Songs of the Dammed
It’s a 90-degree day in the desert, but my teeth chatter as a frigid wave of water crashes over me. The motorboat rises over a swell and plunges abruptly, only to be submerged by another wall of water that soaks all four people onboard. Fifty-mile-per-hour winds scour the desert and churn the typically placid blue waters of Lake Powell into tall whitecaps that launch from every direction. The water is so choppy that Jack Stauss, who steers the boat, must stand with his feet braced wide for leverage. Still, the next wave knocks him off balance. “Can you help me tighten my PFD?” he shouts over wind, motor, and water. I white-knuckle the handle on my seat and wrangle the straps of his faded red life jacket with my free hand.
On this blustery afternoon in May 2022, we are boating 9 miles across Lake Powell. An impoundment of the Colorado River that straddles the Utah-Arizona border, Powell is the second largest reservoir in the United States. Its nearly two thousand miles of red-rock cliffs and shoreline cradle upwards of 8 trillion gallons of water, all of it held back by Glen Canyon Dam.
But those numbers are dropping. A historic 23-year drought in the Southwest, a warming climate, and outsized human demands have all pinched the Colorado, which provides water to some 40 million people in seven states and two countries. They’ve also steadily drained Lake Powell. When we visit, the reservoir is well below its high-water mark, set in 1983—resting at one of its lowest levels since the mid-1960s, after it began filling. A growing bathtub ring—a white band of mineral residue on the porous red sandstone marking where the water has been—serves as a visual yardstick of loss.
This doesn’t bode well long-term for the Southwest’s water supply, or the hydropower the dam generates. But Glen Canyon, the storied landscape that Lake Powell began submerging 60 years ago, is now, in a sense, being reborn. Every foot that the reservoir falls slowly reveals pieces of the landscape-that-was: natural bridges, sleek walls, spindly towers. And between their narrow defiles of sandstone, the re-emerging side canyons now teem with cottonwood trees, willow groves, and brilliant wildflowers. Each time an unruly wave slaps the boat, I sense the muddy Colorado River alive beneath Powell’s surface, coming closer.
Seth Arens sits behind me in the stern. A climate scientist and ecologist, Arens is an experienced whitewater boatman, used to rowing rafts through rapids that crash over hidden rocks. “Square up the boat with the oncoming waves,” he calls helpfully to Stauss. “You’re getting pushed over towards the right canyon wall, shift directions so we don’t get slammed against it!” His encouragement thinly conceals the concern in his furrowed brow.
None of us are on this bucking ride for an adventure or vacation, like the millions of visitors who flock to the reservoir each year. This crew of scientists and desert rats is here to help Arens document the plants re-emerging within two formerly inundated tributary canyons.
Arens got the idea to pursue the project after rafting the Colorado through Cataract Canyon, the lower reaches of which had re-emerged upstream from Glen Canyon after Powell began to recede. He collaborated with the Returning Rapids Project, a team of scientists and boaters who travel annually down Cataract to monitor changes to the river corridor as reservoir levels decline, and began studying its tributary canyons, following along as the plant communities changed. Despite being submerged for decades, Arens found that the landscape was rapidly rebounding.
As falling water levels revealed more of Glen Canyon, he continued his research downstream. Glen Canyon Institute, a non-profit dedicated to the restoration and protection of the Canyon, provided funding for the expedition—and Stauss, its outreach director, to pilot the boat. “Every time I go out into the field I have legitimate feelings of exploration,” Arens tells me. “Like what am I going to find? This landscape in its current state is not really known. Depending on the area, it’s only been out of the water for one to 20 years, and very few people go to these places because of all the challenges to get here.”
Arens will continue the survey for several years, so it’s too soon for him process the data. But one thing is already clear: Glen Canyon is not merely returning—it’s becoming something utterly new.
Glen Canyon is not merely returning—it’s becoming something utterly new.
