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Glen Canyon Revealed
APRIL 2006
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A Dry Red Season: Uncovering the glory of Glen Canyon.(continued)
By Daniel Glick
Photographs by Michael Melford
A sustained drought has shriveled Lake Powell in the Southwest to expose a red-rock wonderland drowned decades ago.

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After Glen Canyon Dam closed its gates on the Colorado River near Page, Arizona, in 1963, the river's cargo of snowmelt and spring rain, gathered from much of the mountain West, hit the dam's concrete stopper and began to back up. The rising waters slowly transformed the lower reaches of the intricate, thousand-hued Glen Canyon into a monolithic blue-green reservoir, the country's second largest after Lake Mead, farther down the Colorado.

Aided by Lake Powell's aqueous bounty, Little League fields sprouted in Las Vegas, subdivisions multiplied in Los Angeles, golf courses carpeted Phoenix. As the reservoir waters rose, Glen Canyon drowned. This remote heart of the Colorado Plateau, dubbed "the place no one knew" in photographer Eliot Porter's ode to this lost landscape, gurgled underwater.

In unknown Glen Canyon's stead emerged the enormously popular Glen Canyon National Recreation Area—which quickly became a mecca for millions of houseboaters, water-skiers, and striped bass fishermen taking advantage of this watery miracle in the desert.

Then came the sustained drought that ushered in the 21st century, one of the region's periodic dry spells. For five years clouds yielded little moisture, even as the West continued to drink greedily. The Colorado River, lifeblood for seven states, dwindled. Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the river's massive catch basins, shriveled. No amount of hydro-engineering, cloud seeding, flow regulating, or other manipulation could change a simple fact: Not enough water was falling from the sky to keep the West's reservoirs full. Not with the increasing number of straws sucking upstream water to irrigate alfalfa fields, fill swimming pools, and sprinkle suburban bluegrass expanses.

Lake Powell's loss was and is Glen Canyon's unmistakable gain. People who were lucky enough to get a glimpse of Glen Canyon when they were young flocked to see it again, as if offered the chance to visit, after 40 years, a first love who had abruptly moved away. People who had only known the canyon through photos and descriptions—by John Wesley Powell, Wallace Stegner, Katie Lee, Eliot Porter, David Brower, and Edward Abbey—hurried for a first look.

The ancient Navajo sandstone itself shook off the water as easily as a dog emerging from a swimming pool. At an average rate of an inch a day, a lost sculpture garden of rock resurfaced, miraculously intact.

The uncovered slickrock sandstone told its astounding life story: of Sahara-size sand dunes marching across the landscape 190 million years ago; of three-toed dinosaurs that left tracks in damp spots between the dunes; of deep burial that slowly squeezed sand and mud into rock; of epic uplifts and tectonic shifts; of water and wind that carved slot canyons hundreds of feet deep.

Layers of human history saw the light again too: thousand-year-old petroglyph panels and cave dwellings of the Anasazi; artifacts from Navajo settlements; inscriptions left by 19th-century Mormon pioneers; equipment from uranium miners' camps of the 1950s; sunken boats and even a lost airplane of more recent vintage.

Desert varnishes, mineral-rich dust transformed by microbes and moisture, soon streaked the canyon walls. Vermilion, rust, beige, taupe, slate, maroon, cocoa, coffee, pale orange, and peach, they began painting over the lake-bleached bathtub ring left by high water. Streams rippled anew in the side canyons that branch out like arteries from the main stem of the Colorado to distribute life—maidenhair ferns and coyote willow, soft-stem bulrushes and golden sedges—in this arid land.

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.

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