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When the Glen Canyon Dam flooded an area prized for its natural beauty in the 1960s, environmentalists said it was a mistake. Now, they say the time is right to fix that as climate change transforms the water systems of the Southwest

The Glen Canyon Dam in northern Arizona, near the border with Utah, holds back water in the Lake Powell reservoir, which has fallen to low levels that threaten the electrical output of the dam.Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

Three years ago, Tick Segerblom got a call from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Agents wanted to speak with him. They refused to say why.

“I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God – my political career, who knows what I’ve done,’ ” recalled Mr. Segerblom, a former Nevada state assemblyman and senator who is now a commissioner in Clark County. When the agents arrived in his office just north of the Vegas strip, “I’m sweating bullets,” he said.

They started with a question: “Did you say you want to destroy Glen Canyon Dam?”

The answer was yes.

In fact, Mr. Segerblom had said so in public, citing destruction of the half-century-old dam, which turned Glen Canyon into the Lake Powell reservoir, as his life’s ambition. Before it was flooded, the 273-kilometre-long Glen Canyon was considered among the most beautiful places on the continent, rivalling the Grand Canyon. Its submergence is still seen by some as one of the greatest environmental mistakes in U.S. history.

“You don’t destroy a billion-year-old canyon for anything – let alone to build a city out here in the desert so that people can fly around the world to come and gamble,” said Mr. Segerblom, who grew up rafting and water-skiing on the Colorado River and spent three years as a guide before embarking on his career in law and politics.

At the time of his conversation with the FBI, which led to no charges, the idea of dispatching one of the country’s most important pieces of infrastructure was not taken very seriously. The Glen Canyon Dam, completed in 1966, supplies water and electricity to people in Arizona. And it works in tandem with the Hoover Dam – both are landmark structures over 200 metres in height – to hold back mountain meltwaters flowing down the Colorado River. Those waters provide year-round hydration to farmers and roughly 42 million people who live in the southwestern United States.

But after 23 years of drought, the water behind both dams has fallen to perilously low levels. Each reservoir is now at roughly a quarter of its capacity. Water managers have resorted to emergency measures to maintain the hydroelectric generating capacity at Glen Canyon, holding back vast volumes of water and releasing additional quantities from upstream to keep turbines turning.

Without that response, it’s possible Glen Canyon’s electrical output would have come to a halt this year, said David Arend, a deputy regional director at the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates dams on the Colorado River. But those measures amount to a short-term fix, he said. The bureau’s latest 24-month forecast shows water levels falling next summer to within five-and-a-half metres of the minimum needed to generate electricity.

As the drought deepens, the Bureau of Reclamation is planning for all sorts of contingencies, including what to do if water levels drop below that minimum. The bureau is examining options for satisfying southwestern water needs through desalination, wastewater recycling and more efficient irrigation. The goal is “to preserve the entire system as we go forward,” Mr. Arend said.

Climate change has made it less likely that Lake Powell will return to its old levels in the future.Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

But that system, one that underpins life in the U.S. Southwest, now hangs in the balance like never before.

Barring a sudden return of heavy winter snows – which climate change has made increasingly improbable – water is unlikely to return naturally in large quantities to Glen Canyon’s Lake Powell.

As scientists study the long-term process that is drying out the region, there has never been a better time, some advocates say, to make a radical break with the way water has been managed. It’s time, they say, to allow water to freely flow past the Glen Canyon Dam, restoring the canyon and its visual wonders to something closer to their natural state.

“The dams have failed us. They don’t work,” said Richard Ingebretsen, a Utah physician and scholar who founded the Glen Canyon Institute, a group that has spent more than 25 years advocating for the canyon’s restoration. “They have to rethink the whole thing.”

The idea of consigning the Glen Canyon Dam to history “doesn’t seem so quixotic any more,” Mr. Segerblom said.

He and others want bypass tunnels built that would leave the dam standing but drain Lake Powell to bring a wild river back to Glen Canyon.

Water flows from the dam's bypass tubes in 2004.Jeff Topping/Getty Images

The canyon’s flooding in the 1960s was controversial from the outset. It was opposed by environmental groups and “river runners” – people who guided visitors down its narrow channels and developed a near-religious devotion to its grandeur.

“Would you flood the Sistine Chapel? Would you flood the Mormon Temple? To make money?” asked Ken Sleight, who travelled through Glen Canyon and its adjoining gorges hundreds of times before it was flooded. It became his home, he said – a place rich with archaeological evidence of more than 10,000 years of human use.

Mr. Sleight has not returned since 1973, when the waters rose. “There was no more Glen Canyon as I knew it,” he said.

In the past two years, however, some of the places he knew have begun to return. Falling water levels have re-exposed Cathedral in the Desert, a natural rock amphitheatre crowned by a waterfall. Gregory Bridge, an overpass of thick stone that is among the largest natural bridges on earth, will likely emerge completely by next year as reservoir levels fall.

“I say glory, glory hallelujah to see that water coming down,” said Mr. Sleight, a legend of the Colorado River who at 92 retains a keen memory of its hidden corners and the people who once explored them.

