Monkey Wrench Gang
Ken Sleight the original Monkey Wrencher photo via Salon
Here’s an in-depth look at the movement to decommission Glen Canyon Dam from Brandon Loomis writing for Arizona Central. Click through and read the whole article and check out the photos. Here’s an excerpt:
Two men sat beside the Colorado River at Lees Ferry slugging Coors and stoking a “probably illegal” fire into the morning, cooking up a dream that would infuse both their lives’ quixotic work.
The new friends shared a brainstorm for a bold plan, which a sly smile from one of them 4-1/2 decades later indicates was only half-bluster:
Let’s get rid of Glen Canyon Dam.
It was a radical idea that got them proudly labeled as “kooky.” Today, for everyone from government water managers to university professors to wakeboarders, the concept is at least as wild now that the thirsty Southwest has grown up. But some people still sit around dreaming of draining Lake Powell, and a few think science is on their side…
If this sounds like the plot of a suspense novel, it kind of is. [Ken Sleight’s] campfire companion was Edward Abbey, who had by then written his “Desert Solitaire” memoir but not “The Monkey Wrench Gang.” That 1975 novel envisioned a handful of saboteurs battling the West’s creeping industrialism and working for Glen Canyon Dam’s demise. Abbey died in 1989…
Sleight became the inspiration for the book’s big-eared, Jack Mormon river runner, “Seldom Seen Smith,” and to this day, he remains committed to the cause. He has filed lawsuits and staged rallies, and he still believes. Maybe, he said, the current drought will persuade water managers to drain Powell so they can fill Lake Mead, the critical trough for big population centers downstream of the Grand Canyon.
“I’m on the threshold of going,” he said of his mortality. “But I always wanted to see that water flowing freely.”[...]
For technical expertise, Sleight defers to John Weisheit, a fellow Moab environmentalist with the Living Rivers group. Weisheit notes that Powell is less than half-full, its water level is dropping, and it is projected to have larger swings in water level as climate change takes hold. The government could restore the river’s — and the Grand Canyon’s — ecological health by draining Powell and still could fill Lake Mead, he said.
“It can’t be considered a reliable source of water anymore,” Weisheit said of Lake Powell. “Send (the water) down to the place it’s been going for 6 million years, which is the Gulf of California,” he said of excess water that Mead could not hold…
To some grappling with the Southwest’s water future, dam removal is inconceivable.
“It’s a non-starter,” said Dave White, co-director of Arizona State University’s Decision Center for a Desert City, which studies water-sustainability options to deal with climate change. “(There is) zero probability of removing either Glen Canyon or Hoover.”
The reason is that those dams, after a wet-weather cycle, can capture and store four years of river flows to dole out during drought.
“(Dam removal) would be fairly catastrophic,” White said. “We have too much demand on an annual basis to be met by the natural in-flow of the river.”
Even without accounting for climate change, he said, the Bureau of Reclamation’s water-supply study found that population growth in coming decades would suck Lake Mead to below 1,000feet in elevation in 7percent of the years. That elevation is low enough to trigger a water shortage and rationing among the states — something that has never happened. The lake’s current elevation is about 1,107feet. Farm fields across the Sonoran Desert, which currently use the majority of Arizona’s Colorado River water, could go fallow…
Floods that could destroy Glen Canyon Dam have occurred more commonly than was assumed 50 years ago. “Nature will decide when this is a problem and how much of a problem it is, but there are data that were not available when Glen Canyon was designed,” Baker said. “Dams are things that last for 100 years, but they don’t last forever.”[...]
…activist Sleight said much of the area can be as beautiful as he remembers. Some of the side canyons already have responded to the lower water level. He remembered a trip to Davis Gulch in the 1990s, the last time the water neared this low point. New cottonwoods were growing.
“The main canyon is going to take years and years — 100years — to come back,” Sleight said. “Maybe it’ll never come back. But the side canyons, they will come back. They’re flushed out by floods.”
Paul Ostapuk, a reservoir booster with the group Friends of Lake Powell, hopes it never comes to that. He imagines dredging, sediment bypasses and other fixes keeping the dam functional for 1,500 years. Even then, he said, the mud piling up behind the dam may have built up to become prime soil for a farming boom.
“I see Lake Powell never really going away,” Ostapuk said.
