Eric Balken is the executive director for the Glen Canyon Institute, which is dedicated to the restoration of Glen Canyon and a free flowing Colorado River. Eric grew up and still lives in Salt Lake City, Utah where he developed an early love for mountains, rivers and deserts.
“The Glen Canyon Institute was founded in 1990 with a mission to restore Glen Canyon in a free flowing Colorado River. I tell people that we’re a science based advocacy group. So a lot of our work focuses on coordinating scientific research that otherwise wouldn’t get done by the government or any other entity. Research that’s important in providing information for policy that makes up the Colorado River. We commit ourselves to public education and advocating for Glen Canyon and the river to policymakers, lawmakers, the public and the media.
When Glen Canyon Dam was first commissioned in the 1950s, there were no environmental laws to speak of. There was no EPA, there was no Endangered Species Act. None of that existed. And so when the dam was commissioned and when it was built, there was this huge vacuum of information, a huge vacuum of data. We all know now that the impacts of that dam were tremendous and we have been—when I say we, I mean society—we’ve sort of been putting the pieces together after of what the impacts of that dam were without really knowing before.
So the studies that we’ve done on sediment and hydrology and economics, these are studies that agencies aren’t going to do, but are real important for the greater public good, and for Glen Canyon and the Colorado River.
Glen Canyon is effectively Lake Powell today. Most of it, below Glen Canyon Dam is Grand Canyon National Park. Right above Glen Canyon is Canyonlands National Park. To the east is Bears Ears National Monument and to the west is Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. So right smack in the middle of all of that is Glen Canyon, which Edward Abbey called the heart of the Colorado River. A lot of people consider it the ecological heart of the Colorado River.
There were a number of endemic fish species on the Colorado River that had migratory tendencies. Before all the dams were built, the Colorado River Pike Minnow, for example, it would migrate all the way from the Sea of Cortez to the upper reaches of the river in Colorado and Wyoming.
And there’s the Razorback Sucker and other endemic fish species. They’re endemic. They exist nowhere else besides the Colorado River basin. The geography of Glen Canyon was full of hundreds of side canyons, kind of slow moving water with alcoves and back pools. It was believed to be an ideal habitat for those fish species. So when the dam was built and this area was inundated, it had a really big impact on the endemic fish species of the river. And the true extent to that impact, we’ll never really know because the information about those fish prior to the dam was somewhat minimal.
I know we’re kind of talking about the physical place right now, but in thinking about the historical place of the 1950s, this is when the United States was in our post World War II era. Charles Wilkinson, the author, called this era the big buildup. We were building the freeway system. We were building nuclear plants. We were building coal plants and we were building large hydroelectric dams all over the west. And the ethos of the country at that time was really to build, build, build, and we weren’t thinking about potential consequences. So, that’s the context in which Glen Canyon Dam was commissioned in 1956 and after it was built, there was a pretty sizable uproar over what was lost in Glen Canyon.
David Brower, the former director of the Sierra Club, he famously made this sort of deal with the Bureau of Reclamation, that if they didn’t build a dam up in Echo Park on the Green River, then they wouldn’t fight this proposed dam down in Glen Canyon. Of course he hadn’t been to Glen Canyon and he didn’t realize how special this place was. Wallace Stegner told him Echo Park wouldn’t hold a candle to Glen Canyon. He said Glen Canyon was better than six Echo Parks. And so it was this big mistake. People realized what was being lost and it caused this huge uproar. A lot of people consider this to be an important part of American environmentalism because after this people said, ‘Wait a minute, we can’t just dam every section of river. So much is lost when we do this.’
There were two proposed dams in the Grand Canyon that were set to be built. The bureau was on their way to doing it. They even drilled the pilot holes to build the dam down in—I think—Marble Canyon. And the Sierra Club led a successful campaign to stop those dams. And part of that is because people were so upset about Glen Canyon. So, physically Glen Canyon is central to the Colorado River and the Colorado River ecosystem. And then historically, Glen Canyon is also central to American environmentalism.
Some of the mythology around the Colorado River, it all kind of stems from Glen Canyon. And you see that in writers like Wallace Stegner and Katie Lee, and Ed Abbey, of course. And then, once it was lost, a lot of people just said no more. You know, we’re not going to build any more big dams on the Colorado River.
It was an ah-ha moment or an oh-oh moment for a lot of people, like what have we done? Barry Goldwater and some of the lawmakers who had supported this dam went on to regret it afterward. They said it was a mistake. You know, certain places are worth protecting.”
