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Unplug It

Activists vow to drain Lake Powell




When a handful of activists began agitating to drain Lake Powell and restore Glen Canyon to its desert beauty, most people thought they were out of their minds.

They weren't, and their movement is growing.

It's been four years since the Sierra Club endorsed a proposal to drain the reservoir and restore the canyon, noting the dangerous buildup of silt, high evaporation levels and threats to native fish habitats. "We are simply not being good stewards of the river," then-Sierra Club President Adam Werbach testified before Congress.

The draining idea has been ridiculed by federal lawmakers in Utah and Arizona, where Lake Powell carves its way through the desert to California.

But in February, an independent report published in the Stanford Environmental Law Journal challenged long-held beliefs that Lake Powell is crucial for its recreational, electrical power and water storage uses. The technical, legal and economic barriers, wrote author Scott Miller, are not insurmountable. But the politics may be.

An environmental assessment has never been conducted on the impacts of the dam, which was built in 1956 and provides water and electricity to hundreds of thousands of people living in Arizona, Nevada and California.

Last Tuesday, buoyed by the recent Stanford report and their commitment to draining the dam, activists stood on a makeshift stage -- which was actually the back of the pickup truck that once belonged to legendary environmentalist and author Edward Abbey -- to rally support.

40 years of submersion

"This is the beginning of the most important political movement of the 21st century," former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Haas told a gathering on the edge of Glen Canyon last Tuesday, "to make sure life on earth is livable."

As nearly 300 activists gathered to protest the dam, and authorities did everything they could to impede motorists from moving from one side of the river to the other, separating the "drainettes" from the "pro-lifers."

On the west side of the river, the Moab-based People for the Integrity of the Colorado River held a Restoration Celebration and Rendezvous, aimed at building support for the ultimate goal of unplugging the river. They want to begin a process of returning Glen Canyon to its natural state after nearly 40 years of total submersion beneath the turgid dead waters of Lake Powell.

At the same time, the Friends of the Lake gathered for a counter-rally on the east side of the canyon, raising a toast to power boats, water skis, the two-stroke engine, and industrial tourism. The massive law enforcement presence at the entrance to each rally seemed determined that never the twain should meet.

Longtime environmental activist David Brower, the first executive director of the Sierra Club and founder of Friends of the Earth, Earth Island Institute, and the Glen Canyon Institute, was the keynote speaker.

Brower acknowledged the dam has created "the most beautiful reservoir on earth" but he cited the unanticipated pollution stemming from a project that was initiated and completed without an environmental impact study. "You get the equivalent of an Exxon Valdez every two to four years," he said.

A litany of flaws

Brower has opposed the dam since it was first commissioned by a narrow vote in Congress in the 1950s. A new era of environmental awareness has given him increasing ammunition to justify a realistic plan to decommission the dam.

Brower cited a litany of flaws. "[The dam] was built in the wrong place, a dangerous place, it wastes water we can't afford to waste, it creates pollution we didn't anticipate, it's vulnerable to engineering and economic disaster, it's not needed and it defeats the purpose it was built for in the first place," he said.

"Furthermore, it destroys one of the world's most beautiful places and can be restored at a fraction of the price of not restoring it."

Owen Lammers, executive director of the Glen Canyon Action Network, the principal sponsor of the event, stressed the organization's grass-roots nature. "It's not about going to Washington D.C. and getting legislation," Lammers told the Indy. "Politicians come and go, the people don't change. Educate the people first and then it doesn't matter who the politicians are, you can get what you want."

Lammers was impressed by the size of the crowd that made the pilgrimage to the middle of the desert on a Tuesday in March. "People feel in their soul that we need to start setting things right," he said.

"This is about saying this is what we want and we're going to form a bottom-up campaign to get it."

List of demands

The day produced a declaration, signed by all in attendance, calling for the development and implementation of a decommissioning plan for Glen Canyon Dam.

In addition, the document calls for the establishment of a federal laboratory in Page, Ariz. for research into river and riverine habitat restoration and a more rigorous analysis of the environmental impact of all future management plans affecting the Colorado River watershed.

The group also supports a ban on new dams or reconstruction of failed dams in the watershed, as well as stringent operating licenses for federal dams that are subject to periodic reviews (currently such reviews are only required for non-federal dams).

The declaration also calls for funding from the Bureau of Reclamation to research and recover the endangered fish of the Colorado River, and implementation of a National Park Service program to quantify, monitor and evaluate the presence of a wide range of pollutants, including toxic and radioactive metals in Lake Powell.

100 years of destruction

Invoking the poetry of Langston Hughes and T.S. Eliot, Robert Haas noted that "we spent two centuries exploring our rivers, and now we've spent a century exploiting them."

"The exploitation has been brilliant and inventive and [in the construction of the dam] heroic in the rhythms of its work," he continued, "and incredibly destructive."

"Our task is to use our science and our love of the land to undo the mistakes of the 20th century and create the imagination of a civilization that feeds people decently, gives them decent health care [and] gives them a decent possibility of life without destroying the natural life around them."

Renowned activist, author and folksinger Katie Lee noted that the definition of reclaim is "to claim or demand the return or restoration of."

Then she asked the crowd, "wouldn't it be wondrous if the Wreck the Nation [Reclamation] Bureau reclaimed something, instead of revising, redoing, retarding, reducing, repressing, replacing and revoltingly destroying everything they touch?"

An important step in the movement was marked by the inclusion of representative from the Navajo Nation and the Din Medicine Men's Association. Lammers also invited representatives from Page and from the Friends of Lake Powell to participate in the event, but the response was "very belligerent," he said.

Lammers acknowledged their interests -- Lake Powell generates $4 million in tourism a year -- but claimed that "they're a temporary economy. It's not just their decision."

Which leads to his call for true leadership.

"None of this bullshit crap of waiting for the Army Corps of Engineers," Lammers said. "This is our idea. We can talk about it. We can build a movement to make it happen. 'Cause it ain't gonna happen any other way."

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