Sierra Magazine

The Comeback Canyon

Drought is draining Lake Powell

There aren’t many silver linings to drought, but severe conditions in the Southwest are doing what the mighty U.S. Bureau of Reclamation won’t do. Since 1996, the Sierra Club and other groups have led a campaign to drain Lake Powell, which (when full) holds 7.8 trillion gallons of Colorado River water behind the agency’s 710-foot-tall Glen Canyon Dam near the Arizona-Utah border. Until recently, environmentalists could only rely on aging photos and lyrical accounts by the likes of Ed Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and explorer John Wesley Powell to convey a sense of the breathtaking arches and alcoves, labyrinthine side canyons, and sheer walls that were relegated to a watery tomb in 1966.

But five years of drought have provided a chance for all to see what parts of Glen Canyon looked like before the imprisoned waters of the Colorado and its tributaries transformed the stark, redrock gorge into a playground for houseboats and a source for hydropower and irrigation. Utah photographer James Kay visited the Escalante River’s Cathedral in the Desert, a soothing grotto with sandstone walls that was revealed when lake levels dropped by 90 feet. Today, about 20 feet of water cover the canyon floor here. Grasses and cottonwoods have begun to reclaim nearby Davis Gulch, once obliterated by water.

"I saw Eliot Porter’s Glen Canyon photos in The Place No One Knew [Gibbs Smith, reprinted 2000] and assumed we’d never get to see it again," Kay says. "It’s like watching a rebirth; these canyons are coming back to life." A stark bleached "bathtub ring" of calcified rock reminds visitors of what the lake level once was, but even that would fade away if left to wind, weather, and time.

While Lake Powell’s high-and-dry marina operators are unhappy with the drought’s handiwork, it has benefited some recreationists: Over what was once flat water, rafters can now run the 33 miles of Colorado River leading to shuttered Hite Marina. But the Bureau of Reclamation has not yet been swayed to change its dedication to the vast reservoir, even though the desert heat evaporates up to a million acre-feet of water each year. Conservation, decommissioning proponents argue, can easily fill in for the dam; only 3 percent of the power supply in six western states comes from Glen Canyon, and current and future water needs can be met without the reservoir. While silt piling up behind the dam could end the debate over Glen Canyon in as few as 60 years, the canyon’s supporters hope that this peek at nature reemerging will speed the day when this part of the Colorado is allowed to run free.
–Reed McManus

This spring, you can choose from three Sierra Club backpack trips in the Glen Canyon region, exploring the sandstone, petroglyphs, and cool waters of Dark Canyon Wilderness, Paria Canyon–Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, or side canyons of the Escalante River. For more information, and other Southwest trips, go to, or contact Sierra Club Outings, 85 Second St., 2nd Floor, San Francisco, CA 94105; (415) 977-5522.

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