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Sierra Magazine
Let the River Run Through It

More than forty years ago David Brower made a mistake. Now he says it's time to bring Glen Canyon back to life.

by David R. Brower

"Glen Canyon died, and I was partly responsible for its needless death," I wrote in The Place No One Knew, a Sierra Club book published in 1963. "Neither you nor I, nor anyone else, knew it well enough to insist that at all costs it should endure. When we began to find out it was too late.

On January 2, 1963, the last day on which the execution of one of the planet's greatest scenic antiquities could yet have been spared, the man who theoretically had the power to save the place did not. I was within a few feet of his desk in Washington that day and witnessed how the forces long at work had their way. So a steel gate dropped, choking off the flow of the canyon's carotid artery, and from that moment the canyon's life force ebbed quickly. A huge reservoir, absolutely not needed in this century, almost certainly not needed in the next, and conceivably never to be needed at all, began to fill."

But as surely as we made a mistake years ago, we can reverse it now. We can drain Lake Powell and let the Colorado River run through the dam that created it, bringing Glen Canyon and the wonder of its side canyons back to life. We can let the river do what it needs to do downstream in the Grand Canyon itself.

We don't need to tear the dam down, however much some people would like to see it go. Together the dam's two diversion tunnels can send 200,000 cubic feet of water per second downstream, twice as much as the Colorado's highest flows. Once again Grand Canyon would make its own sounds and, if you listened carefully, you would hear it sighing with relief. The dam itself would be left as a tourist attraction, like the Pyramids, with passers-by wondering how humanity ever built it, and why.

Glen Canyon Dam was a power project pure and simple, built to provide a bank account for the Colorado River Storage Project, which financed high-cost agriculture, wasteful dams, and violated the spirit of the water-development agreement between the Colorado River states and Mexico. Hydropower dams were the darling of developers in this century's middle decades. They are now essentially irrelevant, but dam lovers don't know it yet.

Except for a minor diversion at Page, Arizona, and the 30,000 acre-feet delivered annually to the nearby coal-fired power plant, all the water not lost to evaporation or leaks is diverted to users downstream at Lake Mead and below. Lake Mead's Hoover Dam can control the Colorado River without Lake Powell and can produce more power if Powell's water is stored behind it‹saving massive amounts of money, water, and wild habitat. Economics and ecology are ready to team up on this one.

It is well worth considering how had we managed to get as far as we did, considering the power of the special interests prevailing at the time? I had testified longer than anyone else about the major laws of the Colorado River Storage Project. I was helped by Walter L. Huber (former Sierra Club president and President Eisenhower's key advisor on dams, who spotted the underengineering by Bureau of Reclamation engineers); by the Engineers Joint Council (which included reclamation engineers they didn't wish to offend, but didn't mind if I did); by Luna Leopold (hydrologist of the U.S. Geological Survey, who spotted their overengineering. by Bob Sawyer (formerly with the Hoover Commission, who told me things Herbert Hoover didn't want me to repeat); by General U.S. Grant III (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who first discovered Reclamation engineers' miscalculations on reservoir evaporation); by Mallinkrodt's P.R. experts, donated to us by Mr. Mallinkrodt at the suggestion of former Club president, Francis Farquhar); and by California's Colorado River Board engineers (who wanted, possibly, to preserve western Colorado residents' opportunity to watch the Colorado river flow by‹on its way to California users).

We were also helped enormously by top Republican conservationist John Saylor of Pennsylvania; by Club president-to-be Harold Bradley (son of a charter member of the Club) and by most of his seven sons‹especially physicist Richard C. Bradley of Colorado College, who helped expose the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's uncertainties about evaporation); by Howard Zahniser (The Wilderness Society's executive secretary and certainly the most tireless of Washington lobbyists); by John B. Oakes (the Editorial Page Editor of The New York Times and Club director-to-be), by Charles Eggert (producer of the Club's very effective film, Wilderness River Trail, which the Bureau of Reclamation secretly admired), and Philip Hyde and Martin Litton (who had the still photographs we desperately needed and used extensively); by Alfred Knopf, who published This Is Dinosaur: Echo Park Country and Its Magic Rivers, edited by Wallace Stegner, a book put in the hands of each member of Congress by Trustees for Conservation, organized by the Sierra Club to lobby for Dinosaur.

Conservation organizations often forget to mention the other conservation organizations they frequently need and get help from. I'd rather remember. The Dinosaur effort was fueled and refueled by stalwarts from the National Parks Association (Fred Packard, Sigurd Olson, Dev Butcher, and Charles Woodbury), the National Wildlife Federation (Charles Callison and Stewart Brandborg), and by Joseph W. Penfold (The Izaak Walton League), who gave us the great line, "Bureau of Reclamation engineers are like beaver; they can't stand t he sight of running water." I stood by my ninth-grade arithmetic, which resulted in the Bureau of Reclamation's being awarded "A Rubber Slide Rule, for Stretching the Truth" by The Salt Lake Tribune.

It is worth noting that the former Colorado Governor Ed Johnson testified that the CRSP violated the Colorado River Compact, which governs the allocation of Colorado River waters and which has precedence over the laws of Congress. Congress ignored it. Of particular relevance, the CSRP was incompatible with Sierra Club policy providing that no major scenic resource should be sacrificed for a power project. the Club board violated that one by backing down on Glen Canyon dam in 1956.

While serving on the Club's board in 1949, I was persuaded to vote for two Grand Canyon dams, and for building Glen Canyon reservoir as a silt trap. In the first months of the battle for Dinosaur National Monument, I even urged the construction of a higher Glen Canyon dam as a way to save Dinosaur and reduce overall evaporation from the Colorado River Storage Project. Utah river runners straightened me out. But in 1956 the Club directors instructed me, then executive director, to end the club's opposition to the construction of the dam at Glen Canyon if the two dams proposed upstream in Dinosaur were dropped. Instead of flying home immediately and calling for a special meeting, I just sat in Washington and watched the mayhem proceed.

