A half-century on, Lake Powell recalls when we were a nation of doers
This year marks 50 years since the gates of Glen Canyon Dam slammed shut for the first time, capturing Rocky Mountain runoff in the rugged desert and canyon country behind it, giving the West one of its greatest natural prizes — Lake Powell.
For the millions of Americans who call the western United States home, Lake Powell and its interconnected storage projects are an indispensable part of our lives — a first principle, a first cause, an opening ante without which two generations of growth in this arid region would simply not have happened at scale. No water, no people. Know water, know people. You know the gig.
For millions more, of course, Lake Powell is also a one-of-a-kind amenity — a rare place of simple solitude. A place where, if so inclined, it’s only you, your loved ones, your cooler, a big blue sky and Don Henley.
Fifty years removed from the moment Glen Canyon Dam first tamed the river, Lake Powell is, for me at least, a powerful symbol of something else: The reservoir and its construction are a symbol of America at her best, built during a period when our nation was in the business of progress.
The story of American progress is, in real part, the story of regular people building great things in the face of great odds. The Industrial Revolution. Rosie the Riveter. The Golden Gate Bridge. The Eisenhower Tunnel. The construction of Lake Powell is emblematic of the same.
It goes without saying that Lake Powell and its sister project, Lake Mead, were engineering feats in the extreme. Without the benefits of many of the engineering breakthroughs that would be deemed vital today, scores of sun-blasted workers converged somewhere due west of the middle of nowhere, first re-routing the river around the dam’s construction site, then moving earth, blasting rock and stacking 400,000 buckets of concrete until the massive structure was complete.
Glen Canyon Dam took seven years to build, and the reservoir took 17 years to fill. As engineering accomplishments go, Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell are big stuff. But the politics that made Lake Powell possible were even bigger.
For years, Congress debated the need to expand water storage for the burgeoning cities in the desert West. Deadly floods gave the cause real urgency from time to time. And yet, and this part will sound familiar, for many years, gridlock prevailed.
As the debate began, water storage champions such as our own legendary Congressman Wayne Aspinall advocated for a massive storage project in Dinosaur National Monument, located in northwestern Colorado, as part of a package of storage projects to be built around the West.
But opposition to the Echo Park Dam in Dinosaur became the poison pill in the Colorado River Storage Project Act. For years, Echo Park galvanized environmental opposition against the entire package of proposed dams.
Historians have called the fight over the Echo Park Dam the seminal fight that gave birth to the modern environmental movement.
But in those days, and this part won’t sound familiar, Congress actually understood the art of the deal. In the end Aspinall dealt out the controversy-laden Echo Park and dealt in Glen Canyon and Lake Powell, and the bill became law. (Also in the category of things that sound familiar, environmentalists later reneged on their Lake Powell concession, unsuccessfully attempting at multiple points to stop Glen Canyon’s construction.)
Though the political process was long and painstaking, in the end, the deal got done. And, as it has been said, the desert bloomed.
Today an idea as grandiose as Lake Powell wouldn’t stand a laughing chance. America doesn’t build anymore. Once a nation of doers, America has become a nation of dawdlers, debaters and navel-gazers.
The engineering and political feat that is Lake Powell reminds us how small we have become.
Like so many western Coloradans, I love Lake Powell, probably more than any other place I have ever been. It isn’t only about houseboats and beer, although that doesn’t hurt, or about water for our faucets and lawns, which is obviously important.
For me, projects like Lake Powell are also important because they speak to what is possible. It is just a shame that, these days, such big ideas and big projects aren’t.
Josh Penry is a former minority leader of the Colorado Senate. He is a graduate of Grand Junction High School and Mesa State College.