Before Lake Powell entombed it, Glen Canyon was a desert paradise. The muddy Colorado River flowed gently for 169 miles, a sharp contrast to the churning whitewater of Cataract Canyon above, and the Grand Canyon below. Deep within the river corridor, sunlight danced across sensuously curving walls. Ninety-six tributary canyons, sculpted by water and time, flowed into Glen’s mainstem, all of them adorned with green ribbons of riparian vegetation––a lush oasis within the harsh, semi-arid Colorado Plateau.
The abundance of water, useful plants, and arable soil made Glen Canyon a welcome home to Indigenous people since time immemorial. The Archaic and Basketmaker cultures, followed by Fremont and Ancestral Pueblo, lightly marked their presence with petroglyphs carved into sandstone, baskets woven with reeds, arrow shafts made from willow stems, sandals braided with yucca fibers, and stone buildings high in the cliffs. Today, more than a dozen tribes remain connected to Glen Canyon, including the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Pueblo of Zuni, Hualapai Tribe, and several bands of Southern Paiute.
To the Hualapai, Glen Canyon is part of Hakataya, the backbone of the river, which they consider a living entity and whose plants are a vital part of their survival. The A:shiwi (Zuni) consider Glen and Grand a single canyon, Chimik’yana’kya Dey’a—Place Where Everything Came Out, and its plants and creatures are a vital part of their cultural environment. Southern Paiute people call it Piapaxa ‘Uipi, Big River Canyon, and see human-like qualities in its plants, saying prayers before picking and using them. According to some sources, Diné (Navajo) call this corridor Nits’ósí Kooh—the winding narrow river through the deep narrow gorge––and use its plants in ceremonies and prayers. The Hopi look to Tokonavi, the confluence of the San Juan and Colorado rivers, as the point where a young boy began journeying down the Colorado to its terminus in the Gulf of California. When he returned, he brought back the secret of rainmaking and restored moisture to the land.
Glen Canyon’s present-day English name was given by the first Western scientific expedition down the Colorado River, led by the reservoir’s namesake, John Wesley Powell, an influential one-armed Civil War veteran-turned-explorer. Later, others would make arduous journeys specifically to document the region’s plants, including botanist Alice Eastwood. In 1895, Eastwood traveled by mule along the San Juan River, a Glen Canyon tributary, where she noted abundant cottonwoods, willows, and the white petaled sacred datura. A red variety of monkeyflower, endemic to the Colorado Plateau, now bears her name: Mimulus eastwoodiae.
The final pre-dam expedition down the canyon—via baloney raft and powerboat in 1958—documented a similarly dazzling array. Field supervisor Stephen Durrant enlivened the mood with campfire songs and yarn spinning, but the group’s mission was grim. The National Park Service commissioned their survey after Congress authorized the federal Bureau of Reclamation to build Glen Canyon Dam. The government’s decision brushed aside Native people who considered the project a crime, as well as conservationists working to protect Glen as a national park. Even so, a cadre of devoted boaters continued to fight for Glen —and delight in its placid water, sandy beaches, soupy mud, and cliff dwellings. “Eden couldn’t have touched this place,” said songstress and environmental activist Katie Lee. “Some of the vistas were so beautiful, we just stood there and cried.”
When the floodgates closed on the 710-foot tall concrete dam in 1963, a generation of people who loved Glen Canyon watched it drown for what they expected would be centuries. Still, some held out hope. Among them was environmental author Edward Abbey, who, in 1986, predicted Glen’s return within 50 years. “Lake Powell will be drained like dirty water from a tub,” he wrote, “and a living river and the sandstone canyon will again be revealed to our eyes, accessible once again to sunlight and life.”
By Abbey’s estimate, things appear to be right on schedule. Steering through narrow sandstone walls, Stauss maneuvers the boat between the blackened limbs of exposed dead Fremont cottonwoods (Populus fremontii)—the ghosts of trees that drowned when Lake Powell first filled. The canyons we will survey today are located in the reservoir’s central reach, above its confluence with the San Juan River. When we hit shoreline, everyone grabs daypacks and jumps out into the muck.
