Vanishing Waters

An excerpt from “A New Form of Beauty: Glen Canyon Beyond Climate Change”

Photography by Peter Goin •

Essays by Peter Friederici

A New Kind of Dawn

A few years ago, a cliffside Arizona highway south of the small city of Page collapsed during a winter storm, the roadbed buckling and dropping quickly enough that three cars plunged into the sudden gulf just beyond the headlights.

The drivers survived, but the road was badly damaged, its once-smooth blacktop crumbled and split like mud drying in summer sun.

This book is about that moment of falling when the solid ground under us gives way to something new. It is about the vanishing of the second-largest artificial lake in America in the face of the new, potent phenomenon we call climate change. It is about the alarming new calculus of dwindling resources in a land once known for abundance. Though the book focuses on one reservoir in the Colorado River basin, it is really about all our known landscapes as we watch them shape-shift into new forms.

So let me rephrase: the book is less about the moment of falling than about the recognition of falling. It is about how all of us are like Coyote in the old cartoons: looking around in shock, backpedaling frantically, as we plunge off a redrock cliff into the hard landing of some brave new dawn.

For almost three decades my friend Peter Goin has been touring the place we call Lake Powell with a large-format camera, cruising its clear waters—by turns emerald, steel gray, turquoise—to show how humans and nature intersect in this wild, constructed waterscape.

He has documented both the lake's high-water mark and its low—so far. Both panoramic and intimate, his photographs are vivid illustrations of the historical moment when the blue-horizon dreams of twentieth- and twenty-first-century America have been giving way to a murkier future—one in which it is unclear not only whether the place we are dealing with is a natural or a human artifact, but even whether it is water, or land, or something in between.

Peter's explorations with a camera mirror my own with notebook and pen. Perhaps it has deepened my fascination with this place that I am almost exactly the same age as Lake Powell, so that I have a predisposition to view it through the lens of growth and maturity and aging and eventual decline.

It is all happening faster than we'd bargained for. Take a look: see the hinge of history swinging, see what it has felt like to witness an iconic landscape as we shape it, and as it shapes us.

The Names

Call it a half ton of half-dried clay almost falling on a friend's head. Call it a near natural disaster, the sort of thing liable to happen when you take an excursion out into the wild desert. Call it a sign of how people have pretty much literally mucked up a once pristine place. Call it a mass of sediment with our names on it, our share of the sand and clay and silt that the Colorado River conveys—five hundred pounds for every man, woman, and child living in the United States, each year—and then, when it grows tired, drops off along the way.

The friend was Tim, my partner in kayaking the upper reaches of what we'll have to for convenience call Lake Powell, on the impounded Colorado River, and the half ton was a calving section of cutbank six feet high that happened to topple over just as he paddled alongside.

Happened to? As if anything just happens to happen.

It happened because a couple of minutes earlier a pair of rafts had motored by, heading downstream toward Bullfrog Marina, and their choppy wakes had slapped up against the cutbank, causing sections of it to collapse into the murky river like new icebergs in Greenland.

Or: it happened because the river, in its flux and flow, every year deposits its incredible cargo of mud where the current ceases to flow and the lake begins, and that mud forms new land of a tenuous sort, subject to cracking and slumping and tipping and outright dissolving.

Or: it happened because we after all dammed the river, trapping all that silt that otherwise would have worked its way all the way out to the Gulf of California, and because that stopping of a natural process that once proceeded entirely without human intervention is only a pale foretaste of the far greater meddling that we're engaged in with the sky over the river, or lake, or whatever we are to call it.

In any case: the bank was covered with calf-high tumbleweeds and small tamarisk shrubs, seeded in lines so precise that you might be forgiven for thinking them the result of human intervention—a perverse field of prickles sown as if to demonstrate just how useless thisland is, how devoid of tangible human purpose or profit.

It was a place bereft of company—besides the drivers of the two rafts, the two of us saw nobody. You could feel lonely there, get hurt, get bitten by a rattlesnake, twist an ankle and fall into a deep crevasse of mud or rock, vanish entirely, by design or accident.

A wild place, many would say.

But only if that word were to slip as loose of its moorings as the piece of cutbank that nearly walloped my friend. Wild? No. Manicured?

Hardly. What this place was, was new. And we had come because the cardinal task of humanity in the epoch of newness that we have created is to come to terms with the novel lands we are building, whether we like it or not.

We paddled downriver, a bit more carefully now, farther from the bank, sections of which kept toppling into the water with reverberating beavertail slaps.

On top of each were those sprouts, each as green as springtime incarnate, perfectly promising and new until the very moment it plunged into the murky water, each seedling as unaware of the sudden future as we too often will ourselves to be.

We were there on the hilariously grandiose premise that we might explore this landscape as John Wesley Powell did in 1869.

Yes, that John Wesley Powell, the decorated Civil War veteran turned explorer turned interpreter of the new American West to the curious East, the man who outfitted and led the first mission of discovery to make its way through the entire Colorado River chain of canyons from Wyoming to Nevada, picking their way through a land profoundly weird: it was a tumbled and in many ways appalling place, given to awful heat and flash floods, dusty windstorms and terrible deluges.

