There was little soul-searching when Congress voted to euthanize this hidden world back in 1956, when Ike was President, the country was poised to pave interstates coast-to-coast, and Sputnik was but a year away. Today, the fall of the lake has driven a rising debate about its future. Many scientists think Western droughts will intensify as the Earth's climate warms. Water will become even more precious—and reservoirs, which lose vast amounts through evaporation, will seem intolerably wasteful. Better, say many environmentalists, to exploit new technologies for storing water underground, decommission the dam, and let Lake Powell once again be Glen Canyon.
There's little chance of that for now. Lake Powell, however diminished, plays too important a role in the West's water supply, and its removal would mean rewriting complex water laws at a time of massive population growth. But even though slightly above-average runoff in the spring of 2005 raised the lake 53 feet from that year's historic lows, managers expect it to drop again, to perhaps 108 feet below full pool by this month. Another sustained dry spell would push the lake to new lows. And in the very long run, nature will defeat the dam. Over the centuries, Lake Powell will ultimately fill up with silt.
"Let me get a little less disoriented here," says Bill Wolverton as he scrambles up a slickrock tower to gaze into Twilight Canyon. Wolverton, 57, has roamed this Glen Canyon backcountry for a quarter century, first as a furloughed railroad worker with time on his hands and a love of the desert, and for the past 18 years as a seasonal backcountry ranger and an ardent advocate for the canyon. On his days off he walks me up and down a half dozen remote canyons, observing what the reservoir wrought and the drought incrementally reversed.
In the lower reaches of each canyon, by the lake, we sink into giant pillows of sediment, deposited over the decades since high water flooded the canyon and stripped the banks of life. Wolverton calls this vegetation-free carpet of stinking mud the "death zone." At one point I am in it up to my knees and elbows when solid-looking ground turns out to be quicksand.
Here gnarled gray hundred-year-old cottonwood branches beckon like skeletal hands from the mud. Detritus from boating trips—an anchor, the handle from a water-ski towrope, a swim fin—rests forlorn in the sandbars. Fishing line trails from broken rods tangled in driftwood.