The lost canyon under Lake Powell
While we were talking, another boat stopped. Nine people – most of them children – climbed out. They looked around in horror. “We are so sad,” said the oldest woman in the group, who turned out to be the children’s grandmother.
She pointed to a yellow string about ten meters long that hung at the top of the waterfall. When the lake level began to drop, someone must have attached it to the rock – I couldn’t quite say how. It was then possible to dangle from the line and jump into the water, and the kids had loved it. Now the rope was only about halfway up the waterfall, and if there had been a way to get there, jumping into the pool would have been fatal.
The woman’s husband, wearing a Lake Powell hat, seemed suspicious as I took notes. He asked me if I was for or against the reservoir. I tried to avoid the question by saying I was a reporter. The group I was with, I admitted, was definitely anti.
“I understand the debate,” he said. “But the number of people enjoying or visiting this place compared to the number who would if it weren’t for the water is astronomical.”
“Every time we come to Lake Powell it’s an adventure,” said the woman. “But this year is shockingly disappointing. It’s amazing how much water has sunk in just one year. “
“We’re on the side that is grateful to the lake,” said her husband.
Lake Powell is named after a major in the Union Army, John Wesley Powell, who lost an arm in the Battle of Shiloh. Powell served as the second director of the US Geological Survey and organized the first documented ascent of Longs Peak, the highest peak in what is now Rocky Mountain National Park. But he’s probably best known for a daring expedition that he led down the Green River and Colorado Rivers in 1869. In the spring of that year he set out with nine men and four wooden boats. (One of the boats soon splintered on a rock.) As Powell and his crew explored the largely unknown rivers, they named many of the geological features they encountered – Flaming Gorge, Disaster Falls, Desolation Canyon. A particularly punishing forty-five kilometer stretch of river they called Cataract Canyon. After Powell and his men had spent a week running the Cataract Rapids, they were relieved to find themselves floating on calm water. Powell noted in his diary that this quieter stretch of river offered a number of wonderful sights.
“Past these towering monuments, past these orange sandstone hills, past these oak-covered valleys, past these fern-covered niches, past these wall curves, we glide hour after hour and stop every now and then when our attention is drawn a new miracle is captured, ”he wrote. He named this stretch Glen Canyon.
Powell spent the next several years conducting government-funded surveys in the West. In 1878 he summarized his findings in a “Report on the countries of the arid regions of the United States”, which was given to the Secretary of the Interior. In the report, Powell argued that the West should be viewed almost as a separate country. It shouldn’t – yes couldn’t – be divided up into sixty-acres as the Midwest had been; It didn’t rain enough for a farm this size to feed a family. Instead, he recommended distributing the plots using a formula that takes into account their proximity to the water. (Although he was very interested in Native American languages and cultures, Powell seems never to have questioned the idea of giving their land to white homesteaders.) He went on to suggest organizing the western states by watershed, and that steps are taken to ensure that the region’s scarce water resources are fairly distributed.
All of his recommendations were ignored. The federal government continued to distribute 150 acres of parcels, many of which were fraudulently obtained from companies or families who had amassed huge populations by playing the system. Cities began to emerge in places like the Mojave Desert, with barely enough rainfall to please a scorpion. Of course, its residents had to fetch water from somewhere, and that was usually the Colorado.
There were so many claims on the river in the 1920s that the White House was forced to step in. Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover was posted to Santa Fe to lead the negotiations that led to the Colorado River Compact. The contract was finalized in the fall of 1922 and divided the river at a point in northern Arizona called Lee’s Ferry. The states upstream of Lee’s Ferry – Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming – along with New Mexico came to be known as the Upper Basin. Together these states were allocated 7.5 million acres of river water annually. Those in the lower basin – California, Arizona, and Nevada – also received 7.5 million acres of feet per year, plus an additional million as sweeteners. (Later Mexico would be promised another 1.5 million acre-feet per year.)
