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Water-use saga: The return of Glen Canyon

After a beautiful landscape reemerged, a new plan for Lake Powell water usage has taken shape.

By Kurt LancasterCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / August 26, 2009

Huge Cathedral in the Desert rock formations, once submerged in Clear Creek Canyon, is again visible at Lake Powell near Page, Ariz.

David McNew/Getty Images


Flagstaff, Ariz.

“I don’t know that there’s very many people in the world who want to kiss, love, hug, lick, touch, and talk to sandstone,” says 89-year-old Katie Lee, as she sums up the loss she felt when the 170-mile Glen Canyon in Arizona was dammed in 1965. The Colorado River backed up, creating one of the largest reservoirs in the United States, Lake Powell, etching about 2,000 miles of shoreline as it flooded the main canyon and nearly 200 side canyons.

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The purpose of the dam was to help meet the water supply of growing Western cities from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. But Ms. Lee, a former Hollywood actress who moved to Arizona and later became the winner of the Glen Canyon Institute’s David Brower Award for outstanding environmental activism, would emotionally refer to the event as a “drowning.”

The construction of Glen Canyon Dam near Page, Ariz., was a controversial project from its inception in 1956. Environmentalists pointed out that numerous natural wonders would be submerged. They also raised issues of land use and the cost to the environment.

For Lee, her love affair with Glen Canyon began more than 50 years ago when she first floated down the Colorado River into a rare wilderness area that Annette McGivney, author of a new book about Glen Canyon, says is “possibly more beautiful than [the] Grand Canyon.”

Landscape photographer James Kay was only a child when the dam flooded the canyon, but he later heard stories that described the landscape lying below the surface of Lake Powell as an “inspiring, magical place.”

In 1995, he visited the site of Cathedral of the Desert, one of those submerged natural formations. Reflecting back on the moment, he remembers thinking, “I probably will never get to see it, and it’s really a shame.”

Lee and Mr. Kay may have felt something of an affinity with the characters in Edward Abbey’s 1975 novel, “The Monkey Wrench Gang,” who planned the destruction of Glen Canyon Dam. But now the Colorado River and Glen Canyon aren’t what they once were – and it has nothing to do with fictional ecoterrorists.

A drought beginning in 1999 caused a 145-foot drop in Lake Powell’s water level by 2005, exposing the once-submerged canyons to sunlight, air, and public view.