From USA Today (Brandon Loomis):
Paul Ostapuk of Page and a Friends of Lake Powell member sees it differently. Pacific Ocean patterns dictate snowfall cycles that feed the Colorado River, and they have swung wildly before. Ostapuk finds it ironic that those who swore high water would topple the dam in the early 1980s when huge releases of water dangerously ripped rock from dam-bypass tunnels now are saying drought spells doom.
“It’s hard for me to believe that right at 2000, when (Lake Powell was) basically full, that a permanent climate switch happened,” he said. “Don’t give up on the Colorado River. It could come roaring back, and I think people will be surprised how much water comes down.”
The river is erratic, draining anywhere from 5 million acre-feet in a drought year to 20 million after an epic winter. Each acre-foot supplies roughly enough water for two households for a year. Without both Lake Mead and Lake Powell, Ostapuk said a water shortage already would be drying up Arizona farms. California has older, superior rights to Colorado River water that would trump Arizona’s during a crisis.
“You have to have the ability to catch the wet years, so you can ration it out in the lean times,” he said. “If you’d only had Lake Mead (during the current drought), it would be totally empty. Lake Powell’s what’s getting us through this.”
The Bureau of Reclamation concurs. It calls Lake Powell critical to the mix of water-supply options already projected to fall short — barring extensive conservation and reuse efforts — during the coming half century.
“Drawing down Lake Powell would result in reduced yield to the system,” bureau spokeswoman Lisa Iams said in an e-mail. “Losses due to evaporation would increase if additional water currently stored in Lake Powell were released to Mead,” because Mead is at a lower, hotter elevation.”[...]
Below the dam, the aquatic legacy is mixed. Water gushing through the hydropower turbines comes from deep in the reservoir is colder than native fishes such as the endangered humpback chub evolved to withstand. As chubs and other species declined downstream in the Grand Canyon, non-native cold-water trout thrived and created Arizona’s finest trophy rainbow fishery at Lees Ferry.
The dam also blocked the sand that had flowed through the canyon for ages, altering fish and wildlife habitat while depleting beaches river rafters use. Smaller beaches support less windblown sand to root mesquites and other vegetation, or to cover and preserve archaeological sites from erosion.
“The Colorado River Storage Project Act passed in ’56, and the big dam-building era was on us,” said Jan Balsom, Grand Canyon National Park’s deputy chief of resource management. “It wasn’t until years later that we realized what was happening environmentally.”[...]
Visitors to Glen Canyon National Recreation Area pump some $400 million into northern Arizona and southern Utah, according to Friends of Lake Powell. That figure is similar to a $380 million estimate that Northern Arizona University researchers made in 1999.
The dam generates hydropower to supply cooperatives that have 4 million customers spread from Arizona to Wyoming. It generates less power now when the water is low.
The dam has eight turbine units, each capable of producing 165 megawatts. A single megawatt is enough to power 250 homes at a given moment.
But that capacity is available only when the reservoir is full. Plant supervisor Roger Williams said the water pressure now yields 135 megawatts per unit. Another water-level drop of 100 feet and the dam would have to cease hydropower production or risk damage to the turbines. By that time, the units would be producing just 75 megawatts apiece.
These economic drivers are apart from the development and crops grown through the reservoir’s water deliveries, or its cooling of the nearby Navajo Generating Station, the West’s largest coal-fired power plant.
Growing awareness of the damage to the Grand Canyon led to an environmental-protection act in 1992, mandating dam releases that take river ecology into account.
Since then, the Interior Department has sought to restore something of the river’s past characteristics. Since 1996, and most recently last fall, the department has loosed four huge water flushes from the dam to mimic historic floods and churn up sandbars…
Rafters who don’t mind starting below the dam have an argument for corralling the Colorado. The dam evens out the peak flows each spring and keeps the river a little higher through fall, said Korey Seyler of Colorado River Discovery tours in Page. He has paying customers March through November.
Without the dam? He figures he would close shop in September when river rocks emerged.
Ostapuk, the Friends of Lake Powell member, said Glen Canyon remains wild, with uncrowded side canyons requiring no permit to explore.
“It’s just pure, raw adventure out there,” Ostapuk said.
Fifty years after that last bucket of concrete, when Page Mayor Diak stops to look at the dam and the high-voltage lines spreading from it across the Colorado Plateau, he still sees the future. Whether building a dam here was ideal is now pointless to argue, he said.
“You can’t live in the 15th century and expect to have the things that we have now,” Diak said.
More Colorado River Basin coverage here and here.