Tony Vagneur: Let it flow
Lake Powell. Many things to different people: drinking water, irrigation, green golf courses, watery grave of archeological sites significant to native people. It’s a huge artificial reservoir of water behind the Glen Canyon Dam; it’s also a reservoir of memories for me and millions of other people.
Katie Lee, well-known folksinger in Aspen during the early ‘60s, was a staunch activist against the building of Glen Canyon Dam, and although she was a popular performer, singer and writer, she possibly is more well known for her opposition to the dam. There are famous photographs of Katie, nude, swimming in the Colorado River through Glen Canyon, rafting down its rapids, and exploring its depths and side canyons.
She and I connected a few years ago through a column I wrote, mentioning her book, “Ten Thousand Goddam Cattle” and an association with cowboy minstrel Singing Sam Agins, an association we both had. Our thoughts about Glen Canyon were along similar lines, as were our thoughts about Sam Agins, but before we could dig into the conversation, the effervescent, environmentally diligent and wildly charismatic Katie Lee died. She and I used cuss words in about the same way, with a similar frequency and velocity.
Our honeymoon with my first wife, Caroline, was spent at Lake Powell on a houseboat with tons of water skiing and fishing. Over the years, we went on several trips to Powell together with some great friends; Buck Deane and I took professional wrestlers down there on a couple of adventures, using my uncle’s houseboat, complete with a couple of speedboats. Without a doubt, there is enough material about any one of those many trips to fill a column. We usually needed a pickup truck just to haul the beer.
But memories are one thing — the future of Powell is another. It would be hard to miss today’s news coming from there; a declining water level from years of drought, putting the hydropower benefits of Powell at risk, and even serious conversations about taking the dam out completely.
The building of the dam was contentious from the beginning, but the drought of the last 20 years has molded the conversation to lessen the importance of the dam. However, inversely speaking, in 1983, up-river flood events seriously threatened the integrity of the dam, which had it failed would have created certain havoc in the downriver settlements and towns. It could happen again.
As the “bathtub ring” around the shores of Lake Powell increases in size, showing how much the water level has dropped, priceless relics from the deep are making their presence known once again. From the beginning, many archeologists bemoaned the inadvertent loss of many Native cultural sites, but the general thinking at the time was that dams would be built, collateral damage be damned. Archeologists were hired to document the sites, to remove them to storage when possible, and to map their locations.
Now, with the drop in water level, there is excitement among those who authenticate the past to view and examine these cultural sites, slowly appearing above the water like long-lost friends from the deep. The ever-increasing “bath tub ring,” created by declining water levels, may well portend the future.
On my first visit to Lake Powell, about 1971 with a small group of fishermen, hikers and rounders, where not being much of a swimmer, I dove headfirst off our rented houseboat into the depths of Escalante Canyon, which is fed by the Escalante River. Curiously, being engulfed in the water was a warm feeling I’ve never forgotten, somehow attached to freedom, and was never repeated no matter how many subsequent times I was in that water.
A few years ago, my friend Margaret and I traveled the Escalante Trail alongside the river. A small stream, we crossed it many times, how cold the water in my sandals, but how remarkable the difference between the natural river and its flooded namesake tributary canyon adjacent to the Colorado and Lake Powell. Water is water, I reckon, but on some level, there was a spiritual connection with the Escalante River, one that will remain solid with me.
Perhaps partly because of that, plus my bent toward historic preservation, there is no doubt within my being that the Glen Canyon Dam should be decommissioned and the Colorado, the Escalante, and all the other tributaries, be allowed to flow freely down the Glen Canyon.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.