The compact, paved – or, if you prefer, lubricated – pathway used to create the country’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Lake Mead lies behind the Hoover Dam, which was completed in 1935 and designed for the lower basin. Today, it provides virtually all of the water used in Las Vegas and much of what is drunk in cities like San Diego and Tucson. It also provides water for irrigation of more than 3 million acres of corn, cotton, and alfalfa – or supplied it earlier when it was full.
Lake Powell, which serves the upper basin, supplies many of them with water. The water released by Powell flows into Marble Canyon, then through the Grand Canyon and into Mead. In this sense, Powell is a reservoir for a reservoir. It is unclear whether this regulation ever made sense. Mead should have plenty of water during periods of high flow. And what is the point of damming the Colorado in low water phases on its way to Lake Mead?
“You can search and search and search,” wrote Mathew Gross, a Utah-based writer and policy advisor. However, if you want to know why Lake Powell was created, “you will never find a satisfactory answer.” When I asked Jack Schmidt, a professor at Utah State University’s Center for Colorado River Studies, to explain the logic behind Powell, he laughed for almost a minute. “That’s a wonderful question,” he said finally.
While I was talking to the disappointed family at Cathedral in the Desert, another boat appeared, and then another. Since the lake was overcrowded and there were only a few campsites, Balken thought we should find a place he had imagined, in a side canyon of the Escalante, known as Davis Gulch. When we got there, we found a houseboat with a slide anchored at anchor.
We continued up the canyon, which twisted in winding curves. Along the rock, parallel to the surface of the lake, stretched an unbroken band of white, straight like a ruler. This band is visible all over Lake Powell. It consists of minerals that the reservoir has deposited on the sandstone when it is full and that were exposed when the water level fell. It is known as the “bathtub ring” and is now the height of the Statue of Liberty. As the gorge narrowed, I could see that the ring was divided into two different layers. The top layer was brilliant white; the lower layer was speckled with innumerable black dots. The dots, explained Balken, are quagga clams. Native to the Black Sea, the clams arrived in Powell about a decade ago, probably on a visitor boat, and reproduced frantically. The “quagga line” as I imagined it shows how far the surface of the lake has sunk since the number of mussels exploded.
After a few more turns, we started on a red mud strip. It was afternoon and the heat was paralyzing. Balken promised “new wonders” to anyone willing to hike up the canyon. Yang refused. The rest of us hopped off. Balken guessed we were standing on a layer of river sediment twenty or thirty feet deep, all of which had been deposited since Lake Powell was formed.
The wind had come up and somehow it just seemed to get hotter. We meandered up the canyon and followed the Davis Gulch creek of the same name. About half a mile from the boat, a huge opening appeared in the rock face above us. It was called La Gorce Arch, it was a window or a porthole in the rock, or, I thought, a black eye. Although the gorge was in shadow, the sky from La Gorce was brilliant. The bathtub ring reached to the point where, if it had been an eye, the lower lashes would be. When Lake Powell was full, Balken said, the arch was a popular destination and people drove there. “In 2019 you could still go in by boat,” he recalls. That afternoon we had the place to ourselves.
As we hiked on, Balken kept pointing out signs of a recurring life. “There is a happy pasture,” he once said. “There’s a poplar,” he said to another. Every tadpole we spotted brought a murmur of approval. Even a dead beaver, with its buck teeth sticking out of its rotting skull, seemed to please Beam.
“If you added up all of these streams and seepage, it’s hundreds of miles of shore habitats coming back,” he said. My husband noted that it was a bit uncomfortable to celebrate the effects of what is considered a disaster by most standards.
“I have to admit a little glee,” said Balken.
In Abbey’s novel “The Monkeywrench Gang,” a character named Seldom Seen Smith calls Lake Powell “the blue death.” (The character was modeled after a real river guide named Ken Sleight, who drove through Glen Canyon in the 1950s and fought to keep it safe from damming.) Lake Powell drowned countless creatures and indirectly killed countless others by drowning them Food supply. Death reached well beyond the confines of Glen Canyon. The reservoir changed the flow of the Colorado through the Grand Canyon, changing its ecosystem as well. Today, several of its native fish species, including the Colorado pikeminnow and the bonytail chub, are critically endangered.