Glen Canyon & Dam


+ click on images to enlarge


Glen Canyon Dam, on the Colorado River, is one of the most controversial dams in the West. It’s hated by some for threatening the Grand Canyon ecosystem and drowning hundreds of miles of gorgeous river habitat beneath the waters of Lake Powell. It’s loved for storing water, generating electricity and producing tourism jobs in northern Arizona.


Voice: It's gorgeous.

Narrator: Stretching 186 miles behind Glen Canyon Dam, Lake Powell is a photographer's dream. But it's a nightmare for singer/songwriter Katie Lee and others like her, who fell in love with Glen Canyon and its free-flowing Colorado River before the Dam was built and the water rose and Glen Canyon disappeared beneath it.

Katie Lee: I don't dream about the Glen Canyon, never. I go to bed at night and say, "I'd like to have a dream about when we were there”. And I can’t. And I finally figured out it's because it's on my mind a lot of the day already.

Narrator: Lee is haunted by her memories of trips through the Glen, journeys that were nearing an end in 1956. That's the year President Dwight D. Eisenhower from the White House triggered an earth-shattering blast near the Arizona/Utah border. It was the start of Glen Canyon Dam, a massive concrete structure 710 feet tall, 100 yards thick at its base. As an Arizona Congressman, Stewart Udall voted for the dam.

Stewart Udall: When I was in Congress, dam building, particularly building a big dam, was kind of a religion in the West for politicians.

Narrator: Udall questioned his faith in dams after President Kennedy made him Secretary of Interior and ultimately responsible for completing the Glen Canyon project.

Stewart Udall: The environmental movement came along during my tenure, and that's when I began to be more thoughtful about this: what are the side effects, what are the long-term effects that are negative where the environment is concerned? I had to deal with that, and I changed my views on dam building.

Narrator: The views that once existed in Glen Canyon are gone now. If more people had seen this place, maybe they could have saved it. Instead, Glen Canyon Dam was built with little opposition.

Katie Lee: Destruction. There, simply put, that's what it represents.

Steve Ward: My father used to say it represents progress. If America is going to grow, if people want to move to the West and populate the West, you have to have a place for water.

Narrator: Glen Canyon Dam was needed to generate electricity and store water for growing western states, but before the Bureau of Reclamation started working on the dam, it had to remove a roadblock of isolation and inaccessibility. The dam's site was in the middle of nowhere, so roads were built to get equipment and supplies where they were needed. A new bridge finally made it possible to get from one side of the canyon to the other without driving 200 miles. After seven years of intense labor, gates were lowered and the reservoir started to fill in 1963. A few years later, the dam's power plant was fully operational and first lady Ladybird Johnson dedicated the project.

Ladybird Johnson: My hat is off to the men who figured the stresses and strains and who diverted the river during construction and to all the rest of the dreamers and doers who brought this project live-born into its rocky cradle. The hardcore water and power benefits of this dam are well known. Its bonus is the heavenly blue lake.

Narrator: It took 17 years, until 1980, to fill Lake Powell. Since then, lake levels have been up and down. In times of drought, Powell is praised for the water it stores. But it's also vilified for water it loses to evaporation. Millions of people visit each year to play in the lake and camp on its shores. It's a tremendous economic asset to Page, a city of about 7,000 people that started as a housing project for dam builders.

Steve Ward: The town of Page is here only because of the construction of Glen Canyon Dam and the tourism of Lake Powell. The south river project operates the Navajo Generating Station, which draws water from the lake, so there's a lot of Navajo folks that rely on this, too, because they have jobs at the Navajo Generating Station.

Narrator: Glen Canyon Dam does a lot of good for the local economy, but it also does some damage downstream, in one of our nation's most spectacular national parks. The Grand Canyon's Colorado River, once warm and muddy, now runs cold and clear. Water released from the dam comes from the chilly bottom of the reservoir. Sand and sediment that used to build beaches and nourish wildlife gets trapped in Lake Powell. As a result, Glen Canyon Dam is blamed for altering the natural river habitat and threatening native fish. On the other hand, it's credited for a new environment where trout and other wildlife thrive. The reclamation bureau used to operate the dam solely to maximize power production. Now it's a balancing act, one that includes trying to minimize negative impacts on the environment.

Lonnie Gourley: Well, I believe that they've had a great deal of success. There's always groups that are frustrated by the -- by the compromise or the result.

Voice: Take this dam away...

Narrator: Several conservation groups have advocated draining the lake and decommissioning the dam.

Edward Abbey: Surely no man-made structure in modern American history has been hated so much by so many for so long with such good reason as Glen Canyon Dam.

Narrator: In 1981, filmmakers documented the day Earth First! staged a “cracking” of the dam by unfurling a tapered sheet of black plastic down the face of it.

Bruce Babbitt: It was very much in the spirit of the '70s and the '80s. And Edward Abbey and, you know, his merry pranksters were always kind of looking for ways to dramatize things. What that crack really said is, "Remember, dams are not forever."

Narrator: It's true that as sediment accumulates in Lake Powell, its capacity to store water declines. One day, maybe centuries from now, the reservoir will be full of silt and the dam useless unless we find a solution to that problem. Meanwhile, Glen Canyon Dam continues to do its job, for better and for worse.

Stewart Udall: I've always had regrets. You know, Senator Goldwater startled a lot of people when he finished his term and they asked, "Senator is there any vote that you regret?" And he said, "Glen Canyon Dam."

Steve Ward: It's possible that had they known how beautiful Glen Canyon was, they wouldn't have made the lake here. But now that it's built and now we're reaping all these benefits, it would be another wrong to take it away.