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Colorado River in Crisis, Pt. 3: The Dam

Episode Summary

The main way the American West harvests the Colorado River for its water use is through dams that create reservoirs. But those reservoirs are quickly drying up because of climate change. Can knocking some dams down help?

Episode Notes

The main way the American West harvests the Colorado River for its water use is by dams that create reservoirs, which are quickly drying up because of climate change. Can knocking some dams down help?

Today, in our continuing series on the Colorado River, we go to Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell to talk to some people who think so. Read the full transcript here.

Host: “The Times” senior producer Denise Guerra

Guests: L.A. Times water reporter Ian James

More listening:

Colorado River in Crisis, Pt. 1: A Dying River

Colorado River in Crisis, Pt. 2: The Source

Colorado River in Crisis homepage


Episode Transcription

GUSTAVO: On our next stop on the Colorado River, we sent our producer Denise Guerra and L.A. Times water reporter Ian James to southern Utah. 

You might remember In Episode 1 of our series, we spoke about the country’s largest reservoir, Lake Mead – which currently sits three-quarters empty. Today we venture to the second largest reservoir in the United States – Lake Powell – and the contentious dam that created it.

Denise Guerra:  That’s right, Gustavo. The Glen Canyon Dam was controversial even before it was built in the 1960s. 

Some people may know Lake Powell as a recreational area or tourist destination, but it’s also  a monumental piece of infrastructure powering the Southwest. There are about 240,000 homes in six states, including the Indigenous tribes, that rely on the power the dam generates. But as the Colorado River dries up, so does Lake Powell. 

Environmentalists have long criticized the dam and its effects on the environment. Some would like to see it gone all together, while others would like to continue operating the dam during this time of drought. There’s now discussions on whether it’s best to open the gates and drain the lake so that it can fill up Lake Mead.

The dam was built for the purpose of storing water and generating electricity. But with the drought and lower water levels, Ian and I wanted to see for ourselves what was happening there and talk to the people affected. So we took a trip to that area of the Colorado River…. And Let me tell you Gustavo, there were times it got pretty dicey…

Ian James: Yeah. Some parts, there's actually one area that we heard some people describe as the gates of Mordor.

GUSTAVO: Mordor like “Lord of the Rings,” Gollum, the precious, like the place of evil, and doom 

Ian James: Yeah. Uh, we didn't see Gollum, but uh, it did feel that way, a bit forbidding.

Denise Guerra: The current's a little bit faster here. It very, it very much seems like a, like, more treacherous than usual.

Ian James: Getting a little rougher here.

Ian James: Woo. OK.

GUSTAVO: All right, Denise and Ian. Take us there. 

WATERFALL:  The transition that has taken place in the Colorado River Basin is astounding.

WATERFALL:  The Colorado River Basin is in a historic drought. 

WATERFALL:  The deadpool is like where there's not enough water to pull water through the dam. We're getting, like, dangerously close to that point. What happens in this basin right here is going to have an effect on basins all throughout the West. If we don’t stop, this is going to be hard to walk away from.

Denise Guerra: I’m Denise Guerra.You're listening to “The Times: Essential News rom the L.A. Times.” It’s Jan. 20, 2023 and here with me today to get into more detail is water reporter Ian James. Hey, Ian. 

Ian James: Hey, Denise.

Denise Guerra: Ian, have the recent storms affected our reservoirs, like Lake Powell?

Ian James: They will affect it a bit. The reservoirs depend on melting snow and storms have brought snow to the Rocky Mountains. It's an above-average amount so far this winter, that snowpack will bring a modest boost to Lake Powell and other reservoirs, but it can only go so far because the reservoirs have been declining over the past 23 years.

Denise Guerra: So where did the idea to add dams to the Colorado River begin? 

Ian James: The idea of harnessing water from the river took shape in the early 1900s. The great ambition was to – as they talked about it then – to “reclaim” the arid lands and put them to use for agriculture. Hoover Dam was built during the Great Depression in the 1930s. And that was followed by other dams. Including Glen Canyon Dam, that was built in the 1960s.  And then Lake Powell was filled. It’s the second largest reservoir on the river, and it’s located in the upper basin, a region that includes Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico. 

