Negative of an aerial view of part of Glen Canyon in early days of Lake Powell. Possibly taken in November of 1964.
Used by permission, Special Collections, J. Willard Marriott Library, The University of Utah.
The Glen Canyon region is one of the most popular destinations of the American Southwest. The area is perhaps most known for Lake Powell, yet many visitors do not know the story of how this site was formed. Lake Powell is a reservoir which was created when the backwater from the Glen Canyon Dam flooded Glen Canyon.
The United States Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) notes that upon Congress’ approval of the Colorado River Storage Project Act in early 1956, construction of the dam began and officially concluded in 1966. The Glen Canyon Dam is an engineering marvel that provides the states of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Wyoming, Nevada, and California with a steady water supply. Aside from California, each of the aforementioned states also benefits from the dam’s hydroelectric power. In “Dam(n) How Times Have Changed…,” Peter Lavigne writes, “Dams have turned the arid deserts of the West into dazzling electrical cities, water-wanton agricultural plots, and high desert grazing ranges.” While the Glen Canyon Dam has turned a barren landscape into a livable region and provided clean energy the project faced scrutiny which has lasted to this day. Even the construction process itself proved to be tumultuous.
One of the largest controversies surrounding Glen Canyon’s intentional flooding was the loss of archaeological sites within the canyon. However, the October 13, 1960, issue of The Daily Utah Chronicle highlights the efforts of anthropologist Dr. Jesse D. Jennings along with others to salvage and preserve these historic sites. Jennings also created a film that showcased the work required to complete the salvaging and discussed the necessity of the dam. The film was presented at the University of Utah to positive reviews. The Daily Utah Chronicle also reported in the February 23, 1960, issue that Glen Canyon was once home to over 300 Native American sites that dated back 800 years prior to the dam’s construction. Although some sites were lost, Jennings and his team of anthropologists were able to uncover numerous ancient records opening doors for further research on the tribes of the Southwest and why they vacated their former settlements.
While the work of Jennings and his colleagues was celebrated by many, it also highlights the frustrations of those who opposed the dam. The October 14, 1960, issue of The Daily Utah Chronicle explains that Jennings and his team were the first non-indigenous explorers of the majority of these sites. This was met with controversy as opposition of the dam saw this as an intrusion that was a direct effect of the region’s rapid development.
A quote from the article “Man’s Impact on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon” featured in the July-August 1974, issue of American Scientist further highlights the Glen Canyon Dam’s adverse effects. The article states that the once remote Southwest now houses “some of the most extensive and persistent scars of large scale environmental modification.” (Dolan, Robert, et al., p. 392) As roads and residential developments continued to appear in the region, Lake Powell was filled with sediment and eroded materials that are important to the Colorado River’s stability. However, the dam blocked these resources from entering the lower portions of the river, resulting in a change in the Colorado River’s shape, flow and flood patterns as soon as the 1970s.
The Glen Canyon Dam project was met with considerable outside protests, yet there were many issues with internal affairs as well. The Times Independent reported in the April 20, 1961, issue that Utah was one of the last affiliated states to actively support the filling and creation of Lake Powell. Once Utah politicians agreed on the project more trouble arose. Early into the construction process workers went on strike after wages were cut. The March 11, 1960, issue of the Salt Lake Times covered the workers’ strike, which forced Utah Senator Frank Moss to introduce a bill to the Treasury hoping to erase interest the project had accumulated during the period when no progress was made on the dam. The strike went on to delay completion of the dam by six months.
Glen Canyon Dam is an often unrecognized project which has helped shape the Southwest. The dam has been met with both praise and opposition. Millions have visited and enjoyed the Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell, while other groups still actively call for the dam’s decommissioning. The Glen Canyon Dam’s commissioning was a major factor in the development of the Southwest but this has certainly come at a price.
Daniel Belding is a senior at the University of Utah. He is majoring in communication.
“Publication Outlines Utah’s Anthropological Sleuthing,” Daily Utah Chronicle, February 23, 1960, 3.
“Moss Asking Congress to Overlook Strike in Dam Interest Cost.” Salt Lake Times, March 11, 1960, 1.
“Glen Canyon To Be Topic For Lecture,” Daily Utah Chronicle, October 13, 1960, 2.
Richard Rosenbaum, “Salvage Movie with Talks Sparks Interest,” Daily Utah Chronicle, October 14, 1960, 2.
“Utah Backs Commission,” Times Independent, April 20, 1961, 2.
Dolan, Robert, et al. “Man’s Impact on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon,” American Scientist 62, no. 4 (July-August 1974): 392–401.
“Glen Canyon Unit,” United States Bureau of Reclamation.
Lavigne, Peter M. “Dam(n) How Times Have Changed…,” William & Mary Environmental Law and Policy Review 29, no. 2 (2005): 450-480.