PAGE, Ariz. - For 40 years, Glen Canyon Dam has stood as a brawny symbol of growth in the Southwest, taming the flow of the Colorado River and supplying electricity to booming communities.
But the dam is putting an environmental stranglehold on a national icon just downstream: the Grand Canyon.
Like a giant concrete stopper, the dam has plugged the seasonal ebb and flow of sediment and water temperature. As a result, four native fish are gone and a fifth - the humpback chub - is disappearing and may not have enough adult fish left to sustain the species. Gone, too, are most of the wide, sandy beaches used by whitewater boaters as camping spots.
"The canyon is in worse shape now than it was 10 years ago," says Geoffrey Barnard, president of the Grand Canyon Trust.
In 1992, faced with evidence of deteriorating conditions along the Colorado River, Congress passed the Grand Canyon Protection Act, giving the secretary of the interior the power to protect and restore the landmark.
Four years later, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt used that authority to open the dam floodgates and force sand down the canyon to restore the beaches and the areas used as refuge by the chub.
Canyon experts acknowledge that rather than pull sand up from the Colorado River bottom, all the churning water did was move sand from one beach to another. But from that failure has come another, more ambitious plan to flush the canyon in January.
If Secretary Gale A. Norton approves the proposal sent to her in April, engineers will open the floodgates for two days. Instead of simply redistributing sand in the Colorado, creating a "rob Peter to pay Paul" situation, scientists hope to draw on sediment from the Paria River, a tributary 15 miles below the dam.
The Bureau of Reclamation, which has authority over the dam, held two public hearings last month as it prepared an environmental assessment of the January project.
"It's a big roll of the dice," admits Barnard. "We're not saying we have the answer, we're just saying we have to try harder."
But groups such as the Sierra Club and Living Rivers believe that trying to mimic nature is doomed to fail and that nothing short of removing the dam will save the Colorado River.
Their prophet is the late environmental writer Edward Abbey, who in 1975 wrote The Monkey Wrench Gang, about four eco-saboteurs' dream of blowing up Glen Canyon Dam.
Viewed as expendable
Overshadowed by the magnificent Grand Canyon nearby, Glen Canyon was viewed by Congress as expendable during the approval of public works projects in the mid-1950s.
Many conservationists and environmental groups fought the dam's construction, saying the loss of Glen Canyon was not worth the irrigation benefits and electricity it would produce.
They cited explorer John Wesley Powell, the first white man to visit the canyon, in their futile attempt to halt the project. In his journal, Powell marveled at "a curious ensemble of wonderful features ... carved walls, royal arches, glens, alcoves, gulches, mounds and monuments."
It took 10 years to build the 710-foot-tall dam and 17 years to create 186-mile-long Lake Powell behind it. The features Powell noted disappeared under 560 feet of water.
After viewing Lake Powell, Abbey was moved to write: "To grasp the nature of the crime that was committed imagine the Taj Mahal or Chartres Cathedral buried in mud until only the spires remain visible. With this difference: those man-made celebrations of human aspiration could conceivably be reconstructed while Glen Canyon was a living thing, irreplaceable, which can never be recovered through any human agency."
In 1996, the Sierra Club board of directors voted in favor of a proposal to drain Lake Powell. Last spring, the organization ran TV ads in Arizona urging the canyon's restoration.
That prompted backlash from pro-dam groups led by Republican Reps. John Shadegg of Arizona, James V. Hansen and Chris Cannon of Utah, and Jim Gibbons of Nevada, who have denounced "radical environmentalists."
Residents of the town of Page, who love the $400 million in tourist revenue the lake generates, have erected billboards that shout: "Don't Let the Sierra Club Drain Lake Powell."
The number of people who remember what Glen Canyon was like a half-century ago is dwindling. Most live in Page, a town built to house the workers who built the dam. Their memories and the notes made by river guides paint a vastly different picture of what exists today.
Before the dam, spring runoff made the Colorado River so murky that only hardy fish such as carp, catfish and humpback chub lived there. Even in June, the river still carried enough sediment each day to fill the Rose Bowl to the rim, according to an independent study in 2000 by a Interior Department lawyer.
Pre-dam water temperatures varied with the seasons, reaching 80 degrees in the summer and dropping to near-freezing in the winter.