Within the first mile, delicate Arctic rushes (Juncus arcticus) peek from moist soil. The rapid recovery has surprised even the most optimistic observers, including Arens. “Walking up canyon is like walking ecologically back in time,” he says as we follow the streambed. We stop periodically to check our elevation above sea level: 3,575 feet corresponds to Lake Powell’s water levels in 2020, 3,625 to those in 2017, and 3,675 to those in 2001. Each offers glimpses of the canyon at a different stage of recovery—2 years, 5 years, and 21 years in. We pause for 30 minutes at each elevation to record present plant species, and the percent of ground they cover along the streambed, atop terraces, and on hillsides.
Arens admits that the science is basic, but it’s anything but easy. Several miles into the backcountry in a place that gets less than six inches of precipitation a year, the days are long and the conditions harsh. Today, we’ll hike 14 miles in the heat, weaving through thickets of invasive tamarisk (Tamarix ramosissima) interspersed with native plants, and stepping occasionally into quicksand. But Arens glows. “This is where I thrive,” he says, as he bushwhacks his way up a steep, densely vegetated slope. “It can be heinous. I sometimes have trouble getting people to join me on these trips.”
Glen Canyon’s return is as complicated and thrashy as this fieldwork experience. The original golden cathedrals of stone peek out of the receding lake, but so do dynamic new mudflats and cliffs of silt. When Lake Powell filled, sediment accumulated, burying much of the canyons. Now that they’re reemerging, researchers returning to this place have named this precarious stuff the Dominy Formation, after Floyd Dominy, the Bureau of Reclamation commissioner who led the dam’s completion. Along with the Dominy, conglomerates of logs and debris clog expanding shorelines. Tumbleweeds—dried bundles of Russian thistle (Salsola tragus)—form mazes in side canyons. Invasive freshwater mussels which began coating Powell’s substrate in 2012, now rot on newly exposed rocks. Lake bottom trash emerges like weird fossils: rusty beer cans, lawn chairs, tennis shoes, sunglasses, cell phones, even boat wrecks. We even find a once-sunken drone buried in the sediment.
Yet Glen’s riparian gardens thrive in this mercurial space. Flash floods scour silt from tributaries. High winds carry seeds upriver and into side canyons, where they germinate and grow in newly exposed soil. These plants evolved to persist through natural desert disturbances like flash flooding, dramatic sedimentation, and erosion, and those traits seem to be helping them rebound quickly as the declining reservoir bombards them with similar conditions.
To reach the next survey section, Arens lassos a tape measure up to Stauss as he climbs another steep sediment embankment, sliding backwards every few feet. “Watch out for these dangerous avalanche conditions in the Dominy Formation,” Stauss calls back down.
To work more efficiently, we divide into two teams. Before Arens and Stauss walk ahead, they hand me a clipboard so I can record for ecologist Marc Coles-Ritchie, a volunteer on this expedition. As we hike up the streambed, Coles-Ritchie stops frequently to point out native plants. He gently tugs a lithe green stem, its thin leaves intertwined like fingers. “Salix exigua”—the scientific name for coyote willow rolls off his tongue like music. I jot down each species we find along our transect on the survey spreadsheet. In one area, an eroding bank has fully exposed a coyote willow’s root system. This rhizomatous species can sprout new growth directly from underground stems (rhizomes), creating a dense network that binds the sediment, which helps stabilize stream banks and lessen erosion.
Along the water’s edge, Coles-Ritchie examines round bulrushes like Schoenoplectus americanus, that also help stabilize the soil. These help larger plants, like the coyote willow he pointed out earlier, and Baccharis salicifolia, a tall leafy green shrub, take root. Coles-Ritchie points out the transition from more recently exposed stream sections to sections exposed for a decade. Near the reservoir shore, the ground is packed with weedy invasive plants, like tamarisk, cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum), and Russian thistle. These are excellent colonizers, able to grow quickly and in abundance after disturbance. Arens and Coles-Ritchie have found that plants like these tend to dominate in the first few years after the water recedes, especially in areas closest to Lake Powell. Farther upstream, where tributaries have been out of the water for sustained periods, native plants gain a stronger footing due to their higher drought tolerance. In time, Arens and Coles-Ritchie hope native species will work their way back into being a significant part of the mix in areas closer to the shoreline, wherever that might end up.