Just downstream from the dam is the dividing line between the upper basin and the lower basin, at a place called Lees Ferry. And from there the river continues through the lower basin states of Arizona, Nevada and California, all the way to Mexico. 

Denise Guerra: OK, back to basics, how does Glen Canyon dam work? What exactly does it do with Colorado River water?

Ian James: The dam stores water, and as the water is released and flows through the dams, intakes, there are eight generating units. The water spins the turbines and generates electricity, and the issue now is that the water level in the dam is less than 35 feet from a critical point where the dam would no longer be able to generate power.

Ian James: There are various people, especially environmental advocates, who look at Glen Canyon Dam and say it was a mistake to build it and it shouldn't have happened. 

Many people have warned over the years that there wouldn't be enough water. In fact, even long before anyone was talking about Glen Canyon Dam or Lake Powell, back in the late 1800s, the namesake of Lake Powell, John Wesley Powell, who led uh, historic expedition through the Grand Canyon.

He had warned in one speech, and this is how he put it, 

“that you are piling up a heritage of conflict and litigation over water rights. For there is not sufficient water to supply these lands.” In the 1950s also, a California water lawyer named Northcut Ely argued against building the dam and said it wasn't needed, but it was built.

And, in later years, David Brower, who led the Sierra Club and who was someone who shared advice with John regularly, called the dam’s construction a terrible mistake.

Denise Guerra: Despite these warnings, the dam was built. And traveling upriver, etched on the high canyon walls you can see these markings – like bathtub rings – of the water receding. It was one of the sights I most remembered  traveling there in the summer of 2022. There we met with John Weisheit. John is 68 years old and he was wearing a light green, long sleeve shirt, black sunglasses and a wide brim hat. He’s an expert boatsman with decades of  experience as a river guide. And we spent a couple of days with him on an inflatable, motorized boat, a zodiac he nicknamed Grandma. It's an inside joke he has with a friend.

John: : So my parents honeymooned on the Colorado River,  we went every weekend. And I jet skied and I hiked and I water skiied and I fished and so I've been on this river forever. And that's why I decided to be a river guide, is ‘cause I feel at home.

Ian James: John is a co-founder of a group called Living Rivers, and he also works for Water Keep Alliance. He's the Colorado riverkeeper

John: The riverkeeper is given to a person who is acknowledged by the community, the government, and the press as a person who is trying to make the Colorado River or any river watershed healthier than it is, right now.

Ian James: What would you say your relationship with the Colorado River is? How do you feel about the Colorado River?

John: Connected to it. like a brother, and it hurts me that people who live off it don't even understand it.

And the thing that, that I think is the most tragic thing is it doesn't get to finish its course to the ocean. I mean, that's the number one goal of a river. We're not letting it be itself. We're telling it what to do.

Ian James: Well, he has very strong feelings about Glen Canyon Dam. He also has argued that Glen Canyon Dam should be decommissioned. 

Denise Guerra: What might that involve? 

Ian James: What decommissioning the dam would mean would be to incrementally remove the dam. and let the river again flow freely through Glen Canyon and instead store the water downstream at the larger reservoir at Lake Mead. 

And he also regularly gets involved in litigation. 

John: I do. I file a lot of lawsuits.

Ian James: A couple of years ago, he and other groups filed a lawsuit to challenge the federal government's approach to managing Lake Powell, and they argued that the government didn't sufficiently consider the effects of climate change and they also demanded the government consider the alternative of decommissioning Glen Canyon Dam. And he's criticized the water managers for failing to address the water deficit years ago.

Denise Guerra: What are federal and state water managers saying about what's happening there?

Ian James: Well, federal officials have actually announced plans to revise the rules for dealing with Colorado River shortages. They are putting pressure on the states to come up with some type of a regional consensus on how to make large reductions in water use. And they're trying to prevent Lake Powell from falling to critically low levels. So they're kind of going in the opposite direction from what John would like to see.

TOUTON: The basin is seeing its worst drought in 1,200 years, and there is no relief in sight. It's not like what it was before, where snowpack was our largest reservoir. Climate change has changed the precipitation patterns.

Ian James: That’s the Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton. The bureau manages dams and the river system and she spoke about where the situation stands.

