Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Lake Powell

View across Lake Powell from our camp site
Ever since the Colorado River flooded in 1904, creating the Salton Sea, California had been pushing for dams to control and regulate the river's flow.  This also facilitates Cali, along with Arizona and Nevada getting "their share" of the Colorado as worked out in negotiations way back in 1922.  Boulder Dam was finished in 1936 and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation was working on plans for several other dams upriver.  One of these was in Echo Park, Colorado, near Dinosaur National Monument.  This raised the hackles of the Sierra Club and, in particular, their Executive Director, David Brower.  They felt flooding this area would be a tragedy and initiated a 6 year national battle to prevent a dam on the Green river.  Finally, the Bureau agreed to scrap the Echo Park Dam providing the environmentalists would not give them any trouble over another little project they were working on, the Glen Canyon Dam on the border of Arizona and Utah.  The Sierra Club and their allies happily agreed and declared victory, even though they had never actually seen Glen Canyon.  There were, after all, no roads to it until Hwy 89 was constructed specifically for the dam project.  By the time Brower took a boat trip down the Colorado to see what he had bargained away, it was too late.  A much more scenic canyon than Echo Park was now committed to going under water and David Brower spent the rest of his life kicking himself over it.

Boat tour from Lake Powell Hotel
The original plan was to put in a fairly low dam, but to make up for the water storage loss from Echo Park, they raised the height to 710 ft, a massive undertaking.  President Eisenhower pushed a button on his desk in the oval office on Oct. 1, 1956 and detonated the first charge of TNT to build the diversion tunnels that would reroute the river around the dam site.  They started pouring concrete on June 17, 1960 and poured around the clock until the last bucketful was in place on Sept. 13, 1966.  Over 5 million cubic yards of concrete made up the dam and then the reservoir it created, Lake Powell, took 17 years to fill.  The haggling over how much water will be released downstream and who gets it will carry on much longer.
Water scoured rocks in a narrow side canyon
Local resident
Meanwhile, the dam created a water-sporting paradise that we visited for a few days after we left Tuba City.  Staying in the Wahweap camp ground, we had a magnificent view of the lake just outside our front door.  Renting a house boat when you are traveling in a motor home seemed silly, so we forwent that adventure but we did take a boat tour for half a day out of the Lake Powell Hotel.  What you see when you travel on Lake Powell is the tippy tops of the former canyon, gigantic rock formations of granite and Navajo limestone.  Some of the side passages are very narrow and many of the the rocks are covered with desert varnish.   The natural beauty is astonishing. 

So is the unnatural beauty of the house boats docked at the marinas along the way.  Many of these are apparently owned by large corporations for the use of their executives and/or employees, some are rentals, some are time shares.   The boats can moor there year round but, because the lake is entirely within a national park, any given individual can only be there for 2 weeks at a time and a total of 30 days per year.  So owning a boat for personal use here is an indication of having way more money than you need.  That doesn't mean there aren't plenty of those as well.  Some of these floating vacation homes are 75 feet long with 3 or 4 decks.  I'd love to get on one of those but they are a little out of our price range.  Top boat on the lake is valued at 2.1 million dollars.

Glen Canyon Dam
While we were there we visited the dam visitors' center but it was a case of too much information.  The main exhibition hall is chuck full of information posters, maybe 50 of them.  And the print is small, so there is a lot of info there.  As much as I like to be educated, my eyes pretty quickly began to glaze over and I slipped outside to just gaze at the dam.  I don't know whether it is an engineering triumph or an environmental disaster, but it is damned impressive to look at.  Right next to it runs the Glen Canyon Bridge which is something of a marvel in its own right.

Balanced rock on the road to Lee's Ferry
The master plan called for three more dams along the Colorado, but right now we don't have enough water to keep Lake Mead and Lake Powell both full at the same time so it isn't clear what problems more storage would solve.  The other projects are off the drawing boards for now.  The Navajo built a big coal powered generator right next to the lake that sends electricity to 3 different states.  They figure it is likely to be more reliable than hydroelectric here in the long run.  It is supposedly the cleanest coal burner in the world and they are in the process of spending tens of millions of dollars on upgrades to make it even cleaner.

They used to say that the Colorado River was too thick to drink and too thin to plow.  It carried huge amounts of silt to the Gulf of California every year.  Now, when the water enters the lake and the flow rate drops to nearly zero, all that dirt falls out giving Lake Powell some of the clearest,   cleanest water in the country.  The Colorado River below the dam is a beautiful blue and through the Grand Canyon it is dark green rather than reddish brown.  It turns out this isn't that great for the river ecology.  They've recently tried periodically releasing large amounts of water from the lake to try and mimic the effect of spring run-offs scouring the canyons down stream but it hasn't really worked that well.

The new Navajo Bridge
In the 19th century there was no easy way to get across the Colorado River.  There were a couple of crossing points in Utah which are now at the bottom of Lake Powell.  And there was Lee's Ferry, a point about 16 miles below the current dam.  Here the river bed flattened out briefly and the shear walls that characterize much of the Colorado's course widened so a road could be built just barely big enough to carry a wagon up out of the canyon.    The other alternative was going 260 miles around the Grand Canyon.  John D. Lee arrived in 1873 and established the ferry with a boat called The Colorado.  Lee was on the run from the feds for his involvement in the  Mountain
Rafts lined up and waiting at Lee's Ferry
Meadows massacre in 1859.  (This is an interesting story you can read about here if you are interested.)  Four years later they finally caught up with Lee and he was tried and executed by firing squad, leaving behind his name on the ferry which continued to operate until 1928 when its services were replaced by the Navajo Bridge.  The site of the ferry now serves as the launching point for river rafting expeditions through the Grand Canyon.  We did not sign up for one.

The original Navajo Bridge was an 18 ft wide, two lane steel arch bridge that was designed for a  capacity of 22.5 tons, then posted as having a weight limit of 40 tons.  Doesn't that make you feel all safe and secure?  By the 1990s the bridge was clearly inadequate for its purpose and a very similar looking 44 ft wide bridge was built right next to it with much higher weight tolerance provided by modern materials.  The original bridge was converted to use for foot traffic so you can walk out to the middle of the canyon and take pics over the edge.  The two spans sit about 470 feet above the river, perfect for Vicki's fear of heights.  The dogs didn't seem to mind a bit.
The Colorado River from the old Navajo Bridge

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