by Dave Wegner, Science Director

Restore Glen Canyon. The mantra that Glen Canyon Institute has been shouting from the river banks for the last few years is beginning to be heard. All across the nation and the globe scientists, academicians, students, decision-makers and the public are contemplating the potential. Wallace Stegner called it developing the “Geography of Hope”. Today we are exploring the potential and seizing the opportunity to become active stewards and restorers of our landscape.

The potential of a restored Glen Canyon provides us a visceral feeling of worth and value. Some have stated this debate is only the longing of a few people trying to make David Brower feel whole again after the original battle for the Canyon and the River were lost. They couldn’t be more wrong. The desire to restore Glen Canyon goes far beyond wanting to right a wrong. We, as a society, must take a bold, innovative and rightful step toward long-term sustainability and ecological integrity.

Support for our proposal is growing because it makes sense. The rationale can roughly be broken into five broad categories:

1. Biological
2. Water quality
3. Physical
4. Economic
5. Spiritual


Ecosystem integrity is only as good as the system that supports it.

Millions of years ago, a dynamic river began carving the canyons and riverine habitats that evolved into the river system that Major John Wesley Powell explored in the 1860s. The Colorado River system is composed of hundreds of small tributaries and rivulets that formed an intricate and extensive series of canyons and ecosystems.

A unique assemblage of fish, amphibians, plants and insects evolved as the river defined itself. Cut off from the influences of other river basins and the oceans, the Colorado River developed an ecosystem that depended on a dynamic flow regime. The delicate balance of this system was upset by construction of dams.

Millions of dollars are spent each year in band-aid approaches to endangered species recovery in the Upper and Lower Colorado River Basins – the Upper Basin Endangered Fish Recovery Program, the Grand Canyon Monitoring Program, the San Juan Recovery Program, and the Lower Basin Multi-species Conservation Program. All are independent efforts funded through water, power and tax revenues. While biologists may make heroic efforts to do the right thing, the decision-makers, politicians and users continue to fragment the effort and the ecosystem.

The Department of the Interior just completed a fourteen year series of studies in the Grand Canyon. The $100 million EIS process concluded that modification of dam operations would help little.

What is missing? A connected riverine habitat system. Restoration of a free flowing Colorado River will provide habitats for endangered and native fish, spring habitats for amphibians and insects, and riparian areas where native birds can once again flourish. A dynamic river, a living river. Not a series of stagnant pools and constipated tailwaters.

Water Quality

The proof is in the data.

The Colorado River watershed is largely composed of sedimentary rocks laid down millions of years ago when the continent was periodically inundated by geologic seas and inland water bodies. As the seas advanced and retreated, erosion of the mountains and deposition of sediments resulted in rock layers that are high in salts and trace metals. The unimpeded Colorado River eroded these sediments, efficiently moving them on their journey to the sea.

Dam construction corrupted this cleansing system, creating sediment traps in the reservoirs. Lake Powell traps thousands of tons of sediment every year from the Upper Colorado River basin, which according to the Department of the Interior, harbors some of the worst water quality conditions in the nation due to the sediments that are being farmed and eroded.

The reservoir, with its growing sediment load, provides an environment where trace metals and salts can change from benign forms to ones that can migrate to the plankton and zooplankton, and right up the food chain. We are compounding the potential water quality problem annually. Is it fair to push this eventual toxic waste dump to future generations when we can do something about it now? Isn’t it our responsibility?

No one can predict how long it will be before the waste material becomes a real problem. A lot is contingent on annual runoff levels, conservation measures upstream, and the limnological conditions in the reservoir itself. However, based on Bureau of Reclamation projections, the reservoir will be repeatedly drawn down to meet downstream and upstream demands. The resulting exposure of the sediments will surely escalate the problem.

Large amounts of fossil fuels also end up in the reservoir. Every 4.4 years enough oil is spewed through the use of two-cycle engines to equal an Exxon Valdez oil spill. Some ends up in the air, and the remainder is dumped into the water. An unending series of Exxon Valdez spills would undoubtedly take its toll on water quality and sediments.

The Physical World

Does a reservoir in the desert really make sense?

At first sight of Lake Powell, many are smitten by the large, blue body of water set against the Navajo Sandstone. But beneath the surreal surface of the reservoir, there is another, unseen story that must be told.

Lost Water. Over 700,000 acre feet of water annually evaporates from the reservoir surface. This is enough to cover 700,000 acres of land with water, one foot deep – enough water to supply the Salt Lake City area for four years, or Los Angeles basin for one year. That is a lot of water, particularly in the arid desert southwest.

Water is also lost as it seeps into the banks of the reservoir, perhaps as much as several hundred thousand acre feet per year.