TOUTON: So we're starting at a point of working with everyone in the basin, with basin states, with the 30 tribes, with Mexico, and looking at these voluntary conservation measures. That might not be enough, and so our ability to have conversations on what other changes we need to make, um, collectively is an important part of the conversation.

Denise Guerra: So what does that mean for city folks? You know, in Vegas, Phoenix, L.A.?

Ian James: All water users, including cities and agricultural areas, are going to be forced to reduce how much water they take from the river, and the faster those cutbacks can come, the more water might be left in the reservoirs. 

But water levels are continuing to drop and the Interior Department has warned that they may need to release less water from the dam, and if that were to happen, then the river’s flow through the Grand Canyon would shrink.

Which of course is a major recreation area where people go rafting down the river and where fish also depend on that water, including, uh, some endangered fish. 

Also, if the flow of water from Lake Powell is reduced, that could accelerate the decline of Lake Mead near Las Vegas, which California and Arizona and Nevada all depend upon, as well as Mexico. At this point it’s not clear if the responses are going to be enough to prevent the reservoir from heading toward those very low levels.

John: You know I’m totally cognizant of the fact that 40 million people need this river. But unfortunately, um, this river can’t sustain 40 million people

Denise Guerra: Some people who use Lake Powell disagree with John Weisheit on decommissioning the dam, and draining Lake Powell in the process. We met people boating all along the river like James Horn from Bountiful, Utah. He has been coming to Lake Powell practically his whole life.

James Horn: I'm 57 and I've missed one year since I was, um, since I was probably 6 or 7 years of age. So it's pretty sad for all of us to come all the time and see how far down it is.

Denise Guerra: His son, David Horn, was putting on his water skis on the boat.

David Horn: If I do this, I'll do a back flip for you. OK. 

Denise Guerra: What?

Ian James:  So amazing. 

James Horn: The only thing we would tell you is we are not proponents of draining the lake in any way, shape or form.

Denise Guerra: While the debate over the future of Lake Powell and Glen Canyon Dam continues, one thing everyone seems to agree on is that the ecosystem has changed drastically, and we’ll have more on that after the break.

John: What a f- mess.

Denise Guerra: Next on our journey on Lake Powell, our expert Colorado River captain John Weisheit took us to a cliff called Hite Overlook to show us areas where Lake Powell had receded. 

John: Well you know, when I first showed, saw this place, the reservoirs were full, and you see that pinkish building and you see the road that goes this way, that's where the reservoir was. That, that entire ramp was underwater.

Denise Guerra: From this height, you can see what happens when a huge swath of lake drains away. What should look like a huge lake is now dry land, with a sliver of water snaking through it.

Ian James: And as we looked out across what used to be the reservoir, there's now this silt clogged canyon floor bisected by the river. It looks like a dry valley with mounds of dried silt on both sides. 

Denise Guerra: John called this a gorge of dirt. That happens because the river is filled with fine muddy sediment and other deposits from the erosion of the land around it. So as the river disappears, this is what's left behind. Huge piles of silt tower above the river just upstream from the reservoir, and some of the river guides jokingly call these towering formations the gates of Mordor. 

Ian James: How do you feel about it coming up here and, and seeing this place? 

John: I'm angry. I get angry. I get really disappointed. It's an important issue. It's a safety issue. It's a health issue. It's an ecosystem issue.

Ian James: And how do you think the people who are managing water are defining the problem? Is it a different definition of a problem?

John: Yeah, it's for somebody else in the future to take care of, not us. In other words, we get all the benefits, the future gets all the costs.

Denise Guerra: John points to the empty marina down below where a convenience store, floating ramp and a bait shop once stood. It's our next stop, and also where we plan to camp for the night

Denise Guerra: Next to the riverbed is what river guides call the Dirty Devil Takeout. Where boats once stood is now just a big pile of dirt. We walk on the exposed sediment and there's a huge crack in the earth you almost have to hop over. John explains that this is sediment left over from when the reservoir was full.

John: And now it's like this because the river is eroding it. It's incising and it's widening. 

Ian James: It's just gonna kind of tumble into the river.

John: It happens instantaneously. It doesn't happen slowly. 