“Lake Mead and Lake Powell are the two largest reservoirs on the river. They’re the two largest reservoirs in the country. And they’re sort of the key components of the Colorado River water storage makeup. Lake Mead is behind Hoover Dam. It was built in the 1930s and Lake Powell is behind Glen Canyon Dam, completed in 1963 when the gates first shut.
And so these two reservoirs are kind of the sister reservoirs for the upper and lower Colorado River basins. So the Colorado River basin spans Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, California, and Mexico. When the law of the river was first built, they couldn’t get the states to come to an agreement. And so they started off by splitting the basin into two, an upper basin in a lower basin. This was a huge mistake, by the way. This is one of the fatal flaws of Colorado River policy. The basin should have never been divided into two. It’s really illogical in a lot of ways. It’s all the same flow of water. It’s the same basin, it’s the same river, but the states couldn’t come to an agreement in the early days of trying to put together a compact. So they said, okay, we’ll at least split it into an upper basin in a lower basin. So they could just start to put together the allocations and Glen Canyon Dam is on that dividing line between the upper and lower basin.
And the reason it’s there is because part of the law of the river requires that the upper basin allows a certain amount of water to flow downstream to the lower basin. So Glen Canyon Dam was built as a way for upper basin states to deliver that amount—not one drop more than is legally required—and hang onto any excess.
They can measure it, but more importantly, they can hold back their water rights. The upper basin was allocated half of the river, the lower basin was allocated half of the river. And there’s a little bit of nuance to that. It’s not that clear cut. But Lake Powell is the main water storage tank for the upper basin and Lake Mead is the main storage tank for the lower basin.
Even though they’re sister reservoirs, they operate very differently because Lake Mead in the lower basin, it’s at the top of the basin. So a lot of people rely on Lake Mead’s water for that reason. So Nevada, for example, pulls water right out of Lake Mead. All of Southern Nevada’s water essentially comes from Lake Mead. And you know, they’ve been really good at recycling and conserving that water because they know that they’re so reliant on this fickle resource. And then, downstream the Central Arizona Project pulls water from these reservoirs. That goes to Phoenix and Tucson. Further downstream, water is delivered to the Imperial Irrigation District, All American Canal, cities like San Diego, California.
Those are big straws and all of those straws are fed by Lake Mead upstream. So in the upper basin Lake Powell is at the end of the line. There aren’t really any straws in Lake Powell. It’s there to meet this delivery obligation. It’s there to fulfill this accounting purpose, which is why David Brower, after all was said and done, he said, this is just a really expensive way to make water flow downstream.”
“And this is the way the business was done for decades and decades after Glen Canyon Dam was built. It really started to change in 2009. From 2000 to 2005 Lake Powell went from 100% full to 34% full because of low water years on the river. 80% of the Colorado River comes from snow pack. And this is when the impacts of climate change really started to hit the Colorado River basin, although we didn’t know that that’s what it was. People in the basin thought it was kind of a fluke. Just a little dry spell. We’ll get back to normal,
That was the perspective back then. And then it really started to hit home by 2007, 2008, 2009. We realized that the reservoirs were still relatively low and climate science started to evolve a lot too and started to shed light and say, ‘Hey, you know, if there’s warming in the basin, it’s going to affect runoff and it’s going to affect how efficient snow melt is in feeding this river and reservoir system.’ In 2012, the bureau finally acknowledged that if things didn’t change, Lake Mead and Lake Powell could potentially dry up. And so that’s when the context of Glen Canyon really changed.
In the early days of the rough and tumble environmentalists described in The Monkey Wrench Gang, Ed Abbey’s book, they were praying for a precision earthquake or people wanted to tear down the dam. When Lake Powell was full, I think the message was, just drain it because it’s the right thing to do. And what changed when these reservoirs came down is now it became clear that we couldn’t fill both reservoirs.
So if we can’t fill Lake Mead and Lake Powell and Lake Powell was this massive environmental mistake, why not fill Mead first and give Glen Canyon a chance to come back? So that’s when the idea of ‘Fill Mead First’ really came together, which is a policy proposal that we’ve been putting out there for the past 10 years.
Today, if you completely drained Lake Powell down to deadpool, Lake Mead would still only be 65% full. There is not enough water on this river to keep both of those reservoirs full, which means we have to start rethinking Glen Canyon and Glen Canyon Dam.
So right now the water level of Lake Powell is 3,522 feet above sea level. At elevation 3,490, that is minimum power pool. No power generation is possible below that elevation. And really we could hit minimum power pool above that. We don’t really know for sure because it’s an issue of swirling water and air bubbles going into the turbines, which would destroy them or damage them significantly.