In a 1992 documentary in which I almost tearfully took the blame for Glen Canyon, producer John DeGraff kindly attributed my problem to my not having seen Glen before offering to give it away. I knew better: Wallace Stegner had told me, "Strictly between us, doesn't hold a candle to Glen." I have worn sackcloth and ashes ever since, convinced that I could have saved the place if I had simply got off my duff.

The fact is, though, Glen Canyon is still there. With that thought in mind, I've turned from regret to restoration. In 1995 I debated former Bureau of Reclamation commissioner Floyd Dominy, builder of more dams than anybody, Glen Canyon among them. When I proposed restoring Glen Canyon, Dominy was not ready to concede, but I think the audience was. I pushed the proposal harder in 1996 before 1,600 people gathered at the University of Utah. They gave enthusiastic support. The toughest question I got was about how long it would take the tamarisk, a notoriously invasive exotic, to recover. I fudged the answer: "Twenty-five minutes."

Then on November 16, 1996, an entity that had blocked my opposition to the creation of Lake Powell in 1956, the Sierra Club board, unanimously backed my motion to drain it. I suddenly felt about 30 years younger.

One of the strongest selling points comes from the Bureau of Reclamation itself. In 1996, the Bureau found that almost a million acre-feet, or 8 percent of the river's flow, disappeared between the stations recording the reservoir's inflow and outflow. Almost 600,000 acre-feet were presumed lost to evaporation. Nobody knows for sure about the rest. The Bureau said some of the loss was a gain‹being stored in the banks of the reservoir‹but it has no idea how much of that gain it will ever get back. Some bank storage is recoverable, but all too likely the region's downward-slanting geological strata are leading some of Powell's waters into the dark unknown. It takes only one drain to empty a bathtub, and we don't know where, when, or how the Powell tub leaks. A million acre-feet could meet the annual domestic needs of 4 million people and at today's prices are worth $435 million in the Salt Lake City area‹more than a billion on my hill in Berkeley, California.

But these numbers are moving upward. As Powell rises, fills with sediment, and spreads out across the landscape (it peaked at 88 percent of capacity last year) the losses will be even larger. They could mount to 1.5 million acre-feet per year before Sierra's middle-aged readers are my age (in their 80s), which won't take as long as we'd like. And what is an acre-foot likely to be worth when my grandson David Brower comes of age? When I was his age farmers objected to having to pay $5 an acre-foot. What has happened in the last decade or two is interesting, but what will happen in the next century or two is critical. (Powell is supposed to last at least three centuries, but malpractice in the Colorado's watershed‹clearcutting, grazing, and other erosive forces‹will shorten its life.)

Whatever the final details of Lake Powell's water losses turn out to be, the draining of the lake simply has to happen. The river and the regions dependent upon it, including Baja California and the Gulf of California, can no longer afford the unconscionable loss of water. We need to get rid immediately of the illusion that the only way to protect water rights is by wasting water in Lake Powell. We can simply let the flow reach Lee's Ferry, Arizona (the dividing point between the Upper and Lower basins), naturally, beautifully, and powered by gravity at no cost.

Draining Lake Powell means more water for the Colorado River states and Mexico, especially Colorado and Utah. The hundreds of millions of dollars now being lost, growing to billions in the future, should be enough to give even Bill Gates pause.

The sooner we begin, the sooner lost paradises will begin to recover‹Cathedral in the Desert, Music Temple, Hidden Passage, Dove Canyon, Little Arch, Dungeon, and a hundred others. Glen Canyon itself can probably lose its ugly white sidewalls in two or three decades. The tapestries can re-emerge, along with the desert varnish, the exiled species of plants and animals, the pictographs and other mementos of people long gone. The canyon's music will be known again, and "the sudden poetry of springs," Wallace Stegner's beautiful phrase, will be revealed again below the sculptured walls of Navajo sandstone. The phrase, "as long as the rivers shall run and the grasses grow," will regain its meaning.

The candle conservationists lit to remember the things lost in Glen Canyon can be put back on the shelf, and, let us pledge, be left there. In time, Glen Canyon will reassert itself, through the action of wind and water. And we will learn what Alexander Pope knew: "And finer forms are in the quarry/Than ever Angelo evoked." Once again, for all our time, the river can run through it.

David R. Brower, executive director of the Sierra Club from 1952 to 1969, has been a Club member 63 years and on the Sierra Club board of directors a total of 18 years, including this one. "If this plan works, I'll go quietly," he says. He has threatened to put a tachometer on his headstone, however, "to indicate how fast I'm spinning if the Bureau acts up."

The Glen Canyon Institute can provide more information about restoring Glen Canyon, either on its World Wide Web site or by mail or phone, 476 East South Temple, #154, Salt Lake City, Utah 84111; (801) 322-0064. The Sierra Club's work to revive the canyon is being coordinated through its Colorado River Task Force, c/o Office of Volunteer and Activist Services, 85 Second St., San Francisco, CA 94105-3441; e-mail:

A new 96-page book, Glen Canyon Before Lake Powell, offers a pictorial journey of what once was‹and what could be. It is available for $25 (paper) or $150 (silk) from Inskip Ink, 366 East 100 North, Moab, UT 84532; (801) 259-8452. The classic on the topic is The Place No One Knew (Sierra Club, 1966).

(C) 2000 Sierra Club. Reproduction of this article is not permitted without permission. Contact for more information.

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