It seemed a land not far removed from the throes of initial creation, hardly given to human use—a far cry from the mellow, well-watered predictable hills and hollows they knew back east.

We know now that Powell patched his best-selling account of the expedition together later with many elisions and inaccuracies—but the disquiet that prevailed as he sat with his men at a campfire on a shore downstream of here one evening, at the brink of what we now call Grand Canyon, rings true:

AUGUST 13.—We are now ready to start on our way down the Great Unknown.

. . . We have an unknown distance yet to run, an unknown river to explore. What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not; what walls rise over the river, we know not. Ah, well! we may conjecture many things.

We know not. At our comfortable remove of a century and a half from the trials Powell and his men faced, what a beguiling ring to those words. We know not—for isn't the problem of the modern era that we know so much that none of it means much anymore?

Powell's men used heavy brass barometers to estimate how much elevation they lost as they descended into the earth with the river or lugged them up cliffs to measure their height.

How thoroughly we have, since then, supersized our information intake: right now, I can click on Google Earth and see exactly where they so labored. It is so easy for us; we are swimming in data, or maybe drowning in torrents of it, so that for many of us turning its flow off is a more pressing task than acquiring more. And so we envy those explorers of an earlier era with more to discover than they had to forget.

So, here is the real unwritten reason Tim and I were there: to immerse ourselves for a spell in a place of mystery where we would not know what to expect, where in fact the central organizing principle of place was a fundamental unknowability, just as Powell surely knew he was only scratching the surface of the canyon country with his wanderings, his note-takings, his scribblings.

We know not—what a vast refreshment, especially when it comes to a river so thoroughly plumbed and worked over as the Colorado, the workhorse of the southwestern world, the troubled and drying stream of many a planner's contemporary nightmares. For if it was Powell who laid the groundwork for much of today's Southwest with his explorations and, later, his not-quite-successful advocacy for a certain type of settlement restrained by the realities of scarce water, it is the giant reservoir named after him that came to stand for the obverse—for the lush and profligate engorgement with abundant water that still characterizes the modern developed Southwest.

It is that comfort which is at risk as we continue to alter the climate, changing the long-held if uneasily forged compact with place that we have hammered out in order to live in our masses in a tough landscape.

To know would be a less fraught accomplishment if the stuff we knew were of a happier nature—the way the builders of Glen Canyon Dam were persuaded that they were fully in the service of God, progress, and the American way of life.

Instead, what we know is this: the Colorado River has since Powell's day been mapped and plumbed and dammed and tapped so that it is now less wild river than a series of water tanks into which the intakes for cities and irrigation districts protrude like great straws.

The principal water source for forty million people in the United States and Mexico, the river is so heavily used that it has been deemed responsible for one-twelfth of the entire country's gross domestic product. But the river itself pays the cost, seldom reaching the sea anymore, instead dwindling into final, fetid trickles as it enters the huge delta it anciently created for itself on the Gulf of California.

It is overallocated because of simple American optimism: the planners and politicians who divided its flow in the 1920s used overly optimistic figures for assessing how much water the river had carried and, they figured, would continue to carry.

It was a quirk of climatology that they happened to be carving up the pie after a string of wet years. But that led to an outcome perfectly in line with their boosterish utlook. Who could doubt it? Why would God have created these vast lands of sun and promise if not with the manifest intent that they should be peopled by hardworking farmers and ranchers and builders, all of whom needed water to carry out their work?

But this young century has been a hard one so far for the river, and for Lake Powell.

In January 2000, the reservoir was 95 percent full; it covered 250 square miles and lapped nearly two thousand miles of deeply indented shoreline in Utah and Arizona.

But then the Rocky Mountain winters dried up. By April 2005, after six years of significantly below-average precipitation in the upper Colorado River basin, the lake level had dropped a record 140 feet. The reservoir shrank to less than 130 square miles, diminishing back to the size it was in the late 1960s when it was first filling.

Since then it has risen again, to a level of hundred feet below its full pool—but this still leaves its volume at only about half what it could be.

Which you might call the ordinary give-and-take of climate, and water engineering, in an arid environment—or it might behoove us to call it something entirely new.

Thus the entirely self-contradictory nature of our trip: we wanted to better understand how a place that is critical both to the engineered infrastructure of the Southwest and to the region's self-understanding is changing and will continue to change in the face of an altered climate—to know, in other words—and at the same time to revel in the unresolved mystery of place, to experience it pure of preconception—to know not. An impossible challenge, like writing poetry and prose at the same time, or dreaming while awake.

So here was a slab of hardened mud falling from a riverbank, not so close to Tim as to be a real threat, but still near enough that he was drenched with a splash of brown water and could taste the silt: a human-made artifact to be sure, topped with the seedlings of plants imported from Eurasia that tend to outcompete the native species, and here only because of the massive concrete slab thrown across the river's passage, the whole scene standing as evidence of a place denatured, bereft of any sort of self-willed direction, and at the same time a wild thing that could kill you, outside any human control.

And we? Tim and I continued to kayak downstream, ripping along fast in the current, and as the stacks of mud toppled and the muddy water splashed like a thing alive we acted just like excited children, raising a loud cheer with every new impact, wanting nothing more than to witness a bigger fall, a louder crash.