Sediments. Over 90% of the sediment that used to sustain the Grand Canyon and Colorado River downstream is now trapped behind the dam. These sediments carry with them the life sustaining nutrients necessary for ecological integrity. Grand Canyon needs a consistent resupply of sediments and water. Although Periodic artificial “floods” make for good story, they are only band-aids.

Hydrology and Dam Safety. Glen Canyon Dam is anchored in Navajo Sandstone, an aeolian deposit that has a propensity for spalling off and breaking apart. Geologists and engineers from the Bureau of Reclamation knew this when they constructed the dam. Their “solution” was to bolt the walls together downstream, and monitor landslides upstream. Reclamation records are replete with instances of falling Navajo sandstone and failure of joints once they were inundated with water.

Safety has always been an issue. In 1983 the spillways came very close to catastrophic failure on a relatively small flood. Yet the Bureau of Reclamation has not completed a dam failure inundation study below Glen Canyon Dam. This is standard practice when failure of a dam would place inhabitants downstream at risk. Are Grand Canyon’s 22,000 river runners per year, backpackers along the river corridor, and one of the crown jewels of the National Park System not sufficient justification for such a study?

Restoration of the canyons. Side canyons inundated by the reservoir, then slowly exposed over the next decade as the reservoir dropped nearly 100 feet, have demonstrated remarkable capacity for recovery. This evidence has been documented by comparison photographs, some of which will be presented at our fall conference. Once the sediments are exposed, the combined effects of summer rainstorms and spring runoff serve to cleanse the side canyons within twelve to twenty-four months – not the generations that some claim it will take.


Can restoration of Glen Canyon compete with the revenues generated from houseboats and jet skis?

Benefits are not always what they seem. Studies across the country have conclusively shown that the true costs for construction, maintenance, support, restoration, and long-term payback, outweigh benefits of big dams.

The only revenue directly produced by Glen Canyon Dam is from the sale of hydroelectricity. Electricity is sold at the lowest rate possible – only enough to meet the payback schedule of the original Colorado River Storage Project and its features. The heavily subsidized power generated by Glen Canyon Dam provides only 3% of the power for the four corner states of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona. Three percent – quite a tradeoff for the drowning of Glen Canyon.

No water is actually sold downstream. Some is consumed by the city of Page, Arizona, and some is used by the Navajo Generation Station for cooling, but the majority is allocated to the lower basin states (over 98%).

The Cost of recreation. Powerboaters and jet skiers spend a lot of money. The gas station at Dangling Rope Marina on the reservoir is purported to pump the most gas of any station in Utah. However, the true value of this recreation to local communities may be overestimated. How many of them buy their boats, supplies and equipment in Page? How many of them actually contribute to the community? The answer is not that many.

During the 1980s and ’90s, expensive, consumptive recreation toys became popular. How long can this be expected to last as the economy shifts? Already people are bemoaning the impact of the Asian economic crisis on tourism and hotel use.

We must also consider long term economic consequences, if the reservoir is allowed to become a vast, possibly toxic mud flat.

Surrounding communities should move toward a longer-term, sustainable, economic balance. Restoration, sustainable use of the resources, and development of an economy that builds on the natural beauty of the environment are much more desirable for the future.

Glen Canyon

The heart of the Colorado River system reunited with the soul of the Grand Canyon

Many of us can still recall the impact of our first images of the canyons and rivers of the Colorado Plateau. The breathtaking vistas, the surging waters, the vastness of the landscape caught us and has held us close. It is well known from archeological and anthropologic studies that native cultures treated the landscape as unique and special. The soul of the land created a spiritual bond with them as it does with us today.

Today many of the places for the soul and psyche are gone – condominiums, developments, expansion explosions, encroachment, all the features that some consider to be “progress”, take a little bit more away from our past. Gradually we are relegated to remembering our favorite spots through coffee table books, videos, or oral history. Places like Glen Canyon and Grand Canyon increase in value. They increase in value because they are places of the soul. They are places where we can escape and find that geography of hope of which Wallace Stegner wrote.

The Colorado River system is composed of special places – a landscape defined by rivers, and shaped by mother nature. We have a responsibility to take care of it.

Intrinsic and External Values

The power of restoring Glen Canyon lies in many factors, and in our hearts and souls.

We all come to this discussion on restoring Glen Canyon from different places. We will never be able to recover the ecosystem that existed in 1869 when Major Powell first laid his eyes on it. Too many people and exotic species, too much encroachment. What we can do is provide the ability for natural physical processes and healing powers of the river to restore a functioning environment.

No one can predict the outcome, but we do know that restoration will begin immediately once the reservoir is drawn down. We do know that right now we still have the building blocks for the biological and physical systems to let the process begin. And we do know that the river and canyons are important to the people of this great nation and to the world. A restored ecosystem will provide economic and spiritual opportunities unrivaled in the world.

The issue of restoring Glen Canyon does hold a mighty power over many of us. The opportunity, the need, the time and the place. Right here, right now we must assert our responsibility.