It’s a slippery slope: that concept that morality and good government should produce the greatest good for the greatest number.
It sounds so simple: but how can one measure the greatness of a good, and the more calculable number who benefit often requires a sliding scale.
That formula can certainly be used to justify the US Congress’ 1956 authorization of up to 4 dams to conserve and re-distribute the waters of the upper Colorado River Basin. The Glen Canyon Dam alone helped provide the water, power, and money that grew the American Southwest since it was built in 1964.
Today, it is still the power source for close to 6 million people in 7 states, but 15 years of drought has sharply reduced the water Glen Canyon Dam directs into Lake Powell, and that’s reduced revenues credited to the dam, even as electric rates for users have been going up.
Dropping water levels and revenue levels have focused a lot more minds in area of the upper Colorado Basin on what was lost when the dam was built.
Glen Canyon was drowned. It’s uniquely beautiful slot canyons, and slickrock chutes, in sinuous stripes of molded sandstone in every shade from brick red to pink to sand are now all hidden underneath the waters of the reservoir called Lake Powell. Also buried from view, the remains of a mysterious and accomplished Native community, efficient cliff dwellings, exuberant petroglyph illustrations, underwater.
Check out the master nature photographer Eliot Porter’s book on Glen Canyon, The Place No One Knew. The title is the reason such a great number of people had no clue to the great good they were losing. Glen Canyon was so remote, almost no one visited it since the cliff-dwellers suddenly left more than 500 years ago. Most of the visitors, including most of the activists and earth scientists, only started exploring Glen Canyon when they sensed it might soon be submerged, and much of the archeological treasure that was salvaged from Glen Canyon before the dam and its flood was saved by these late visitors.
As one of the Bureau of Reclamations executives who designed and executed the dam said, the siting made it easy: no highways, no villages, no resistance – there was, he summed up, “nothing there.” No harm to no number equals no foul.
But, over the past decade or so, Western America has been re-thinking its dams, and in half a dozen cases in the far northwest, tearing them down. And in the Upper Colorado Basin there’s a growing movement to re-think Glen Canyon Dam and then tear it down…or at worst, open its gates and let the river’s waters flow free.
The idea is simple; but, as usual, the reality is complex.
Krista Langlois started out as a High Country News intern in 2013 and has stuck around western Colorado ever since. Now a correspondent for the magazine, she writes from her home outside Durango. She’s also written for Slate, Alaska magazine, Adventure Journal and elsewhere. When not glued to a computer screen, she can usually be found upside-down in a river somewhere, attempting to kayak.