat shares and other expensive water toys, but in the last 10 years public lands hiking and camping has grown, while motor boating has decreased significantly. Local jobs in Page, Arizona and elsewhere around “Lake” Powell have depended almost entirely on motor tourism. Most local people, including the Native Americans in the area, want to prolong a dying industry to maintain their livelihoods. While denying that their way of life is dying, they are likely missing the opportunities and shift in perspective that could bring them a far more sustainable, Earth-friendly and perhaps most importantly, a more permanent security.
McGivney’s “Step-by-step guide to saving Glen Canyon and then, perhaps the world” offers the kind of forward thinking solutions that thought leaders have begun to discuss in recent years. While these innovative resolutions will become requirements, rather than options in the near future, as a civilization we have a big leap to negotiate before we are ready to leave our self-serving short-term approaches behind and move into a mindset that is more conducive to sustaining our society and all life on Earth. This is perhaps the text’s only flaw, or perhaps it is more of a challenge: the leap from where our watershed management and environmental stewardship are now to where they need to be to sustain life in the Southwest and on Earth long range may be too big. Are we up to the task? Perhaps an even better question is: can we learn to cooperate with, listen to, find new ways to meet the needs of and educate those who have a vested interest in business as it has been for far too long?