It was cold and windy at the top of Glen Canyon Dam, and most of the fledgling engineers huddled against one of the massive concrete supports. I stood on the reservoir side staring into the distance and wondering what it had been like before the water covered it. Looking over the other rail, the narrow gorge of the Colorado River seemed less scenic than the mysterious labyrinth beneath the grey waves.
It was 1973 and a handful of Indian Health Service engineers meeting in Page, Arizona, had scheduled the visit to the dam to see some `real engineering’, something that promised to overshadow our own projects on the Navajo Reservation. To beginners, whose greatest achievement might be the erection of an elevated water tower, the dam seemed overwhelming.
“Looking for cracks?” the resident engineer and tour guide teased me. “You know,” he went on, including the others now, “there are many people that would like to see this dam killed. They’ve threatened to blow it up.”
We looked at him unbelievingly. At that time, a civil engineer could hardly doubt the value of progress. The dam would provide water for public and industrial use, electricity and flood control, not to mention the unquantifiable benefits of recreation.
“The Environmentalists think that saving that empty canyon is more important than providing basic services to millions of people,” our guide went on.
“Where?” a voice from the back chimed in. Our Kayenta representative was somewhat rambunctious, a bit of a free thinker for an engineer. He also had two years of Reservation experience on most of us, and seemed to take delight in popping our most idealistic bubbles.
Seeing our guide’s look of incomprehension, he pressed his case, “Where are the millions of people that will benefit from this project?”
“Well,” the guide thought a minute, “The power is mostly used peak hours in Southern California, and the water will eventually get to the Phoenix and Tucson areas, I believe.”
“What about the Reservation? Do they get any water or power?”
His question hit home for me, since I had spent the last half year trying to get water for people to drink out of a barren, dry desert, and couldn’t even pump water when I found it, since most of the area I worked was without electricity.
“So what do the people get that live here, that gave up their canyon?”
“Well, I guess you could count the recreational benefits.”
In my mind’s eye, I tried to see Hasteen Yazzie, the old man I had worked with several days before, in a speed boat pulling Navajo beauties on skis around the lake.
Our guide tried again, “If it weren’t for Glen Canyon, Lake Mead would fill up with silt in about ten years.”
He could sense that our interest quickened, so he elaborated, “It’s not really official, but nearly two thirds of the capacity of Lake Mead has been lost due to inordinately high siltation rates.”
We looked around at the dry spare landscape. “The Bureau looked at options for fixing it, but they were all incredibly expensive. An upstream dam, this one, will intercept the silt and minimize the capacity loss at Lake Mead, prolonging its useful life.”
He smiled, satisfied he had proven the worth of his project.
Again the voice from the back, “How long before Lake Powell fills up with silt?”
Our guide shook his head, “Do you have any idea how big this lake is? It won’t be a problem in our lifetimes, I’ll guarantee.”
Six months later I gazed out the window as Tommy drove the pickup across a flattened, desolate Navajo landscape. Greasewood was the predominant vegetation, but any vegetation was sparse and scattered. Dry washes, rivers of sand, showed where water flowed after the violent summer thundershowers. Erosion was the predominant surface feature, and the flatness was only relieved by the low range of lava-topped buttes to the north.
Tommy had gotten tired of my driving, and didn’t like the way I took the washboard. As we skittered across a particularly bad stretch, it occurred to me that having a steering wheel to hold on to was a distinct advantage. We swerved around a slow corner and surprised a herd of sheep leisurely crossing the road. Tommy immediately stopped, and grinned at me as our dust tail drifted over the front of the truck.
“So where is this man’s place?” I asked him.
Tommy gestured with his whole hand across the flats to a small cluster of buildings several miles away along one of the innumerable dry washes. To a Navajo, pointing with a finger would be to invite bad luck, as he might accidentally point to a witch or spirit, who would think that he was beckoning them. I had gotten pretty good at interpreting these gestures and the verbal descriptions that identified trails, bushes, rock formations and buildings too far for most human eyes to see.
Tommy was seldom wrong, though, and it seemed that my sight was improving. I could see the cluster of buildings indistinctly, but knew they would be there. Tommy patiently waited for the sheep to cross, then proceeded.
I was just beginning to learn patience, and resisted looking at my watch. We were on “Navajo time” anyway, and Joe Begay wouldn’t expect us at the time we had agreed to meet. We’d be lucky if he had remembered we were coming, and hadn’t decided to go to town.
We were lucky. When we got to the turnoff to the Begay place, another pickup was visible down in the wash at a shallow well, and he was filling the two 55-gallon drums that served as water tanks for the household.
Tommy stopped back a discreet distance away, so as not to cause our dust to cascade over Joe Begay’s truck. Etiquette had taken on a different meaning for me on the Reservation. We waited in the truck for Joe to finish filling the drums. He would know who we were from our government truck, “Washington chitty” in Navajo.
When he finished, Joe Begay came up and we got out to greet him. Tommy introduced us and we all shook hands. Joe was in his late fifties, and spoke to me in Navajo.
