Thursday, April 3, 2008

The Story That Stands Like A Dam

As a design engineer, I truly appreciate the marvel of building something that has never been built before, even massive dams like the Glen Canyon Dam at the base of Glen Canyon. But ever since I read Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey and The Place No One Knew by Eliot Porter and David Brower, I have been mortified at what was given up for so little. Through the years I have read many books that had mentioned the struggle over the building of the Glen Canyon Dam but had never read something really in depth. So when Sage mentioned The Story That Stands Like a Dam by Russell Martin, I bought a used copy cheaply off the internet.

I really enjoyed the book and reading the "rest of the story" behind the fight for and against the dam. That fight was the birth of environmentalism as it is today. It also gave worth to the environment and thus was something to protect and utilize. However all this came at a price and the price was Glen Canyon. Someday, I would like to make a trip out there to see what is left and what has been newly exposed. Perhaps someday, I might even get to see the large majority again if things continue as they are today.

Here are some facts and figures about the Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell. The maximum level (full pool) of Lake Powell is 3700 feet above see level and was first reached June 22, 1980, 17 years after the reservoir first began filling in 1963. Currently the level is 3589.77 feet above see level or 110.23 feet below full pool. This is 44.4% of capacity of the reservoir. The last time the reservoir was at its current elevation in 1970, it took 10 years to fill up completely. However, times have changed and many experts now think it will never fill up completely again.

This is for several reasons. When Lake Powell was filled up the first time, all the downstream and upstream reservoirs were at full capacity. This time around all the downstream and upstream reservoirs are way below capacity meaning they all need to be filled. Meanwhile, treaties have required a larger percentage of the water must be given to Mexican. Finally more water is being consumed all the time to feed the cities in the deserts and at the current growth rates, we will need more water per year to supply Mexico and our cities in the deserts than the Colorado river has. Meaning with less water coming in than going out, the impounded lakes behind these dams will dry up completely.

Glen Canyon Dam was specifically created for two purposes. One was to regulate the water supply for the downstream reservoir of Lake Mead and to generate electricity. The Glen Canyon Dam generates 451 megawatts on average per year, which is less than 1% of the power on the Western Power Grid, which always keeps an excess power capacity of 20% on hand. With the low water conditions of Lake Powell, the power generating ability is greatly reduced and will be reduced further as the water goes down and the silting reduced the capacity further.

One could make the case for keeping Lake Powell strictly for the tourism aspect since in the golden days of the 80's when the lake was full, millions visited every year. However, low levels have closed all but a few of the access points. Tourism is well down. Meanwhile the tourism of the undammed portion of the Grand Canyon, which hardly existed when the dam was built, surpasses the numbers of Lake Powell even in the best of times. People have come to see the value of the constantly renewable resource called Mother Nature over temporary ones like Lake Powell.

The Glen Canyon Dam was built to last a thousand years but even the experts say another 150 to 300 is all it has due to siltation assuming the demand doesn't exceed supply and the costs associated with producing the measly 451 megawatts doesn't become too much of a burden on the American taxpayer to continue. (Energy from the dam is costs 2.5 times higher per watt than energy from other sources already and is subsidized by the taxpayer.) With all these factors included, the odds of the dam being decommissioned in my lifetime are dramatically increasing. I can't wait.

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