Restoring the canyon is only one of the necessary responses to the drought, he said. “I think we just got to cut down on population,” he argued. “Don’t have to get rid of the ones we got, but you can just start saying: ‘Don’t have so damn many.’ ”

Former river runner Ken Sleight, 92, has for decades opposed the flooding of Glen Canyon.Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

It’s a view that reflects widespread anxiety over the extremity of the current water shortfall. And it places into stark relief the stakes for those determined to protect western water supplies, and the system built to deliver them.

Earlier this summer, Bureau of Reclamation commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton warned, in comments to a U.S. Senate committee, that the system has reached a critical juncture. Seven states rely on the Colorado River basin, and they have failed to create plans for sufficient water-use cutbacks.

Ms. Touton said during a news conference earlier this week that 15-per-cent to 30-per-cent reductions in use will be needed – unprecedented cuts that may need to be imposed by the U.S. government. “The system is approaching a tipping point, and without action we cannot protect the system and the millions of Americans who rely on this critical resource,” she added.

Roughly two-thirds of the Colorado’s waters are used to irrigate fields that produce winter crops, meaning steep water reductions are likely to be felt far away, including in Canada. Arizona and California alone exported nearly US$900-million in vegetables, fruit and nuts to Canada in 2019.

Such changes may not prove temporary. What’s taking place along the Colorado River is often labelled a drought. John Entsminger, general manager of the Las Vegas Valley Water District, argued that it is better to think of it as aridification – a long-term process, driven by climate change, that is creating permanently drier conditions.

The sole solution, he said, would be a “permanent reduction in overall water usage by every sector in every state in the Colorado River basin.” A century-old compact provides for the use of roughly 15 million acre-feet of water from the basin by the states that rely on it. “Some of the best climate scientists in the world are telling us we’re going to be lucky to have 11 million acre-feet of water going forward,” Mr. Entsminger said. (An acre-foot is 1.2 million litres.)

But closing the Glen Canyon Dam is not a viable solution, he said, because of its role in providing water and electricity to people in Arizona, including parts of the Navajo Nation. Unless alternatives can be found, he sees little choice but to keep the dam in operation.

Besides, said Chuck Cullom, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, which oversees water allocation to states in the upper parts of the basin, there are ways to make better use of the water supplies that remain. “The technology to address this problem is readily available,” he said, pointing to Singapore’s success in recycling water, and the vibrant agricultural sector in arid Israel.

“It’s about targeted investment, transition economics and a willingness to do things differently,” he said. So much of the Colorado’s water is used to irrigate grazing land for cattle that some water managers have joked the problem could be addressed by millions of people adopting meatless Mondays.

An official at the Carlsbad desalination plant in California fills a cup with filtered water made from ocean water.Gregory Bull/The Associated Press

Even a blunt-force approach could secure considerable water supplies at a cost the U.S. economy could absorb. The Carlsbad desalination plant outside San Diego cost about US$1-billion to build, and produces 56,000 acre-feet per year of fresh water. That suggests, in rough terms, a US$35-billion price tag for two million acre-feet worth of desalination plants – less than 5 per cent of the cost of the health care and climate spending package U.S. Democrats recently passed.

“The question is whether we are willing to take the necessary actions,” Mr. Cullom said. If not, “we will no longer control our own destiny on what the future of the Colorado River looks like. It will be dictated either through a catastrophe on the system or protracted conflict and litigation.”

The only way to avoid that outcome is to countenance disruption, said Jack Schmidt, a watershed scientist at Utah State University. “We’re out of small changes,” he said. “If we have another dry winter this coming winter, the system is truly threatened.” Even if the snows do fall, aridification means it’s unlikely that either Lake Powell or Lake Mead, the reservoir behind the Hoover Dam, will be remotely full again. With that reality, he said, comes an opportunity to ask anew what is the best way to store water.

Removing the Glen Canyon Dam would have far-reaching implications for how the Colorado River basin's water is distributed to farms and cities.Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Any change to the Glen Canyon Dam would have to confront its legislative and environmental importance. The dam serves as the guarantor of water supplies for states in the upper Colorado basin, and removing it would create difficult complications related to the allocation of water rights.

It has also protected native fish downstream in the Grand Canyon, where scientists have successfully reintroduced humpback chub, a once-endangered species that last year was reclassified as threatened. The dam has largely kept out predators like small-mouth bass, although declining water levels mean some of those fish are already finding their way downstream.

Still, for species like the humpback chub, maintaining the Glen Canyon Dam “is a good short-term strategy,” said Charles Yackulic, a research statistician with the U.S. Geological Survey.

“But how long you can keep doing that depends on the willingness of states – and society – to use less water out of the Colorado River.”

For Mr. Segerblom, however, bypassing the dam would mark a break with the decades of decisions and overuse that led to the current water crisis.

“If we could get rid of it, or at least decommission it, it would show that we recognize our folly, and say, ‘Look, we were wrong.’ ”


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