Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Glen Canyon - Let It Flow

In memory of Edward Abbey

Sometimes a flood is a good thing. This evening's news revealed that the Colorado River is once again flowing from Glen Canyon -- at least for awhile. Stories include those from Rocky Mountain News, CNN, and Deseret Morning News.

This is extraordinary news. For anyone who has read Edward Abbey ("One of my favorite curmudgeons), it is hard not to think of Glen Canyon as a cathedral of sorts, one which was brutally desecrated as a result of the erection of the dam in 1962. The canyon, as existed before 1962, was immortalized in Abbey's writings, most memorably in Down the River.

The creation of the dam was the catalyst for much that followed in his life and work. According to one writer,
Perhaps the pivotal event that made Edward Abbey who he was occurred in 1962, when Glen Canyon Dam was first brought on line. Abbey had made two raft trips through Glen Canyon before the gates of the dam were closed. His love of the desert Southwest found its zenith in this exquisite canyon made up of narrow labyrinths with fern grottos and places with names like Music Temple and Tapestry Wall. With the closing of the gates at Glen Canyon Dam, this magical place was destroyed. Ancient Anasazi ruins and rock art, unfathomable formations and countless other sights and sounds and silence, along with the solitaire of the Eden-like canyon now lie under several hundred feet of water. Abbey found this an offense of the highest order....
from Kent Durrey, "A Man Hard to Talk About" at Desert USA.

No doubt today's news would have struck Abbey as too little, too late. The dam still stands and the water will only flow briefly in an experiment that hopes to temporarily recreate the effects of an untamed, undammed, free-flowing river. Nevertheless, it is a significant victory in a cause he fought so hard for during his tumultuous and cantankerous life. Edward Abbey was a man who left no doubt that he was made of clay, but his was a prophetic voice nonetheless.


John Bassett said...

As I read about it, the purpose of the release was to allow the buildup of sandbars in the Grand Canyon. This suggests to me that the silt which is not flowing into the Canyon must be building up behind the walls of Glen Canyon Dam. At some point, the buildup will be so significant that the dam will have lost most of its capacity. We have some some dams in California which have lost over 90 percent of their storage capacity in this way.

I wonder what will happen then?

klady said...

Sorry it took so long for me to get back here, John. That's all the more tragic if the purposes for which the dams were built may no longer be served by them. I'm pretty ignorant about engineering so I do not know to what extent either the initial destruction or the long-term effects could have been avoided or mitigated (or to what extent, from place to place, dams were unnecessary or, while necessary for development, arguably should not have been used to sustain development). But if the New Orleans levee system is at all representative, it's not simply a matter of engineering negligence but rather government's refusal to listen to the engineers about what should have been done -- always going for the quick and cheap that will satisfy voters' short-term demands (or those of the lobbyists) with little or no regard for the future -- i.e. anything beyond a few years.