Ian James: So it's like the calving of a glacier.

John: So this is proof that this is why this is unsafe. It could happen while there are 20 people here taking a boat out. It's cracking here. There's a crack here…

Denise Guerra: The area where we hear cracking is also a takeout point to a popular white water rafting spot called Cataract Canyon

Anne: We have, like, 14 miles of Whitewater. Cataract Canyon is like some of the biggest whitewater in North America. 

Ian James: I met Ann Gardner, she's a river guide, and she had just finished a whitewater trip. I asked her what it was like seeing how the water levels have been dropping.

Anne: It's kind of terrifying in a way. I mean, just like the West in general is running outta water.

Anne: You know, the longer I've been here, the worse it's gotten. So they see new cracks forming all the time. Like if you look over, you can see this, like, huge, like, canyon forming right here. And so, like, eventually this whole layer will fall out too and… 

Ian James: So it’s not sustainable what.

Anne: Not at all. 

Ian James:  What's happening here as far as this? This boat pullout spot? 

Anne: Yeah. Not at all. I give it like maybe a year.

Denise Guerra: After the break. As the water drains out of Lake Powell, we journey upriver to see a landscape once underwater reemerge…and we see the Glen Canyon Dam up close.

Denise Guerra: So Ian, seeing these water levels drop in and around Lake Powell and hearing John Weisheit say that the reservoir and Glen Canyon Dam should never have been built, made me wonder what did the place look like before it was filled with water.

Ian James: People who saw the river before the dam was built, they describe it as a beautiful living canyon. And condemned the construction of the dam as a crime against nature. It obliterated an irreplaceable stretch of a living river.

Denise Guerra: Off the main river, Ian, John and I entered a small side canyon. We saw a glimpse of the past come to life, and there were these tall branches poking straight out of the water.

Ian James: So would these trees have been underwater a couple years ago? 

John: Yeah.

Denise Guerra: Oh, that's how low it got.

John: So these are cottonwood trees that were alive when the reservoir was filling.

Ian James: So they were alive 60 years ago. 

John: Yes. 

Ian James: And now they are just coming back out for the first time. 

John: Correct.

Denise Guerra: It’s a tragic visual of how dramatic flooding can be when you dam a river. And we saw how these big shifts in water flow changes the environment of the river overtime. So going beyond where we saw these trees re-emerge, we traveled further up the Colorado River where you can tell a big difference where Lake Powell - the reservoir - ended, and the river that feeds into it began.

Ian James: Well, first of all, the color of the water changes a lot in the reservoir. you see the water greenish blue. And then when we reached the area where the reservoir became the river, for one thing, we started to see current coming into it.

So we saw the flowing river and the water was filled with sediment, so it was a much browner color.

Ian James: It smells a little different here. It smells kind of muddy.

Denise Guerra: And I remember the water. Looking and sounding different, it was heavier in this portion where the reservoir water meets the river water. 

The divide has been shifting lately.

Ian James: As Lake Powell has shrunk, parts of the lake are becoming a river again and where the river is coming back, rapids are re-emerging. These rapids run through shifting sediment that was deposited in the reservoir over decades.

Ian James: And is this at a different place than you saw it a few years ago? 

John: Six months ago it was three miles upstream. The encroaching for the first time ever, right here. 

John: The reservoir is retreating and the sediment is advancing. So the green vegetation here means that as the upstream sediment deposits slump into the river, it's taking the vegetation with it.  

Ian James: When all the vegetation is growing on exposed mud that's just collected here. Oh, and up ahead we're seeing this mat of green. Yeah, there are two, uh, white egrets standing there on the edge of all of this vegetation on the banks. It stands out because all along the riverbanks up, up to this spot in the reservoir, it's been more rocky and just a, a jagged shoreline. 

Denise Guerra: And we witnessed a flurry of wildlife like pelicans. 

Ian James: Oh wow. Look at those birds.

Denise Guerra: Wow. Oh, that's beautiful. 

Ian James: Just flying around the boat. There are about eight of them. Oh, and there are a lot of tamarisk trees, also called salt cedar. They're just completely taking over parts of the Colorado River. This is not new, but these, uh, invasive plants thrive along parts of the Colorado River and they're really taking over this area here where there's a lot of exposed mud. It's a bizarre scene here.

