Updated: May 3, 2020
The remoteness here is immaculate. The silence is steady, the distant groan of the Colorado River echoed up from the bottom of the Canyon just over 2,000 feet below. The river is rich with life. Textures and memories of the land stripped by the movement of water. To imagine the force of a gushing river, cutting deeper into the heart of the Earth, juxtaposes the peace and stillness of the moment in a way that is nearly impossible to grasp. Marble Canyon represents the upper stratigraphy represented in the Grand Canyon. Younger sedimentary rocks found far above the river in the main portion of Grand Canyon National Park tower directly out of the Colorado River instead. Seeing these red rocks juxtaposed to the blue water reveal a canyon with its own personality. Getting here requires extended time driving on seldom travelled gravel roads. At the surface, the place seems alive, wild, and in-tact. It’s hard to imagine any perturbations to the beauty here. Digging deeper, however, reveals a story of survival and loss, of complexity and change.
In the 1940s the Bureau of Reclamation proposed what quickly became known as the most remote and difficult to access dam site in the country, the Marble Canyon Dam. Together with the Bridge Canyon Dam, located in the lower end of Grand Canyon, the dams would have produced enough hydraulic head to generate electricity to pump Colorado River water over 330 miles and 3,000 vertical feet uphill to Phoenix, Arizona. The Marble Canyon Dam would have been just over 300 feet high – and the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) was ready to proceed. They bored holes into rock, placed anchor bolts and tested the rock’s stability. It's strange to see such human imprints in an otherwise seemingly pristine wilderness, high above the blue waters of the river below. Today, in fact, the site has been incorporated into Grand Canyon National Park, the very bolts in the rocks likely straddling an invisible border between Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land and Grand Canyon National Park. Given such an impressive goal for preservation implied by National Parks, one should assume the place remains wild and pure – protected as we know it. However, river systems are strongly connected, and what happens upstream trickles downstream.
Less than 50 river miles upstream from the Marble Canyon Dam site , in 1962, the Colorado River in Glen, Marble and Grand Canyons was forever changed. The Glen Canyon Dam stands a whopping 710 feet above the Colorado River. As Dave Brower, of the Sierra Club, fought in tireless opposition to the proposed dam in Marble Canyon as well as a proposed dam on the Yampa River in Dinosaur National Park, it was agreed that if the Bureau of Reclamation dropped plans inside of National Parks and Monuments, than the Sierra Club wouldn’t fight battles against dams outside of these protected lands. As a result, the plans for the Glen Canyon Dam went forwards, and furthermore, to create the power that the Marble canyon and Dinosaur Dam sites would have produced, the Navajo Generating Station (NGS), one of the dirtiest Coal fired power plants, was born (Just weeks before publishing this, NGS closed). After visiting Glen Canyon, Brower claimed the Glen Canyon Dam to be “America’s most Regrettable Environmental Mistake”. Much like Marble Canyon, Glen Canyon was very remote and infrequently visited, other than by the occasional river runner and even more rare dedicated hiker. Now, boat traffic on the artificial Lake Powell, in the flooded sinuous walls of Glen Canyon and below adjacent sandstone benches, supports some of America’s busiest gas stations in summer time. The structure of the dam itself and the surroundings represent the growth and consumerism that has occupied America strikingly well. A series of lights glisten in the night, drowning out the stars in order to show off an engineering marvel. It’s as if the canyon is forgotten, perhaps because people come for the lake, and the dam, not the canyon.
