Since the creation of the United States, Americans have celebrated those things that make our nation distinctive. Egypt has its pyramids, China has its Wall, and America has its West. Cherished both for its scenic beauty and for its economic resources, the American West is a land of contrasts, a place where our desire to produce wealth confronts our desire to preserve nature.
Because economic development in the arid, rugged West is so challenging, the government has often provided assistance to these efforts—even directed a good deal of them. Moreover, because America acquired its West relatively recently through war, treaty, and purchase, a majority of the lands in the West remain federally owned. As a result, the western United States hosts one of the largest concentrations of public works projects on the planet.
Referred to as the Great American Desert by some map-makers in the 19th century, most of the western United States outside the Pacific Northwest does not receive enough rainfall to adequately support agriculture or dense populations. To overcome this limitation Americans built dams on rivers to store water and then built large distribution systems to bring that water to farms and cities.
Water projects are a common feature in world history, but the scale of the dams and diversions built by the federal government in the 20th century American West set records and inspired awe.
They also transformed lives and landscapes. In 1902 Congress created the United States Bureau of Reclamation charged with making more water available for agriculture in the arid West. It built dams from the Rio Grande to the Columbia River, but those on the Colorado River are among the best known and most controversial, particularly Glen Canyon Dam. This dam and the controversy surrounding it have become as distinctly American as the West itself.
In the early 20th century, with rapidly growing populations, western states jockeyed for the right to take water from the Colorado River to fuel development in areas far removed from the river. After years or wrangling they came to an agreement in 1922 dividing the waters of the Colorado River among seven states.
This “Colorado River Compact” has shaped water development in the region ever since. The Compact divided the waters among seven states in the Colorado River Basin: Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. It excluded Indian tribes from the agreement and allocated no water to Mexico. Only decades later did Mexico win a small allocation in court. Indian tribes are still fighting for their water rights.
Getting a water right is not the same as getting the water. Before the ink on the 1922 Compact was dry, individual states began vying for federal funds to build large dams and diversions to bring their Colorado River entitlement to locations where they wanted to stimulate farms and businesses. Boulder Dam (renamed Hoover Dam) was the first big dam built on the Colorado. It sent water and electric power mainly to California and set a precedent for many ambitious projects to follow.
Other states in the basin wanted dams to serve their needs, too, so they lobbied the Bureau of Reclamation and Congress to fund more projects. In 1950 the Bureau presented a comprehensive plan to Congress for a series of dams in the upper basin called the Colorado River Storage Project (CRSP). The proposal included a large dam in Glen Canyon on the Colorado River, and two dams in Dinosaur National Monument on the Green River, a major tributary of the Colorado. The Bureau was unprepared for the controversy that ensued.
David Brower was the executive director of the Sierra Club in 1950 and had been involved already in efforts to oppose the construction of dams in national parks and monuments. When the Sierra Club learned of the Bureau’s proposal in 1950, he and other conservation leaders organized an extraordinary campaign to block the two dams in Dinosaur National Monument. The battle was an epic event in conservation history and has been profiled by many writers.
In 1956, Congress finally approved the CRSP without the two Dinosaur dams. The Sierra Club and its allies were successful, but at a price. Saving Echo Canyon and Split Mountain Gorge in Dinosaur meant acquiescing to a high dam at Glen Canyon. Few conservationists had ever visited Glen Canyon until after the dam was approved and under construction. By then it was too late.
The Sierra Club produced a large-format “coffee table book” of photographs and prose in 1963 lamenting the loss with the apt title: “The Place No One Knew.” Four years later, after a successful campaign to block two dams in the Grand Canyon (Bridge Canyon and Marble Canyon) the IRS rescinded the Club’s tax-exempt status.
Glen Canyon Dam actually was not the first dam to be built on this section of the Colorado River. Two hand-built dams had existed prior to its creation. The first dam was called Lake Canyon Dam, which prospectors built it in the early 1900s to sluice for gold. The second dam, Creeping Dune, was much older, dating back to the Ancient Puebloans who constructed it for irrigation purposes. Both dams were minimal in scale compared to Glen Canyon Dam and are now inundated by the water of Lake Powell.
The Bureau first got the idea of creating a reservoir at Glen Canyon in 1916 from E.C. LaRue, the Chief Hydrologist of the United States Geological Survey. His proposed dam site was four miles upriver from Lees Ferry. Although this site would have held much more water in its reservoir, the Bureau eventually settled on the current dam site 15 miles upstream from Lees Ferry due to its greater geological stability.
The Bureau’s chief construction engineer on the project was Lem Wylie. Wylie singlehandedly saw the dam project through from the time the first explosives were set on October 15, 1956 to the time the second diversion tunnel was closed for good on March 13, 1963. For Wylie it was easier said than done.
The construction site literally had no roads to it. Wylie had to build a bridge to cross the canyon, build a town for the workers, dole out hundreds of government contracts, and pour nearly five million cubic yards of concrete for this mega-dam all within seven years and within budget. He definitely had his work cut out for him.
The story of the dam’s construction is a classic tale of worker heroism and technological mastery resulting in one of the most visually stunning arch dams in the world. In the end, Glen Canyon Dam served its intended material purposes. Flooding downstream was reduced, water from the spring snowmelt is stored for later use, and 1300 megawatts of power electrifies towns and cities in the region.
But like much of the history of the West, this great accomplishment came with great costs. It is a story of both progress and loss. The gathering waters behind this towering dam inundated 186 river miles upstream from the dam submerging a veritable Eden of shaded coves, placid waters, and rare riverine ecosystems, along with hundreds of archaeological sites. (See the Lake Powell story for more on this.)
Sediment is rapidly accumulating behind the reservoir, which will render the whole project useless in about 100 years. Downstream, the river ecosystems have dramatically changed, too. The floods are gone, most of the sediment normally transported downriver is gone, beaches are eroding and disappearing, the river water is colder, fish populations are changing, and non-native species are invading. Author Edward Abbey’s fictional characters in his 1975 novel The Monkey Wrench Gang dreamed of blowing up Glen Canyon Dam as the ultimate act of technological sabotage in defense of the Earth.
The radical environmental group Earth First! drew inspiration from Abbey’s novel. Founded in 1981, its first public act of guerilla-theater was to unfurl a 300-foot long black plastic “crack” down the face of the dam. Supporters and opponents continue to debate today whether Lake Powell should be drained. The story of Glen Canyon Dam reflects the larger story of how we inhabit the land, what we value, and how we negotiate between opposing dreams and desires.
Written By Mark Buchanan and Paul Hirt
- Farmer, Jared. Glen Canyon Dammed. Tucson, Arizona: UP of Arizona, 1999.
- Martin, Russell. A Story that Stands Like a Dam: Glen Canyon and the Struggle for the Soul of the West. Salt Lake City, Utah: University of Utah Press, 1999.
- Pearson, Byron. Still the Wild River Runs: Congress, the Sierra Club, and the Fight to Save Grand Canyon. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2002.
- Reisner, Marc. Cadillac Desert: The American West and its Disappearing Water. New York: Penguin Books, 1993.
- National Weather Service Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Service. http://water.weather.gov/