The Future of the Glen Canyon Dam

The raging controversy surrounding the future of the Glen Canyon Dam and the Lake Powell Reservoir may soon be brought to a close, but the outcome is quite ambiguous. There are many groups and individuals which favor the draining of Lake Powell, countered by an equally tenacious set which is content in sacrificing the free flow of the river to preserve the lake and the benefits provided by the dam to society. We have found that it is futile to solely assess the impacts within a single disciplinary perspective; they all must be evaluated in tandem. For example, if we were to isolate the ecological effects of the Glen Canyon Dam, including sedimentation and the replacement of endemic species with those introduced from outside systems, we would conclude without a doubt that Lake Powell should be drained, probably along with the rest of reservoirs on the Colorado River. The best course of action is a little more ambiguous when viewed from economic, socio-cultural, and legal-political stand points.

There seem to be conflicting opinions regarding the feasibility of draining Lake Powell. Some of these conflicts arise from differing views of what is necessary for society (i.e. how much water do we need, what are wasteful uses of water), but some come from contradicting information. Opponents of the Sierra Club proposal insist that draining Lake Powell would decrease the amount of hydropower generation, possibly by 30%, and this would have a noticeable impact because the Glen Canyon dam constitutes 75-85% of the total Colorado River Storage Project generation. On the other hand some say that the water and power created by the dam are wasteful and ultimately unnecessary. Water from the reservoir only supplies two locations, Page, Arizona and the nearby Navajo Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant. The rest of the water (that is not lost to evaporation or seepage into the sandstone) goes to Lake Mead. Lake Mead's Hoover Dam could control the Colorado River without Lake Powell, and if Lake Powell's water were stored behind the Hoover Dam instead of the Glen Canyon Dam, this would not impact the amount of water available to downstream users (David Wegner, personal communication). This would save money, water, and wild habitat. Ultimately, we must ask ourselves for what purpose we want to operate this dam.

There are sociological consequences associated with the loss of benefits provided by the Glen Canyon Dam which must be considered. The electricity supplied by the dam reaches 3% of the population of the four southwestern lower basin states of Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, and Arizona. Although, this is not a large portion of the population, a significant number of people could be affected. However, it is probable that the 3% of the area’s electricity which would be lost with the draining of Lake Powell could be compensated for with increased conservation of energy and more efficient use of the current electrical generating processes (David Wegner, personal communication). Another concern is the loss of water for agriculture, but it is predicted that there would be minimal impact to the agricultural sector. Little of the water for agriculture comes directly from Lake Powell; the majority is provided by Lake Mead. So if more water were allowed to reach Lake Mead by draining Lake Powell, provided there are accompanied changes in the operating procedure of the Hoover Dam, there could be more water available (David Wegner, personal communication). In fact many areas, such as southern California, would welcome this change. An important sociological and economical drawback would be the loss of recreational opportunities provided by Lake Powell. However, should this be a factor which would halt the draining of the reservoir? Do recreational concerns outweigh the substantial ecological and economic benefits of draining the reservoir?

The flow restrictions proposed by the Environmental Impact Statement of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Department of the Interior (1996), along with other modifications would be an improvement over the current overall situation. According to the Bureau of Reclamation (1996), these flow modifications would benefit the ecosystem and protect cultural resources, and they would not insurmountably decrease power generation or depress the local economies. However, again, it is a question of what is important to us. If we are concerned with long-term sustainability, encompassing ecological as well as economic factors, this would be best accomplished by draining Lake Powell.

Taking all factors into consideration, we believe the reasons for draining Lake Powell outweigh the arguments for preserving the dam in its current state. It appears that the effects on electricity provision, agriculture, and flood control (the Glen Canyon Dam was never designed for flood control) would be minimal, and any losses in electricity generation and water distribution could be compensated for by more efficient management of Hoover Dam and Lake Mead and associated industries. In addition, ecological recovery would begin immediately (the dam would be drained over a 10-15 year period) (David Wegner, personal communication). Habitats conducive to the life cycles of native species (aquatic and terrestrial)would be restored, giving them an edge on exotic species which would still remain in the system. The result would be a restoration of the natural biological integrity of the system. Finally, the history of the Glen Canyon Dam weighs in our final conclusion. The construction of the dam was approved in 1956, with little thought about consequences. The original objectives were for conservation of water for the Upper Basin states (which it essentially does not do) and electricity generation (which it does minimally). It seems that this dam has become a reminder of the time in the United States where development was the primary objective. Our society has undergone a great deal of evolution since this time, and the Glen Canyon Dam no longer fits with our current situation.

The future of the Glen Canyon Dam and the surrounding ecosystem will largely be determined by the American public, so take a stand!

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