On 15 October 1956 President Dwight D. Eisenhower pushed a button at his White House desk, initiating the blast that started construction of the Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona, eight miles below the Utah border. Not only did this put in motion a mammoth building project by the Bureau of Reclamation, it also was one more effort to end the free-rolling life of the Colorado River, a knowledge of whose history is essential in understanding the West.
The dammed water of Lake Powell backed up the flows of the Colorado and San Juan rivers 186 miles and 72 miles respectively, creating 1,960 miles of shoreline (more than that along the New England coast). It also rendered unserviceable prehistoric, historic, and religious sites of value. The Navajo lost at least two sacred places. The confluence of the San Juan and the Colorado was a meeting place where two Navajo deities, embodied in theses rivers, met to create water children of the cloud and rain people. Nearby stood Rainbow Bridge, an arch with a span of 278 feet. Said to be male and female holy beings who created clouds, rainbows, and moisture, this site, like the confluence, is no longer used for worship. The waters of Lake Powell are eroding the foot of the rainbow while crowds of pleasure seekers land at the dock facilities nearby, making public this place of privacy.
Historic sites have disappeared including the Crossing of the Fathers, used by Escalante and Dominquez in 1776; the fording place on the Hole-in-the-Rock Trail created by the Mormons in 1880; gold mining sites of the 1880s, 1890s, and early 1900s; and rock art panels and homes of the Anasazi. Even the glen in which John Wesley Powell stood in awe and for which the canyon and dam took its name, is covered beneath 500 feet of water.
In exchange for these losses, the dam has created one of the largest man-made lakes in the United States. Forecasters estimated during the 1950s that it would have up to a half million visitors during a year; it can now boast that number on a Labor Day weekend alone. Some come to fish, others to swim and boat, still others to explore, but all come to enjoy the red rock, sand, and sun for which Lake Powell is famous. Marinas located at Page, Wahweap, Bullfrog, Hall’s Crossing, and Hite sit on land that used to be visited only by Navajos, Paiutes, and an occasional white man, but which now serves hundreds of thousands of people.
In 1957 the Navajo tribe exchanged more than 53,000 acres bordering the south bank of the Colorado River for a similar amount of land on McCracken Mesa near Montezuma Creek, Utah. This transfer provided the necessary land for the dam. At the dam site, work crews founded Page, Arizona, named after John C. Page, the Commissioner of Reclamation between 1937 and 1943. The town soon became a city of service industries, catering to tourist needs and electric power generation. The Navajos, as part of this and later agreements, waived their rights to 43,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water necessary for the operation of Glen Canyon Dam. In return, Page was built on leased reservation lands, money was funneled into tribal coffers, and Navajo preference in employment was promised. Today, the 800-megawatt hydroelectric dam is operated by the Bureau of Reclamation, which sends its power to large metropolises in the West.
Problems, however, have arisen. The fluctuating water levels of the lake determined how much water would be released from the dam each year. The rising and lowering levels created intense downstream erosion, so an established amount is now turned loose annually. A continuing problem occurs when the silt-laden water of the San Juan and Colorado rivers hits the still water of the lake, dropping its burden and filling the reservoir with sand and soil. One government report estimates that in 400 years Lake Powell will be one big sandbox.
The Navajo Generating Station in Page creates a another problem. Started in 1974, this coal-fired plant is capable of producing 2,250 megawatts of power during its peak season in August. To do this, however, it must burn 1,000 tons of coal per hour–coal that is shipped by electric train from Black Mesa, seventy miles away. Las Vegas, Tucson, and Los Angeles get the power they demand, but the nitrogen oxides and other gas emissions from the plant create an unsightly brown haze that hangs over Page and its environs and reduces visibility in the Grand Canyon. Thus, one of the biggest issues facing Lake Powell today is how to preserve the quality of experience to be enjoyed by generations to come.
Robert S. McPherson