Like many older Navajos, Joe spoke and understood English, but was uncomfortable speaking it with Anglos. Tommy acted as interpreter, giving Joe a chance to hear what I said in English and in Navajo. Tommy and Joe talked for probably ten minutes, with Joe doing most of the talking.
Tommy turned to me, “He says he wants you to bring water to his house.”
“That’s all he said?” I asked Tommy.
“No,” Tommy gave me the patient look that he reserved for stupid belagaanas, and most often, me. “He talked about how his family is getting bigger now that his daughters are living here again; and how they expect to build houses for them next fall; and how with more people, he will have to haul more water; and he will have to have more sheep, so he will have to herd them farther away; but that if you could bring water to his house, all his problems will be solved.”
Joe’s face showed no expression, as he eyed me closely. I became very conscious again of being less than half this man’s age, and knowing far less than he did. But I controlled this man’s future; I was the government man that had money.
I asked him, interpreted through Tommy, where he thought we could get the water to bring to him. He spoke long, and waved his arms around the surrounding flats. Finally, he gestured up the wash toward volcanic cliffs to the north.
Tommy explained that this man’s father had worked for the CCC on a pipeline that brought the water down to the surrounding flats, where they had cultivated fields. The water came from the north.
He led us across the dry wash to a sand dune covered with greasewood, and kicked aside a layer of sand. There, covered by windblown sand and ragged desert bushes, was a broken concrete pipe fully eighteen inches in diameter — full of sand. Joe showed us where it ran down toward his house, and described the fields that had once been there. I couldn’t believe that, at some time in the last forty years, this arid parcel of desert had been irrigated, but Joe was insistent, and the pipeline could be traced through the sand, mute evidence of some decayed dream to turn the desert green.
I told Joe that we would try to determine if there was water upstream, and if so, whether it was feasible to bring it to his house. We shook hands as if we had made a deal; no expression in Joe’s face to show how he felt about my equivocation.
After Joe left, I motioned Tommy to drive, and directed him up the wash to track the pipeline to its source. We followed the bed of the wash about a mile, periodically stopping to verify that the derelict remains of the pipeline could still be seen. Finally, the wash was too sandy for the truck, and we proceeded on foot. I think Tommy only followed to see how crazy I was, since he could see little value in walking anywhere, when there were so many other places that you could drive.
Another quarter mile into the buttes and we could see a large formation ahead that appeared to block the wash. It was a volcanic dike, one of the many vertical walls of lava that crossed the landscape. These walls protruded above the sandy soil since they were much less resistant to erosion by the wind and water.
Even at a distance, I could see the dyke was over a hundred feet high. Turning a bend in the wash, the face of the dike was revealed. The wash had cut through the dike, forming a v-shaped breach. The bottom half of the breach had been filled by hand-placed stone, grouted in place.
The dam was a work of art, a silent testimony to whatever craftsmen had labored to haul and place each stone in a giant mosaic soaring nearly sixty feet above the floor of the wash. Neither of us spoke, but we admired the structure in silence for a few moments.
A collapsed concrete pipe confirmed that this was the source of the water that had irrigated Joe Begay’s fields in the past. I scrambled up the seam between the volcanic rock and the hand-placed stone. One foot on nature’s work, the other on man’s.
As I neared the top, I paused to look down to where Tommy waited, remembering the view from a similar angle at Glen Canyon Dam. While the Colorado River had coursed as a straight silver thread through steep canyon walls, the dry wash below meandered through flattened hills out to the desert flats where Joe Begay’s sheep wandered.
I clambered the last few feet and peered over the top of the dam with a clear memory of Lake Powell stretching off into the infinite distance. Behind the dam the ground lay flat, even with the top of the structure. Sand and silt filled the reservoir, the natural result of any attempt to dam the sparsely vegetated, highly erosive desert soil.
Standing on the crest of the dam, I wondered why I had been surprised. How could you hope to overcome the forces of nature that decreed this area a desert? I pictured Lake Powell filled with silt, a sandy surface of greasewood and sage, where Anglos had once come to play in a lake. Where ski boats had once skimmed the surface pulling sunburned girls in bikinis, sheep would wander and browse. Where giant turbines had pulsed to provide the daily power peaks demanded for southern California residents, silt-plugged penstocks would slowly carry seepage to the waiting Colorado River below.
Now I knew with complete assurance that no system of dams could hold the Colorado River captive for long. How could we think that the dams we built were anything but temporary? Our tour guide the previous winter had talked about our lifetimes — what about the lifetime of a river?
I looked back at the flat stretch of sand and silt mimicking a lake’s surface. The memory flashed into my mind of a scrawl of graffiti I had seen at the Lake Powell turn off:
“NATURE BATS LAST”
Fifty years ago, after years of controversy, construction was completed on the Glen Canyon Dam. As an engineer with the Indian Health Service out of Winslow, AZ, I had an opportunity to tour the dam a few years later. The story above and accompanying photo are the result of that visit.
A version of this story first appeared in the High Country News: http://www.hcn.org/issues/48.18/the-fading-promise-of-glen-canyon-dam