Dam Busting

The Sierra Club's Plan To Dismantle Glen Canyon Dam.

By Gregory McNamee

NESTLED AMONG THE huge buttresses and turbines of Hoover Dam, on the lower Colorado River, lies a marble map of the stars. The map is intended to show future inhabitants of the Southwest that the New Deal-era builders of the dam knew their place in the universe. Their unspoken assumption was that the gigantic dam, completed in 1935, would stand for countless generations--long enough that visitors to it might no longer speak anything recognizably like English, but might nonetheless be able to read a celestial chart.

Currents The builders of Glen Canyon Dam, 350 miles upstream in northern Arizona, also assumed that the massive concrete-and-steel structure would stand for centuries. Completed in 1963 as part of a federal program to control the flow of the Colorado River and irrigate the surrounding region, the dam created 200-mile-long Lake Powell, one of the largest artificial bodies of water on the planet.

Now, 35 years later, the Sierra Club has sounded a call for Glen Canyon Dam to be dismantled and Lake Powell drained. The club's leadership argues, among other things, that Lake Powell is an inefficient reservoir that loses an unacceptable amount of water to evaporation--about 1 million acre feet a year, nearly enough to meet the annual water needs of Los Angeles--and that the dam's hydroelectric-generating capability is redundant in a time when the West enjoys a surplus of electrical power.

Glen Canyon has long been a symbol of everything wrong about giant development projects. The founders of the radical group Earth First!, inspired by Edward Abbey's 1975 novel The Monkey-Wrench Gang, nursed dreams of destroying the dam by whatever means necessary. Abbey himself deemed Glen Canyon Dam the West's most hated structure, calling Lake Powell "more like a bathtub that is never drained than a true lake." Even many of the dam's champions, among them former Arizona senator Barry Goldwater and former secretary of the interior Stewart Udall, publicly repented their roles in its construction.

Other environmental groups, including the National Audubon Society, have expressed support for the idea, which was originally proposed by the Glen Canyon Institute. There is plenty of opposition as well. But the debate currently swirling over Glen Canyon is only part of an increasingly noisy dialog over the future of dams worldwide.

Large hydroelectric projects are under attack as never before. The government of Malaysia recently halted construction of the massive Bakun Dam; the U.S. Export-Import Bank has refused to guarantee American contracts for China's Three Gorges Dam; and Germany has withdraw financing for a major dam project in Nepal. In the United States, the federal Energy Regulatory Commission recently approved for the first time the removal of an operating hydroelectric dam, a structure on Maine's Kennebec River.

Dam projects traditionally have overestimated economic returns while underestimating social and environmental costs, according to an Environmental Defense Fund study. EDF senior scientist Deborah Moore argues that dams displace native peoples and steer power to cities at the expense of the countryside, which ultimately has the effect of widening the gap between rich and poor.

In September 1997 a group of representatives from various aid agencies and energy industries converged in Washington to create the World Commission on Dams. The commission has been charged with drafting a set of environmental, economic, and social standards to govern the actions of international financing agencies such as the World Bank, and to set reparations for people harmed by dams already in operation.

But the commission is not likely to be of much help in Glen Canyon, the site four decades ago of one of the Sierra Club's most bitter defeats. The group, under then-president David Brower, had loudly protested the project, organizing a national campaign to save Glen Canyon and citing the area's beauty and accessibility. But when the federal Bureau of Reclamation agreed to cancel proposed dams in Dinosaur Park and Echo Park, along the upper reaches of the Colorado system, the Sierra Club's leadership capitulated. They reasoned, Brower recalls in his 1990 memoir For Earth's Sake, that a partial victory was better than no victory at all. It was a decision, Brower writes, that the Sierra Club would forever regret.

As controversial as the project was in the late 1950s, the plan to restore Glen Canyon to its original state is generating heated debate. Many residents of the Lake Powell area oppose the plan, arguing that jobs and ways of life would disappear along with the dam. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R- Colorado) has called the Sierra Club's proposal "a certifiable nut idea"; other Western politicians have similarly denounced the plan.

Some environmentalists, Jason Zengerle reports in The New Republic (Nov. 24, 1997), believe that to restore Glen Canyon to anything like its pre-dammed condition is an environmental impossibility. They fear that the delicate network of small seeps and springs that fed the long-drowned canyon will never return, that toxic sediments supposedly now resting on Lake Powell's floor would create a public-health nightmare if they were to become airborne, and that the lake's saline water has whitewashed the canyon walls to create what Zengerle calls "the world's largest bathtub ring." (To such a charge, Edward Abbey retorts in his 1981 essay "The Damnation of a Canyon," "give nature a little time. In five years, at most in ten, the sun and wind and storms will cleanse and sterilize the repellent mess. The inevitable floods will soon remove all that does not belong within the canyons...Within a generation--thirty years--I predict the river and canyons will bear a decent resemblance to their former selves.")

Zengerle maintains that the Sierra Club has called for the destruction of Glen Canyon Dam largely to garner publicity and attract new members. Unfazed by such criticism, the organization, under its 25-year old president, Adam Werbach, is recruiting a younger, more activist constituency by assuming a more militant public stance. Werbach promises to continue the campaign on several fronts.

Just as the fight over building Glen Canyon Dam in the first place sparked a rethinking of the value of dam-building, a debate that spread worldwide, the current Glen Canyon controversy may open a new round of discussion over whether environmental damage can truly be reversed through restoration. Proponents and opponents alike are keeping careful watch on the lower Colorado River to see where that discussion will lead. TW

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