In the third section of John McPhee’s Encounters with the Archdruid, the author observes the discourse between conservationist David Brower and Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, Floyd Dominy, on the merits of dams in the southwestern United States. Brower “hates all dams, large and small,” while Dominy sees dams as essential to our civilization. The Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell, which Dominy created, are the main issue of debate between the two men.
Floyd Dominy graduated from the University of Wyoming in 1932 and, after an unsuccessful stint as a teacher, became a county agricultural agent for the federal government in Wyoming’s Gillette County. This was the time of the Great Depression and also a great drought in the American Midwest, which quickly garnered the name of the “dust bowl.” Frustrated by the lack of water available to farmers in his county, Dominy orchestrated the building of many dams in Gillette County, providing water to thirsty farmers and their livestock. Rewarded with a job in the Bureau of Reclamation for his efforts, Dominy became the Bureau’s director in 1959 and oversaw the construction of Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River.
Completed in 1962, the 710 foot tall dam built out of 4.9 million cubic yards of concrete has a reservoir (Lake Powell) that has a maximum capacity of 27 million acre-feet and is the one of the largest reservoirs in the world. Lake Powell has become a popular water recreation site and provides homes with about 1 million kilowatts of hydroelectric power and 8.23 million acre-feet of water and irrigation per year. Dominy views the dam as a great asset, both to provide utilities and to provide recreation – “Now people can fish, swim, water-ski, sun-bathe. Can’t you imagine going there with your family for a weekend, getting away from everybody? But Mr. Brower says we destroyed it.” (174)
David Brower was born in 1912 in Berkeley Hills, California. When he was young his father used to take him to the Sierra, where Brower found his love for nature. After leaving his study of entomology at UC-Berkeley, Brower left for the Sierra, and became a world-class mountaineer, conquering over seventy mountain peaks. John McPhee even mused that “if he were to be set down at night anywhere in the Sierra Nevada, with the coming morning he would know just where he is.” After serving as a decorated platoon leader in World War II, Brower started his work with the Sierra Club, becoming the first executive director of the club in 1952. Over this remarkable period until his dismissal in 1969, Brower would become the world’s foremost naturalist and environmental conservationist.
The flooding of Glen Canyon was very personal to Brower, and his failure to stop the dam’s construction haunted him for the rest his life. He referred to it as “America’s most regretted environmental mistake,” and “the greatest failure of his life.” (163) In 1952, the Echo Park and Split Mountain Dams were proposed, which threatened the Green and Yampa Rivers and Dinosaur National Monument. Brower led the Sierra Club into action. Successfully, under his leadership, the Sierra Club defeated the Bureau of Reclamation hands down. But the victory at Dinosaur Monument was tempered by the Sierra Club’s offer of support for a dam downstream at Glen Canyon – a higher dam, in fact, than one proposed earlier by the Bureau of Reclamation. Brower spoke in favor of a high dam at Glen Canyon, a speech he came to regret until the very end. While his supporters urged him not to blame himself, he repeatedly reminded whoever would listen that he could have done more to stop it. He believed that the fact he dam existed was his fault. He felt that he was not adequately prepared for his own mission, and if he had been, the dam would not have been built.
Brower referred to Glen Canyon as “the place no one knew.” Before the construction of the dam and the creation of Lake Powell, Glen Canyon was one of the remotest places in the United States. Few people ever set foot in the Canyon, and after the construction of the dam, no one else would ever see it. Brower viewed nature as a sacred place, a place that must be “earned.” He hated the idea of people developing wilderness areas. He felt that cities should have strict boundaries, and people should stay there. Brower and Dominy have conflicting views in this situation. Brower is disgusted by the development around Lake Powell and the destruction of the wilderness that is now beneath it. “Lake Powell is a drag strip for power boats. It’s for people who won’t do things except the easy way. The magic of Glen Canyon is dead. It has been vulgarized.” (240)
Dominy, on the other hand, is proud that he has created such a beautiful lake and has made it accessible to the masses. Dominy is tired of trying to satisfy a noisy minority while trying to bring water, power, and recreation to the people. “I’m a greater conservationist that you are, by far. I do things. I make things available to man. Unregulated, the Colorado River wouldn’t be worth a good God damn to anybody…Do you want to keep this country the way it is for a handful of people?” (240)
Beside these arguments, there is also a more quantitative side to the debate. The ecological detriments of the Glen Canyon Dam have been well-documented. Extensive changes were brought about in the Colorado River ecosystem by the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam. Most of these alterations negatively affected the functioning of the system and the native aquatic species of the river. The reduced supply and transport of sediment is the primary factor responsible for the degradation of the post-dam Glen Canyon ecosystem.
When the dam was completed, and the flow of the Colorado River was stifled, sediment traveling along with the river was blocked by the dam and began to build up in the Lake Powell reservoir. Due to the sediment-free water flowing evenly out of the dam and the associated extreme drop in water temperature, many species of fish, amphibians, and insects which use sediments for habitats, spawning ground, and protection, have been put at great risk.
Another problem arising from the dam is silt aggradation. Aggradation is the accumulation of sediment where the river flow slows as it approaches Lake Powell. Aggraded sediment deposits accumulate upstream, eventually piling up hundreds of feet above the current reservoir level. Huge sediment deposits have already filled some of the upper sections of the reservoir. Under current hydrological conditions, enough sediment flows into Lake Powell to potentially fill it up to the river outlet valve level within 100 years. When silt reaches these safety valves, the dam will become unsafe and need to be decommissioned. Since the completion of the Glen Canyon Dam in 1963, enormous amounts of sediment have been steadily accumulating behind the dam. While the impacts of sedimentation weren’t understood prior to the construction of the dam, significant problems have emerged with the relentless buildup of sediment behind Glen Canyon Dam.
Economically, on the other hand, the Glen Canyon Dam has provided many benefits since its 1963 completion. It has provided water supply and power for much of the southwestern United States, and parts of Mexico. The Glen Canyon Dam is part of the Colorado River Storage Project, implemented mainly to supply power to Native American reservations, Rural Electric Co-ops, government facilities, and municipalities. The Glen Canyon Dam supplies 75-85% of the power generation for this project. 85% of the dam’s water goes to irrigation projects.
With the input of irrigation, the arid regions of these states have become fertile agricultural lands. Because of the high productivity of these areas, many customers in the United States are provided with fruits and vegetables year-round. Lake Powell has also provided many economic benefits. It is one of the most popular tourist sites in the southwest, bringing in about 4 million tourists and $2.5 million each year.
The Glen Canyon Dam issue is a complicated one. Do the benefits of electricity and water outweigh the ecological detriments? Is there any other option besides building a dam to provide these utilities? It is difficult to find unbiased information weighing these issues fairly. In addition there are the more metaphysical, moral issues surrounding dams. Is it right to impose ourselves upon nature is such a way? Are we really harming our future with short-sighted projects like the Glen Canyon Dam? The question is one of the true nature of progress and the advancement of civilization. Is the Earth meant to be subdued by man or to be preserved in a constant search for paradise? The ultimate goal, I suppose, is to find a way to make advance and enrich our lives without detriment to our environment.