Reflecting on the Water

An essay on Lake Powell from the February 2008 issue of Arizona Highways. | By Lawrence W. Cheek | Photograph by Gary Ladd

Reflecting on the Water

As crime scenes go, Lake Powell is so staggeringly beautiful that it’s hard to hold in the lock of your mind that you’re supposed to be appalled by it. Even Edward Abbey was grudgingly seduced: “Though not a lake, [it] may well be as its defenders assert the most beautiful reservoir in the world.” Sierra Club’s Executive Director David Brower likewise slipped during a boat trip staged by nature writer John McPhee. “You can’t duplicate this experience — this lake — anywhere else,” Brower admitted.

I’m spending five days on Lake Powell in a kayak, nominally to scribble a travel story, but I’m gnawing on a deeper personal agenda that I haven’t shared with the five other members of our plastic flotilla. In a microboycott to honor my environmental ethic, I never came here during the quarter-century that I lived in Arizona. I believed then, and now, that we humans hold a moral responsibility to tread as lightly as possible on the Earth. How can anyone reconcile that principle with the colossal bootprint of this desert lake?

This is a dilemma that overflows the borders of a travel story. It’s worth visiting Lake Powell solely to consider the rightness or wrongness of its existence. The conjunctions of nature and civilization are among the most powerful issues of our time, and they’re becoming more pressing as the planet grows more crowded and our uses of its resources more daring. Lake Powell, though nearly 50 years old, is perhaps the most radical and controversial transformation of a landscape yet undertaken by humankind.

The idea of man-made lakes first occurred some 4,000 years ago as small reservoirs for drinking water and irrigation in China, Egypt and Mesopotamia. But these were little more than beaver dams that happened to be built by two-legged land mammals. The great reservoir boom had to wait for concrete (huge earthen dams tended toward spectacular and lethal failures), and in North America, the New Deal and its public works ambitions. With Hoover Dam in 1935, the second of six stoppers along the Colorado River in Arizona, an era of titanic dams — and vast reservoirs behind them — was in full bloom. 

Glen Canyon Dam, which created Lake Powell, was unique because the landscape upstream was no everyday desert basin. It was a labyrinth of crinkly canyons, some as dark and foreboding as dungeons, others as dramatic as Gothic cathedrals, punctuated by occasional waterfalls and sunlit splashes of Gambel oaks and willows. Abbey, who devoted a chapter of his book Desert Solitaire to his rubber-raft trip through the canyon before the lake backed into it, concluded that the landscape was “an Eden, a portion of the earth’s original paradise.” 

The dam’s raison d’etre, strangely, is murky. The Bureau of Reclamation sold the idea to Congress as a means of hoarding Colorado River water for irrigation and hydroelectric power. But Arizona and Utah also saw it as a catalyst for mass tourism, which Glen Canyon’s wilderness had not been. After the lake arose, its unique beauty seemed to overwrite all other considerations. A brochure authored by Floyd Dominy, the Bureau’s commissioner from 1959 to 1969, is empurpled with prose likely not matched by any bureaucrat in modern times: “Colors like a symphony of Nature’s music … a front-row seat in an amphitheater of infinity … a oneness with the world and God.”

But the lake has not forged a oneness of opinion. Countless writers have seconded Abbey’s alternating heartbreak and fury over the loss of Glen Canyon, and in 1997 Richard Ingebretsen, a Salt Lake City physician, formed the Glen Canyon Institute with the goal of draining the lake. The most remarkable second thought about the lake came from Arizona’s rock-ribbed Republican Senator Barry Goldwater, who said in 1976 that in all his Senate years, what he most wished he could change was a vote he cast to construct Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River. Goldwater was remembering the river he’d visited in 1940, gone forever.

Arizona is a land of audacious schemes, partly because it’s young and open, and also because the outrageous landscape seems to provoke us into competing with it. More than a millennium ago, the Hohokam created the largest canal system in North America in the valley that now cradles Phoenix. On the modern Colorado Plateau, artist James Turrell has spent more than three decades remaking a volcanic crater into an experiential observatory. Metropolitan Phoenix, an oasis supporting more than 4 million people, is an act of faith in a desert that enjoys 8 inches of rainfall a year.