Indeed, as we walk further away from the reservoir, willows, sedges, and rushes increase. We stop to drink water beneath the shade of a large cottonwood that has matured as the reservoir receded, its heart-shaped leaves rattling in the wind. Bursts of pale evening primrose (Oenothera pallida) and scarlet gilia (Ipomopsis aggregate) flowers punctuate the spring-fed stream. Coles-Ritchie smiles. “This is a really healthy native community. It gives me hope.” He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a handful of fluffy white cottonwood seeds that he gathered a few minutes earlier. While the wind helps disperse the seeds naturally, he spreads them along the banks where the stabilizing plants will help them root. “Grow strong future cottonwood trees!”
Farther along the canyon, we encounter a hanging garden fed by a groundwater seep adorning a shaded nook of red sandstone. Here, water weeps from delicate maidenhair ferns (Adiantum capillus-veneris)—painting a black varnish streak down the sandstone—then plucks a soft chord into a pool below. The combination of moisture and sun protection in these gardens creates a microclimate suitable for diverse species, including ferns like these, as well as sedges and lilies. This one contains delicate stream orchids (Epipactis gigantea) with blush pink and ash-blonde petals. The elevation in this spot is 3,600; it’s been out of the water for three years. This seep and others suggest to Arens that hanging gardens can regenerate in some form within a few years and be well developed within two decades.
According to Diné (Navajo) botanist Arnold Clifford, some hanging gardens may have only one species, while others have upwards of 30, many of which are used in cultural ceremonies. Some have endemic species dating back to the Ice Age. And although there is reason for hope in the reemergence of Glen Canyon, the loss is nuanced, particularly in ecosystems as delicate and rare as hanging gardens. Hundreds of gardens drowned in the reservoir, and several plant species were extirpated. Clifford believes it will take hundreds of years to truly get these desert oases back. “It will take a long time for Glen Canyon to truly repair itself,” he says. It will almost certainly be a place of awe, “but it won’t be the same,” he adds. “It won’t be the original plant assemblage.”
After completing the survey, Coles-Ritchie and I hike back down canyon to the boat. High winds churn up sand that scours our skin and forces us to shield our eyes. The apocalyptic atmosphere is tempered by water pouring over bedrock newly naked of sediment. Then the flowing stream and the canyon disappear into the reservoir.
Back aboard, Stauss passes out cold beers, and the group toasts our successful journey. Navigating the narrow canyon, Stauss gingerly avoids the various new boating hazards, including sandstone formations lurking ever closer to the surface. The danger these pose is just one among the cascading effects from Lake Powell’s decline as a reservoir—and the stuttering return of the Colorado River through Glen Canyon. The canyons and plants are re-emerging faster than the federal institutions responsible for this place can make decisions. The National Park Service has not yet indicated how it will adapt its management of Lake Powell to the new reality within Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, even as boat ramp after boat ramp is left high and dry.
Back on the main pool of Lake Powell, the wind meets us full force. A houseboat bobs violently nearby. Everyone goes quiet and grips the railings. Amid the crashing waves on this broad sweep of deep water, it’s hard to fathom that the long-term efficacy of Glen Canyon Dam is in question. But as of April 2023, the water level stood at 3,521 feet. Should it drop below an elevation of 3,490 feet, the minimum level at which reservoir releases can spin the dam’s turbines, it will no longer be able to produce electricity. A drop to 3,370, and the reservoir will hit “dead pool,” meaning that excess water can no longer escape through the dam’s outlets. This would vastly reduce water releases downstream on the Colorado River into Grand Canyon National Park, which lies just below the dam. Still farther downstream, it would also reduce inflows to Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the U.S., which supplies water to tens of millions of people in Southern California, Arizona, Nevada, and Mexico.
