This month marks the 50th anniversary of Glen Canyon Dam. This dam and others along the Colorado River provide electricity and drinking water to millions of people across the western United States. But like all dams, from its beginning to present day the massive structure has been mired in controversy.
Before there was a dam there was a canyon.
“This canyon, as far as I’m concerned, would surpass any Eden,” Katie Lee said.
The former stage and screen actress hiked Glen Canyon’s fluted Navajo sandstone back in the 1950s. She first got attention when she posed nude among the giant red rocks.
“I don’t know what to call the magic of a place like that,” Lee said.
In 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower triggered the first explosion into the canyon wall to build the dam and flood the area. Lee was stunned.
“I didn’t believe it,” Lee said. “I didn’t think anybody could be that stupid.”
Lee is now 94 and is well-known for her relentless opposition to the dam.
But without the dam to generate power and provide water, we wouldn’t have seen the massive population growth of cities like Los Angeles, Phoenix and Las Vegas.
“That stretch of river, that’s literally what defines modern life in the Southwest,” said Jason Tucker, Glen Canyon Dam facility manager.
The gray concrete rises more than 583 feet above the Colorado River. Tucker explained it’s a hybrid gravity thin arch dam. In simple terms, that means it’s much wider at the bottom than it is at the top. And he said it would wash down the river if it wasn’t set in the wall of the canyon like a key in a lock.
“It’s literally the arched structure, it’s like a bridge laid on its side that as the water presses on it, it forces it against the canyon walls and that’s what’s holding back the water,” Tucker said. “It’s rather elegant even though it is completely concrete.”
That elegant design and the dam’s colossal size brings hundreds of thousands of tourists a year.
Recently tour guide Rachel Dawavendewa took about a dozen visitors down to the bottom of the dam in a large elevator. It was surprisingly cold because of the temperature of the water on either side of the dam.
Workers in blue and yellow jumpsuits were dwarfed by eight enormous generators.
“If you feel the rail you can feel the vibration from unit one, which is the generator in front of us,” Dawavendewa said.
That electricity travels thousands of miles away to several states including Wyoming, Nebraska and Colorado. A digitized screen at the plant showed us the revenue from the electricity, which is now more than $3 billion.
Some of the revenue goes toward studying the impacts of the dam downstream.
“We’re concerned about the changes in the water and the impacts in Grand Canyon," said Martha Hahn, the chief of science at the Grand Canyon. She said when the dam generates power it raises and lowers the river that flows out of it and into the iconic national park. Managers saw that as a problem as early as the 1980s.
“They found that beaches were eroding with these drastic changes in the water level,” Hahn said.
This was bad news for the humpback chub. The aptly named homely fish with its protruding forehead became an endangered species. Hahn said it was also bad news for the river rafters because the erosion of beaches meant fewer places to camp. In 1992 Congress passed the Grand Canyon Protection Act and then a few years later assigned an advisory group.
“And that working group holds 25 different stakeholder interests,” Hahn said. “The idea was everyone would come together and begin to understand, are we meeting the requirements of the Grand Canyon Protection Act?”
Since then, the dam has kept fluctuations to a minimum. Still, the beach erosion continues and the humpback chub remains endangered. Federal agencies continue to try to address these issues. But the past decade’s drought and climate change have not helped the already over allocated Colorado River.