Peak & Prairie

Rocky Mountain Chapter's
Online Newsletter
December 1997


A Vision to Restore a Living Colorado River
by Rob Smith, Sierra Club SW Representative, Roy Emrick & Steve Glazer

In November 1996 the Sierra Club board of directors formally supported what most environmentalists privately dream: draining Lake Powell behind Glen Canyon Dam to recover the lost canyons and river course inundated since the reservoir began to fill in 1963.

Glen Canyon was "the place no one knew," in David Brower's words, at least compared to more visited places such as Dinosaur National Monument and Grand Canyon National Park, where dams were proposed in the 1950's and 60's. Under the direction of David Brower, the Sierra Club's first executive director, the Club led the fight to protect these more famous places. They exist unflooded and available today because of that opposition.

But Glen Canyon Dam stands as a memorial to a place lost, perhaps because neither the Sierra Club nor anyone else tried hard enough to stop this mistake too. It was not until after the new dam was being built that the full measure of what would soon be interred beneath Lake Powell became clear to those who made one last (and for many, first) visit to Glen Canyon. Among them was Brower, but he was not alone. Former Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, one of the first boaters through the canyon, remarked in his retirement that the one vote he would reverse if he could would be his vote to flood Glen Canyon.

As the environmental movement progresses from an era of just saving some of what is still here to a vision of restoring some of what has been lost, recovering Glen Canyon would be at the top of most lists as an ultimate goal, with Hetch Hetchy Valley, the lost Yosemite.

But the Club's statement should be looked at as more than just a vision for one place. It's a call to action to focus on protection and restoration of a river system that's been horribly abused. It's a way to acknowledge that the Colorado River Compact, which divides the water among seven states, doesn't work for a sustainable future for the peoples, environment or economies of the Southwest.

Lake Powell is not permanent and it's not static. The silt-laden Colorado River has been filling it with mud and sand since the day it was created, and in a few hundred years it will turn Glen Canyon Dam into a giant waterfall. Long before that, the power turbines and much of the reservoir and river tributaries will be filled with muck.

In dry years, and particularly in dry cycles lasting a decade or more, Lake Powell could actually go dry as often as 12 times during its projected existence, according to one study using historic tree ring data to analyze past weather cycles. Significant drawdowns of the reservoir could occur much more regularly as Arizona's Central Arizona Project begins taking out increasing amounts of its share of the Colorado River downstream.

Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell are pieces of a water development puzzle that ultimately results in the Southwest's defining river, the Colorado, vanishing into the dry sands miles short of the sea in most years. Part of that is caused by an estimated 1 million acre feet of water lost each year by absorption into the banks of Lake Powell and the more than 550,000 acre feet of water that simply evaporate annually into the dry desert air from the reservoir's surface.

There has never been enough Colorado River water to go around to meet modern expectations. The river flow was measured for allocation during a wet cycle, divided on paper between the Upper and Lower Basin States, then further committed without reallocating the earlier promises to allow a trickle of its salty remains to flow into Mexico.

A thriving fishery at the former mouth of the Colorado is long gone. Still clinging to a tenuous existence is the Cienaga de Santa Clara, a remnant marsh in the old delta area supporting a host of rare bird and aquatic life.

There is hope that things are changing while there is still the possibility to save this river system. The Mexican government has declared the head of the Sea of Cortez, including the Colorado River delta area, an ecological preserve. Flows from Glen Canyon Dam have been reordered to protect the Grand Canyon downstream, due to pressure from a remarkably board coalition of river runners, anglers and park advocates, including the Sierra Club. The Club is engaged with local taxpayer groups, anglers and Native Americans in opposition to the last major water diversion proposal in the Colorado Basin, the boondoggle Animas-La Plata project.

When President Clinton declared the nation's newest national monument, the Grand Staircase-Escalante in southern Utah, it was clear that America's eyes were on this region as worthy of protection as a world-class natural treasure, and our Club's efforts through the Utah Wilderness Coalition continue to defend and save this country.

In today's economy, the water of the Colorado may well be much more economically valuable simply flowing downstream from the Upper Basin to Lower Basin cities through Glen and Grand Canyons along the way. Huge amounts of water are still withdrawn in this region through taxpayer-subsidized canals, pumped by subsidized power, to water subsidized surplus and thirsty crops.

Clearly a river that fails to reach the sea is overtaxed, not a foundation for a sustainable future; it is, in short, wrong. The Sierra Club is trying to set it right, and we invite everyone's support and help.

Editor's note: In early 1997, in the wake of its proposal to drain Lake Powell, the Sierra Club Board of Directors authorized formation of the Colorado River Task Force, under the auspices of the Southwest Regional Conservation Committee. Its members were appointed by the Rocky Mountain, Utah, Wyoming and Grand Canyon Chapters and the California/Nevada RCC. The task force is chaired by Steve Glazer, Rocky Mountain Chapter water resources chair and SWRCC vice chair. It is involved in strategic planning for the whole river basin, not just to advocate the draining policy. Other issues the Task Force is researching and investigating include: endangered fish recovery; water quality (salinity); the Law of the River, which includes compacts, treaties, agreements, federal statutes and court decisions; delta issues; conservation efforts and agricultural efficiency; tribal water rights; recreation and hydropower issues; and historic and new, additional threats to the ecological integrity of the river. The task force will be making policy as well as strategic recommendations for the Club.