If It’s Not One Dam Thing…

Nestled among the huge turbines and concrete buttresses of Hoover
Dam on the lower Colorado River lies a marble map of the stars. The
map is intended to show future inhabitants of the Southwest that
the New Deal?era builders of the dam knew their place in the
universe. Their unspoken assumption was that the gigantic dam,
completed in 1935, would stand for countless generations ? long
enough that visitors might no longer speak anything recognizably
like English, but might be able to read a celestial chart. The
builders of Glen Canyon Dam, 350 miles upstream in northern
Arizona, also assumed that the massive concrete-and-steel structure
would stand for centuries. Completed in 1963 as part of a federal
program to control the flow of the Colorado River and irrigate the
surrounding region, the dam created 200-mile-long Lake Powell, one
of the largest artificial bodies of water on the planet.

Now, 35 years later, the Sierra Club has sounded a call for Glen
Canyon Dam to be dismantled and Lake Powell drained. The club’s
leadership argues that, among other things, Lake Powell is an
inefficient reservoir that loses an unacceptable amount of water to
evaporation ? about 1 million acre feet a year, nearly enough to
meet the annual water needs of Los Angeles ? and the dam’s
hydroelectric-generating capability is unnecessary at a time when
the West enjoys a surplus of electrical power. Glen Canyon has long
been a symbol of everything wrong about giant development projects.
Edward Abbey based his famed novel The Monkey-Wrench Gang
around a plot to blow up the dam, and former Arizona senator Barry
Goldwater and former Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, who
both helped push through the project in the 1960s, now say it was a
terrible mistake. Other environmental groups, including the
National Audubon Society, have expressed support for the idea,
which was originally proposed by the Glen Canyon Institute. There
is plenty of opposition as well. But the debate currently swirling
over Glen Canyon is only part of an increasingly noisy dialogue
over the future of dams worldwide.

Large hydroelectric projects are under attack as never before,
writes G. Pascal Zachary in In These Times (Nov. 2, 1997).
The government of Malaysia recently halted construction of the
massive Bakun Dam; the U.S. Export-Import Bank has refused to
guarantee American contracts for Three Gorges Dam in China (see
Utne Reader, July/Aug. 1996); and Germany has withdrawn
financing for a major hydroelectric project in Nepal, effectively
killing another major dam. And in the United States, the Federal
Energy Regulatory Commission recently approved for the first time
the removal of an operating hydroelectric dam, the 160-year-old
Edwards Dam on Maine’s Kennebec River. ‘Once icons of progress,’
Zachary writes, ‘big dams now symbolize waste, inefficiency, and
corruption.’

Dam projects traditionally have overestimated economic returns
while underestimating social and environmental costs, according to
an Environmental Defense Fund study. As EDF senior scientist
Deborah Moore put it, dams displace native people and steer power
to cities at the expense of rural land, which ultimately has the
effect of widening the gap between rich and poor.

Last September a group of representatives from various aid
agencies and the dam industry convened in Washington to create a
World Commission on Dams. The commission has been charged with
drafting a set of environmental, economic, and social standards to
govern the actions of international financing agencies, such as the
World Bank, and set reparations for people harmed by dams already
in operation. But the commission is not likely to be of much help
in Glen Canyon, the site more than 40 years ago of one of the
Sierra Club’s most bitter defeats. The group, under then-president
David Brower, had loudly protested the project, organizing a
national campaign to save Glen Canyon and citing the area’s beauty
and accessibility. But when the federal Bureau of Reclamation
agreed to cancel proposed dams in Dinosaur Park and Echo Park on
the upper reaches of the Colorado River system, the Sierra Club’s
leadership capitulated. They reasoned, Brower recalls in his 1990
memoir For Earth’s Sake, that a partial victory was better than no
victory at all. It was a decision the Sierra Club would forever
regret.

As controversial as the project was in the ’50s, the plan to
restore Glen Canyon to its original state is generating an even
more heated debate. Many residents of the Lake Powell area, of
course, oppose the plan, arguing that jobs and ways of life would
disappear along with the dam. Colorado Republican senator Ben
Nighthorse Campbell has called the Sierra Club’s proposal ‘a
certifiable nut idea’; other Western politicians, Ed Marston writes
in High Country News (Nov. 10, 1997), have similarly
‘offered no intelligent or constructive critique’ but have loudly
denounced the plan all the same. And some environmentalists, Jason
Zengerle reports in The New Republic (Nov. 24, 1997),
believe restoring Glen Canyon is an environmental impossibility.
They fear that the delicate network of small seeps and springs that
fed the long-drowned canyon will never return, that toxic sediments
supposedly now resting on Lake Powell’s floor would create a
public-health nightmare if they were to become airborne, and that
the lake’s saline water has whitewashed the canyon walls to create
what Zengerle calls ‘the world’s largest bathtub ring.’

Zengerle maintains that the Sierra Club has called for the
destruction of Glen Canyon Dam largely to garner publicity and
attract new members. The organization, under its 25-year-old
president, Adam Werbach, is aggressively recruiting a younger, more
activist constituency by assuming a more militant public stance.
Trouble is, most of the major battles have already been fought and
won. ‘If the Sierra Club is going to be a crusader, it’s going to
need a crusade,’ Zengerle writes. ‘And that’s where draining Lake
Powell comes in.’

Just as the fight over Glen Canyon three decades ago sparked a
rethinking of the value of dam-building that eventually spread
around the world, the current Glen Canyon controversy may open a
new round of global debate about whether dam damage can be reversed
through environmental restoration. No doubt there are plenty of dam
operators who will be interested in the outcome of the discussion
this time around.

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