Most of our schemes alter the landscape. Some respectfully: The prehistoric Sinagua pueblo of Tuzigoot crowns a Verde Valley hill so gracefully that Mother Nature herself could have arranged the rock walls. And some do not: Modern homes perch on the slopes of Phoenix’s Camelback Mountain and Tucson’s Santa Catalinas, each making its personal architectural statement, and the cumulative effect is grandly scaled clutter.

But it’s dreamy naiveté to imagine that ancient Native Americans were more enlightened stewards than we are. Pueblo architecture flows with the mood and shape of the land because of its builders’ limitations. They couldn’t truck in materials from distant places; they had to fashion their architecture out of whatever the site provided: sandstone, clay, pine. Naturally, it took on an organic air. Tuzigoot and similar pueblos probably assumed their tight, clustered forms from the necessity of defense. Modern mountainside homes, widely separated on acre lots, grow out of a different need — the yearning for privacy.

Whatever the reasons, transforming landscape is what our species does. At whatever level the technology of the moment allows, we build roads, bridges, dams, canals, fences, fortifications and houses. The Hohokam built vast earthen mounds and scooped out ball courts; we move dirt to sculpt golf courses and parking lots. These ambitions are as legitimate a part of our nature as building nests is for eagles. Every living organism’s biological imperative is to exploit its environment, to maximize opportunity. For better or worse, we humans are equipped to make more of this mandate than any other species.

We’re also uniquely equipped to predict the consequences of what we’re considering doing, but we haven’t used this feature of our brains very well. This, I think, is the unspoken debate at the heart of the Lake Powell issue. John McPhee suggested it in his 1977 book Encounters With the Archdruid: “Possibly the reaction to dams is so violent because rivers are the ultimate metaphors of existence, and dams destroy rivers.”

Lake Powell is a monster metaphor. It’s a summation of modern technology’s nearly unlimited power to revise nature, and its opponents fear that it stands as a precedent. Draining the lake, on the other hand, would be an equally monumental but opposite symbol: a scaling back of human aspirations, a recognition that the human species is only part of a much larger community of life on Earth, one over which opposable thumbs do not automatically give us dominion.

That’s a seductive idea for someone who believes that our species needs a booster shot of humility, as I do. The problem is that when applied to Lake Powell, it disregards the human capacity for creating beauty, another piece of our biological uniqueness. We are rearranging nature whenever we design a garden, build a house, sculpt a figure out of stone or wood, or even make a painting. (Canvas is a reorganization of plant fibers; pigments derive from minerals.) If Lake Powell is, as Abbey intimated, “the most beautiful reservoir in the world,” then it also serves as a stunning example of artistic success. Most of our meddling with nature, from suburban lawns to other man-made lakes, is not nearly as laudable.

Of course, Lake Powell’s beauty only builds on what was there before: the spectacular canyons and slickrock shelves. The spectacle that transfixes us today is the starkly dramatic juxtaposition of pink stone, sapphire sky and turquoise water, all on a scale never before seen in a desert. And yes, another spectacle, precious and irreplaceable, has been drowned underneath it. How to weigh the value of each against the other? Most of us, including me, never visited Glen Canyon in person. What we’re really weighing is the symbolic power of the engineered lake versus the natural canyon. 

One of my fellow kayakers throws out a provocative thought as we fabricate a camp in a stony bowl embracing a bay. “If this were natural,” he says, “no one would ever think anything other than that it’s fabulous.” Why, then, condemn it for its human-engineered origins? Or to ask a question one step deeper: Why is a lake unnatural when it was made by creatures who are, unquestionably, part of nature?

Behind our camp, the moon rides over a ring of serrated bluffs. Its white light, cold and sharp as ice, renders the red mountains into silhouettes that glow with vague menace, like charcoal hoarding a secret fire. Then intimations of lightning begin flashing on the southern horizon, and for the next two hours we watch — warily — as a late-summer thunderstorm scribes a half-circle around us. Faint orange virgas scratch the sky, but the rain never finds the ground — a reminder that despite the 27 million acre-feet of water beside us, we’re in the desert. 

Possibly we humans have a legitimate role to play in this grand scene, or perhaps we already have improvised beyond what the desert’s script will tolerate. Lake Powell eventually will prove to be a dramatic example of what we should or should not do. All I know is that in this flicker of geologic time, I’m in one of the most beautiful places on Earth, and no longer appalled.