In a lot of ways the human encroachment on nature makes a tremendous amount of sense - we are born of and deceased to the Earth. We have become masters of manipulating our environment to make it more liveable. The electricity produced by the dams, coal plants, solar arrays and beyond are just meeting the demands of more people wanting to live modern life. We desire water to bathe with and be clean. We settle in places where resources are scarce and find ways to make it work by building railways, transmission lines, and pipelines. To support our luxuries, we pour water on the dirt in the desert, we consume at the cost of landscapes, peoples, and more. How can we learn to strike a balance as the human need continues to grow? We continue to be plagued by drought which has magnificent effects on even our largest water storage systems. Desertification and abandoned agricultural fields stir into massive dust storms and accelerate snow melt, causing more water to race towards the oceans and evaporate rather than be used in agricultural or water storage. We occupy a landscape that is home to people’s who have been here for centuries, yet we continue to oppress their traditional knowledge rather than learn how these peoples have survived the droughts of this region. In the desert cities that buy electricity from the Glen Canyon Dam warmer and drier summers demand more electricity for the cranking air conditioners, yet as water resources become more scarce the hydraulic head of the reservoir decreases and thus limits the capacity of the dam to produce electricity. At the most basic cellular level, we are made up of water, water is life, we depend on it, yet we can’t seem to find a way to keep our water supply healthy.
Striking balance between use and conservation seems difficult. The reality of Lake Powell’s current state is immensely complex. The thousands of gallons of gas pumped into boats at Lake Powell on a hot summer day, the volumes of fresh water lost to evaporation or seepage into the porous Navajo Sandstone and out into the desert air. The gleaming lights switched on by its massive generators. The water pumped uphill to Phoenix by a coal powered plant that serves as a substitute to just another dam. On one side, the dam and subsequent lake not only represent this heavy consumer driven society, but they help support it and advance it. On the other side, the dam has flooded hundreds of stunning canyons, wreaking havoc on the ecosystems and flooding ancient ruins, and changed the temperature, chemistry, and flood patterns of the river below with huge consequences to the species that depend on the river for life. So much has been lost. To be fair, Lake Powell is oddly gorgeous. Its blue water contrasts so well against the red rock. Its color pallet is a dream for a photographer obsessed with the color wheel.
Oddly its blue waters have poisoned the geography of where we first started, Marble Canyon and therefore the Grand Canyon. By this point in the Colorado River watershed, the river should be true to its name – it should live in a deep red. By now, the Colorado has flowed through hundreds of miles of red-earthed desert on the Colorado Plateau. Sunken deep into canyons the Colorado would normally carry loads of sediment and possess a thick bloody color, but the dam and the lake act as a sieve, catching all of the river’s sediment. Below the dam, the river runs blue, just like the waters of the lake.
The complexity ceases to stop here, however; the new Grand Canyon hydrology and low sediment loads is dangerous to native fish. The water is now much colder than pre-dam. The food sources are depleted. Simultaneously, infrequent scouring floods have resulted in more stable and less dynamic beaches supporting an incredibly unique riparian ecosystem unlike virtually anything else found in the southwest. Unfortunately, however, these stable beaches have been rapidly colonized by tamarisk. The invasive tamarisk has created a strong foothold in the Grand Canyon as park vegetation managers grapple with the philosophical dilemma of restoring a place that cannot be restored without tearing down a 700 foot concrete wall some miles upstream. As a result, some restoration scientists proposed embracing the new fluvial geomorphology of the Grand Canyon and treating the stable beaches as upland riparian ecosystems. In other places, conservation crews have tried to remove tamarisk and rapidly replant willows and cottonwoods hoping to establish a Colorado Plateau Native Riparian ecosystem in a geography that once flooded too much to support such a thing. Additionally the dam operators now release experimental high-flow events to try and simulate the historical springs floods with hopes to stir up sediment and jump start the rivers food web while also scouring beaches and supporting a more dynamic fluvial system.
Today, there is no dam in Marble Canyon and the region stands as a National Park. Nonetheless, it seems Marble Canyon is dramatically altered from how it would be. It makes me wonder, how should things be? Humans have interacted with their environment since the beginning of humanity. Perhaps smaller societies were able to strike balance more effectively? Can we maintain balance as our demands grow? What is it that we are willing to give up, and what do we need to save? It’s hard to imagine all the choices we must make. More so, it's impossible to grasp the complexities of how things are and what things will become. At the very least, it seems we can do our best to assess situations and understand the consequences, but we will always make mistakes, and we will always lose something in the race of advancing society.