So the two important levels we’re talking about are minimum power pool and dead pool. Minimum power pool is 3,490. Dead pool is 3,374 . The power pool is in relation to the eight hydro power intakes. And then the releases below that are called the river outlet works. And once the reservoir gets to that level, the outflow of the dam will match the inflow of the dam, and there will be a standing pool. It’ll be a really shriveled version of Lake Powell. But at that level you have some serious problems you have to address. At that level, you’re really not able to let a lot of water downstream to the Grand Canyon. So there would be some pretty serious environmental considerations of water temperature, dissolved oxygen content.
You wouldn’t be able to do high flow releases. Your recreation might be really limited by what you can release through these river outlet works. Structurally the bureau doesn’t really know how well these river outlet works operate. They’ve only used them a few times in the past, so they don’t know if they can just use them long term. So there’s some physical considerations there, too. Obviously you’re not generating hydro power at this point. And then perhaps most importantly, how does that delivery obligation work when you can only release a little bit of water downstream? And so these are some really big questions that we’ve tried to address.
Glen Canyon, if you did a cross section, it’s shaped like a martini glass. So most of the storage in Lake Powell is in the top 20 or the top hundred feet of the reservoir. And then once it dips down into these levels that we’re seeing now, you can see really rapid fluctuations in reservoir elevation. You’re getting to the bottom of the martini glass. If one shot fills up two inches of the martini glass, the second shot only fills up an inch at the top or whatever, you know? I don’t drink a lot, so I don’t know. And so if you had this deadpool reservoir with a normal seasonal runoff, you could have a reservoir that fluctuates by like over a hundred feet a season. So for the park service to try to manage boat ramps and marinas and visitors with this wildly fluctuating reservoir, it’s sort of a nightmare scenario. So, we need to start thinking about how to phase this reservoir out entirely.
It’s a really important consideration. You know, we’ve been portrayed as people who want to ruin other people’s houseboat vacations and kind of ruin their form of recreation. But the reality is that this is happening one way or the other. It doesn’t matter if you’re pro or anti Lake Powell, this is happening. This reservoir, at least the version that we knew in the eighties and nineties is long gone and all the climate science available to us suggests it’s never gonna fill again. So I think it’s really important to start thinking about this transition. We’re transitioning out of the era of Lake Powell. And so from an economic perspective for tourism, that’s a really big deal. I think in its peak, the tourism around Glen Canyon was around like 400 million a year, which is a big number. And it’s been less in more recent years, as you might imagine with kind of reduced visitorship, at least for water based activities.
So we need to have a thoughtful and strategic transition from a reservoir style economy to a more national park style economy is how I think about it. So instead of houseboats and motorboats and marinas that provide that sort of recreational opportunity, this would be more like river rafting, hiking. I’m not a big fan of off-road vehicles, but off-road vehicles, that’s gonna be what people are doing down there more. And I think there’s gonna be certain areas where it’s appropriate and certain areas that deserve protection from off-road vehicle use, but this is the type of transition that we’re talking about.
And I think that people just aren’t thinking about this enough. We just went down to Bullfrog Marina last week, we did a trip and I chat with the workers down there and try to get a sense of how they’re interpreting all these changes on the river. Bullfrog is really low. I mean, they have moved this reservoir back hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of feet. I can’t even imagine how many dollars worth of floating real estate is down there just with people’s houseboats and yachts that are parked there. And you know, I’ve asked them how much more can this drop before this marina is no longer operable? And the response is usually something like, ‘well, they say the lake’s gonna come up this year.’
In the long run, it’s not gonna come up. It always fluctuates, it goes up and down, but it’s on a downward path. So we’re really getting near that point where we have to start actively thinking about this transition. And I really feel for a lot of these employees down there. It kind of makes me sad that there isn’t a more open discussion about the transition. That transition’s gonna happen one way or another. The ease at which it happens depends on how much action we take ahead of time to prepare the surrounding communities like Page, Arizona, the Navajo Nation.
The sooner we start really thinking about transitioning to a national park style economy and treating this landscape differently, the more benefit there will be.”
“Our values as a society have evolved since 1956. We care about these species, this kind of natural habitat coming back. This is a value to us when, at least to the people in charge, it was not a value in the 1950s. And so we’re really being given this huge opportunity to rethink Glen Canyon. And there’s much to unpack there.
I want to mention too, the role that indigenous people could play here because when the dam was built, there was a lot of talk about the loss of archeological sites. Glen Canyon was this hotbed for human activity for over 10,000 years. There were ancestral Pueblo and different communities of people living in Glen Canyon. And there was a lot of evidence of that before the dam.