Denise Guerra: This has to be Mordor. 

Ian James: That's, this is what the, the river guy described as the gates of Mordor, I guess. And I see why. There's this wide, I don't know, how do you describe that? It's this, this tower of mud and sand.

Denise Guerra: And Ian, we know what happens next.

Ian James: Yeah, it got treacherous out there, it was a close call. 

Denise Guerra: We're gonna hit some rapids. Water is moving pretty fast. We're seeing some swells, uh, going in different directions.

John: This is getting too risky. This is pretty gnarly. I mean, I don't know if I'm willing to, uh, flip a boat for, for this.

Denise Guerra: This area had turned the water shallow with sandbanks and mud islands creating obstacles for us going forward. So we all decided it was best to turn back around, ending our journey on this portion of our Colorado River trip. 

But it wasn’t over for John and Ian, while I had to head back to Los Angeles, the rest of the crew docked the boat and got into their cars for one final stop: Glen Canyon Dam

Ian James:. Yeah, we drove about five hours to Lees Ferry and then we camped, and the next morning we motored upstream for several miles.

John: I just can't believe how clear the water is just completely silt free because there's a dam. We went from an environment of intense sediment, and then now we're going to a place with none except for coarse gravels and stones and cobbles and to me it's sad because I know this is not what the Colorado River is supposed to look like or smell like.

Ian James: What you're seeing is that it's dam controlled and the silt and sediment flowing in the water, it's not the way the river would naturally be. 

John:Yeah. It's, artificial beauty. It's, it's, I call it a designer ecosystem. In other words, it's what man wants it to look like, not what nature itself looks, wants it to look like. Nature would brown this up a bit, put some driftwood in it, lots of sand.

Ian James: And then we rounded one corner where there were big power lines above us. And then straight ahead, Glen Canyon Dam, we saw this face of concrete. 

Denise Guerra: How did John talk about what you were seeing?

Ian James: We had tied up the boat there near the base of the dam, and we were talking about how he feels about this dam.

John: I see vanity, hubris, I see arrogance. That's what I see.

Ian James:  And what he'd like to see in the future.

John: I want the river back and the river's going to take it back, you know? But I, I want humans to say, yeah, let's put the river back. I think that's the right thing to do.

Ian James: And he said the longer the dam remains operational, the tougher restoration will be.

John: It's a, ecologically, it's a vibrant river. It's one of the most vibrant I've ever seen in my life but it's the only river we got, I mean, we don't have alternatives, except for groundwater, and we've depleted that too, so we're backed into a corner. 

Denise Guerra: The stakes are high and years of drought and overuse has put into question the great ambition that was harnessing the water stored in Lake Powell and the power generated by Glen Canyon Dam. 

The fact is Lake Powell is in dire straits compounded by a receding Colorado River, and some proposals to take water out of Lake Powell and put into Lake Mead, or piping water to other areas of Utah. It's all very complicated, with very different stakeholders.

And whether welcomed or not, the draining of Lake Powell continues.

GUSTAVO: On our next episode: The history of how Native American tribes along the Colorado River secured their rights to its water is complicated and rooted in structural racism. And to this day, some tribes still don’t have their water rights settled. We travel to the Fort Mojave Indian Reservation to understand how one tribe views the Colorado River, and how they want to change the system that manages it.  

GUSTAVO: And that's it for this episode of “The Times: Essential News From the L.A. Times.” Kasia Broussalian and Denise Guerra were the jefas on this episode. Mario Diaz mixed and mastered it. Jazmin Aguilera and Heba Elorbany edited it.

Our show is produced by Denise Guerra, Kasia Broussalian, David Toledo and Ashlea Brown. Our editorial assistants are Robert Reyes and Nicolas Perez. Our engineers are Mario Diaz, Mark Nieto and Mike Heflin. Our editor is Kinsee Morlan. Our executive producers are Jazmin Aguilera, Heba Elorbany and Shani Hilton, and our theme music is by Andrew Eapen.

I’m Gustavo Arellano. We'll be back Monday with all the news and desmadre. Gracias.