The Bureau of Reclamation initiated emergency releases from reservoirs in the upper Colorado River Basin in May 2022 to boost Lake Powell’s water level and buy time. This winter, lower basin states submitted proposals to reduce their draw from the river, while California stood alone with a different plan that did not factor in the 1.5 million acre feet of water lost to evaporation on both Lake Powell and Lake Mead. In April 2023, the Bureau of Reclamation released its own analysis of possible approaches, including taking the unprecedented step of distributing water reductions evenly across all of the lower basin states. The agency is preparing for the worst in other ways, too. In January, its crews completed lower-elevation bypass tunnels for the dam to ensure that the city of Page, Arizona, and the LeChee Chapter of the Navajo Nation receive their share of water.
While precipitation levels have improved this winter, Arens underscores that this will provide only temporary relief. Based on the latest hydrology models that factor in warming temperatures and drying climate, he notes that it is unlikely that both Lake Powell and Lake Mead will ever be full again. The Bureau of Reclamation recognizes that the dam’s days of generating hydropower are numbered, and has released five possible options to modify its operations under lower water conditions. Among the ideas are adding power intakes at a lower elevation, but penetrating the dam comes with risks and may jeopardize its structural integrity.
While a shift to solar and wind power generation are among the options being considered, none of them address the elephant in the room: whether the dam should continue to operate at all. Glen Canyon Institute is pushing the federal government to consider building new infrastucture to allow the river to bypass the dam entirely. “It’s no longer a thought exercise, it’s urgent,” says executive director Eric Balken. “If runoff trends continue, the problems at Glen Canyon Dam will be devastating for the Grand Canyon and for water management.”
In 2026, there will be another formal reckoning for stakeholders grappling with the changed Colorado River. That year, the feds, states, tribal nations, and Mexico are set to renegotiate the interim guidelines and drought contingency plans that govern use of the Colorado River’s water. Arens plans to continue his survey up to then to establish a new baseline for Glen Canyon, showing what may come if water levels remain low, and to inform future study and management decisions. And if the water levels rise due to high volumes of runoff in spring 2023, submerging his lowest elevation sites again, he will study what frequent inundation does to those landscapes. Beyond helping the Park Service get the information it needs to manage resources in the near term, Arens hopes the results of all this work will give water users a sense of Glen Canyon’s re-emerging ecology—and its value—as they weigh the river’s future.
Once I step safely off the boat onto firm ground at Bullfrog Marina, I beeline to my truck. Driving northeast, I pass the now decommissioned Hite Marina in Utah where boaters used to launch their craft to float through Glen Canyon. Beneath the Highway 95 bridge, I spot the muddy Colorado River flowing out of Cataract Canyon, carving ever deeper into the Dominy Formation.
Down a rutted dirt road, I park at an upper Glen Canyon tributary. The canyon has sheer walls of rust-colored Wingate sandstone, and rainbow-hued mounds of Chinle formation. The dry and heavily mineralized soils look barren, but I find a rushing spring around a curve in the wash, at an elevation formerly covered by the reservoir. It gushes from a crevice into a large pool backed up behind a beaver dam, all of it surrounded by willows and electric green mosses. I place my hands in the flowing water and find it warm.
Unfortunately, cows have also found this spot, trampling the ferns and moss, chewing willows down to nubs. I climb over a wall of Russian thistle tumbleweeds that scratch my skin. On the other side I find ORV tracks. This canyon spent decades under water, then another decade rebuilding itself, only to be exposed to other kinds of destruction.
Still, near the mouth of the canyon’s convergence with Lake Powell, I spot bear tracks. A well-fed coyote howls near my tent at sunset. Bighorn sheep kicking rocks from nearby cliffs play percussion. Birds join the chorus. When the plants return, so, it seems, do the other inhabitants. The desert amplifies the songs of the dammed, still here and reclaiming their canyons. I imagine a future where we let them gain ground. And when I come across a cluster of fuzzy cottonwood seeds on the ground, I pick them up and scatter them along the stream bank.
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Stephen Eginoire is a photojournalist and publisher rooted in the American Southwest. His work explores the complexity of place, particularly those sensitive to growing modern societies. For more photos from the greater Glen Canyon region and other irreplaceable cultural and natural resources, visit www.stepheneginoire.com.