Archeological structures all over the place. I mean, just immeasurable. I think they found 2,500 that were cataloged and there were probably thousands more. They only had six or seven years to do their salvage survey as the water came up. That’s one of the real tragedies of Glen Canyon is the loss of that human history.
One part of the story that isn’t told as much is the loss or the impact to modern Native Americans that were living in Glen Canyon when the dam was built. I didn’t even learn about this till a few years ago, but there were Navajo people living in the canyon. And Hopi people. This is a very significant place to multiple Native American tribes. And they were displaced when it came up.
There were promises of economic opportunity. Some of those promises were true. And some of them probably didn’t play out as they were promised to the Native American tribes, very much in line with the policy towards Native Americans in the 1950s. It was wrong. As we looking at this place, coming back to life, is there an opportunity for indigenous people and the tribes who call this place home? Is there an opportunity for them to lead the management of the new Glen Canyon? I think there’s a lot of potential there.”
“Restoration probably means different things to different people. Glen Canyon will never be restored to exactly what it was. But there’s parts of it that’ll get pretty close. There’s the ecological restoration, the restoration of sediment moving out of the canyons. And then there’s a restoration of this place and the role that it plays in our society, bringing it into a national park or a national monument or a place that’s managed by the tribes like Bears Ears is just to the east. There could be a sort of restoration in our human relationship with Glen Canyon.
And then, to people who just want to go see Cathedral in the Desert…we take people down there all the time…and to just see that place come out of water, see the sediment get flushed out of this chamber. This is one of the crown jewels of Glen Canyon and to see them witness this lost icon of the American west…they see it again, there’s a restoration of that experience.
There was an account from an early river runner who described walking up the Escalante River and up Clear Creek towards Cathedral in the Desert. And they described hearing the waterfall as they approached the chamber. You could hear the waterfall before you could even see anything, before you could see Cathedral. And when the water [levels] came down at the end of last year, and we could actually walk in again, for the first time we heard the waterfalls. We were walking in and Jack, our outreach director, looked at me. He said, ‘You can hear the waterfall, just like they described in the old accounts.’ That experience was restored.
And so that’s a part of it too. That’s something that’s a little more qualitative, and it might not even really matter to a lot of people because it sounds kind of wonky when you’re describing it. But I can tell you for sure, everyone that I’ve ever taken in there, once they see it in the flesh, once they see it with their own eyes, the experience is very real and it’s very powerful. I think the restoration of our human experience with this place is something that has value, too.”
“What I’ve learned in being involved with Colorado River policy and Glen Canyon for this many years, is that things can change faster than you ever thought. I didn’t think we would see the reservoir drop this fast and it’s happening. Even though climate scientists had said this is a possibility, I didn’t think it could change this fast.
A lot of the story of the Colorado river is about the challenges, because there’s going to be a lot of heartache and pain. Farmers in Arizona are already taking curtailments and their way of life of growing alfalfa and cotton is going to change. The transition for them is not going well. They went from using a lot of water to water alfalfa, to just full cut off. No water. That’s not good policy. I don’t want to see that happen to the surrounding economies of Glen Canyon. It shouldn’t just be, ‘Oh, we’ll just hope it goes back to the way it was’ until you hit the wall.
We’ve got to be thinking about that transition. There’s going to be a lot of heartache on the Colorado River and a lot of stakeholders are going to have to make sacrifices. Glen Canyon is sort of this one, beautiful silver lining where there’s so much opportunity. There’s so much hope. And I think the world is starting to wake up to that. I just hope that we can get enough stakeholders and policy makers on board to really optimize this evolution that’s happening in Glen Canyon.
When this thing is all said and done, this could be the largest river restoration site in the world. When the dam was built, it backed up 186 miles of the Colorado River. So just the scale of this restoration is massive.
My advice is go see it. If you like Lake Powell, go recreate on it now while you still can. Take advantage of it. I understand why people love Lake Powell, and I would encourage people to take hikes up into the restoration areas. I would encourage people to learn about our relationship with water in the west and understand how it’s changing. Take advantage of the opportunities that are happening in Glen Canyon. Your mind will be blown. And then, wherever you live in the west, realize that we have to get smarter with water and learn about it and be a part of the solution.”
-What are some of your favorite memories around water?
-Have you ever been to Lake Powell or Glen Canyon Dam?
-Is your community sensitive to water scarcity issues?
-Charles Wilkinson talks about the era of the big buildup. Share your thoughts about the pros and cons of this era in our country’s history.
-What value does nature have beyond simple economics?
-How does one value the restoration of a natural environment?
-What sacrifices might you be willing to make to protect a natural resource?