27 November 2021

The New Yorker: “The Lost Canyon under Lake Powell”

The compact paved—or, if you prefer, lubricated—the way for the creation of the nation’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Lake Mead sits behind Hoover Dam, completed in 1935, and was designed to serve the lower basin. Today, it supplies practically all the water that’s used in Las Vegas, and much of what’s drunk in cities such as San Diego and Tucson. It also provides—or used to provide, when it was fuller—water for irrigating more than three million acres of corn, cotton, and alfalfa.

Lake Powell, which serves the upper basin, doesn’t supply water to much of anyone. Water released from Powell flows into Marble Canyon, then through the Grand Canyon and into Mead. In this sense, Powell is a reservoir for a reservoir. Whether this arrangement ever made sense is unclear. In periods of high flow, Mead should have plenty of water. And in periods of low flow what’s the point of impounding the Colorado on its way to Lake Mead?

You can search and search and search, Mathew Gross, a Utah-based author and political consultant, has written. But, if you want to know why Lake Powell was created, you’ll never find a satisfactory answer.

Elizabeth Kolbert

I have never been particularly keen on visiting the continental United States – in recent years because of the increased digital surveillance of incoming visitors and the American gun culture – but after reading this article I would gladly make an exception to travel inside Glen Canyon in its strange, transitory state. Neither the arid canyon from a century ago, nor the vast water reservoir from past decades, it feels as if this place is transforming under our eyes, each scenery different from day to day, from year to year, never to return to the same state.

Lake Powell in Glen Canyon
Since 2000, Lake Powell’s surface has dropped by a hundred and forty feet.

The larger context of the story touches upon many dilemmas of the modern world. We need clean, carbon-free energy, and hydroelectric power is one of the more reliable sources – but building massive dams alters local ecosystems inexorably, and erases large swaths of history, burying them under water. Something similar happened in Romania with Ada Kaleh, a small island on the Danube submerged during the construction of the Iron Gates hydroelectric plant in 1970. But as climate change progresses, periods of harsher and longer droughts reduce precipitation, making hydroelectric power less viable and forcing us to replace it with other sources. The migration of invasive species is another fascinating nugget from the story: quagga-mussels all the way from the Black Sea have multiplied in the lake in so high numbers that their shells left behind a visible line of black dots as the water receded.

An enormous rock chamber, known as Cathedral in the Desert, opened before us. The sandstone walls were rounded, but far above our heads they came together, so that the sky was visible only through a slim, S-shaped opening. A curl of sunlight fell on the sand. At the far end of the chamber, a narrow waterfall trickled into a pool. As in a real cathedral, a sombre hush prevailed.

In the pre-dam era, Cathedral in the Desert was a sort of natural pilgrimage site—in the words of one visitor, the end toward which all other wonders had been pointing. In those days, the only way to get there was to hike in, as Clear Creek was too slight to be navigated by boat. Then, for decades, the Cathedral was inaccessible—hidden under Lake Powell—and the waterfall stopped falling, because it, too, was submerged. Balken was thrilled to see the place, if not as it had been—it was still missing any kind of plant life—then at least a lot closer. This is one of the miracles of Lake Powell being low, he said.

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