Several writers have explored the ecological transformation of the Colorado River, dammed decades ago to supply water for 33 million people in the West and northern Mexico, but Craig Childs may be the only one to do so from atop a “bright yellow inflatable boat that looks like a swollen banana.”
In a lyrical, reported essay that blends adventure, science, and history, Colorado-based Childs tells the little-known story of the slow-motion death of Lake Powell, the reservoir created by the massive Glen Canyon Dam on the Arizona-Utah border. The ecological costs of the 52-year-old dam – low flows and warmer water temperatures, dwindling or extinct populations of native fish – are well documented, but as Childs points out, the Colorado and its tributaries still retain some of their former power: “These rivers aren’t dead, and their persistent dynamics are slowly, steadily driving Lake Powell toward its demise.” The tributaries continue to sweep sediment downstream, just as they have for millennia, but once it reaches the still waters of the reservoir, it settles to the bottom. Lake Powell is in a losing battle against an inundation of mud, clouding the future for one of the Southwest’s main sources of water and hydropower.
An obvious way to tell this story would have been to venture out to the reservoir with a scientist who’s studying this process and build the story around her or his work, weaving the historical context into the narrative. But by guiding the reader through the story himself — alone, floating down a tributary toward the reservoir on an inflatable kayak — Childs creates a much more intimate, immersive story. He tells the tale from the perspective of an explorer, navigating between evocative scenes of drowned canyons and churning rapids and the surprising facts of Lake Powell’s imminent demise.
Both the story and the adventure begin with a small act of defiance, which sets the story in motion while also establishing its tone and creating a bit of suspense:
The Lower San Juan River courses through a rather forsaken landscape of clay hills and redrock plateaus in southeast Utah. At the end of a long, dusty road, there is a boat ramp at the water’s edge where, at any warm time of year, vans and roof-racked Subarus bake in the sun while their owners are out on the river. This is the end of the line. A large sign stands along shore, smacked with big red letters:
DO NOT PROCEED
The sign and the waterfall mark the transition from a fast, muddy river to a bizarre and almost forgotten landscape created by upper Lake Powell, backed up behind Glen Canyon Dam a hundred miles away. Everyone gets off the river here.
In the bright and cloudless sunlight of a desert afternoon, I pump up a ducky — a bright yellow inflatable boat that looks like a swollen banana — and drag it down to the water past a group of river runners hauling rafts and kayaks onto the boat ramp. They pause and watch as I toss in drinking water and a drybag for my gear, and push into the current. They seem puzzled: Didn’t I notice the sign? Am I just crazy? Before I can offer an explanation, the river has taken me out of sight beyond a bend in the tamarisk-thick shoreline.
Having introduced himself and the changed river – tamarisk is an invasive species of tree – he then reveals the reason he’s pushed off into a “place that people rarely see … a river’s limbo”:
Lake Powell, which now starts several miles below the waterfall, is the second-largest artificial reservoir in the United States. It is the seeming endpoint for four rivers: the Colorado, Dirty Devil, Escalante and San Juan. But the reservoir isn’t really an endpoint at all. These rivers aren’t dead, and their persistent dynamics are slowly, steadily driving Lake Powell toward its demise.
He’s “come to see the San Juan in action,” he explains, before going on to describe the changes wrought by the dam and the reservoir. Writing about science in clear, engaging language is a challenge, but Childs makes it look easy:
The Colorado River, centerpiece of the Southwest, is slowed by six high dams and numerous low-heads and diversions, while the incoming San Juan pauses higher up in northern New Mexico at Navajo Dam. The equation is simple: When rivers are slowed by dams, the water can no longer carry its sediment. So the sediment settles out. The Colorado used to carry about 90 million tons a year through the Grand Canyon; with Glen Canyon Dam in place in 1963, it now carries about 15 million tons. Where did the rest go? It sank to the bottom of reservoirs stacked along the river system.
Then we learn what’s at stake: Glen Canyon Dam’s hydropower helps power the Southwest’s rapid growth, and its water supports farms and residents in several states. But as the mud collects, the water will run out, he explains, although the reservoir’s expiration date is hard to pinpoint, because of the changes in sediment coming down the river and other factors. Compounding the problem is rising demand for limited supplies shrunk by drought and climate change. “Everyone agrees that reservoirs have finite lifespans,” he writes, before delivering one of the story’s most lyrical lines: “And the Southwestern landscape, with its ancient history exposed like bones, suggests a different sense of time, one where reservoirs rise and fall, as evanescent as clouds.”
Then we’re back on the river, floating past “red-lodged outcrops” but also car tires and cow carcasses, evoking both the beauty and the blight of the river in its human-altered state. As Childs moves forward down the San Juan, the story moves forward too: The changing landscape sparks reflection on the river’s history and future. Portaging around the waterfall (a different one than the cataract the sign warned of, which as it turns out was overcome by changes in the river long ago), Childs notes that the last time Lake Powell was full, it flooded this part of the river and then retreated, “revealing a new landscape of silt.”
This device of playing tour guide to the Colorado’s transformation allows Childs to bring the river to life and take readers on a journey while also informing them of the dramatic changes the system continues to undergo. Like a digital Geographic Information System (GIS) map, the story is layered, with the geography overlaying science, history and policy. There’s more than what meets the eye at first glance.
After pushing off again onto the swift-moving river, floating through a landscape inundated by the reservoir just two decades ago, he comes to its new boundary, a bay where “water has begun backing up, slightly more penetrable to light as sediment settles out.” Again here, he seamlessly interweaves science and scene. We’ve arrived at the lake, and we get a glimpse of the dynamics that will one day render it obsolete.
But, echoing the piece’s earlier declaration that the river is not dead, Childs finds traces of it even in the upper reaches of the reservoir: “Each time I think the river is gone, I find vestiges again. It rises and falls, as if it were tunneling deep below the surface, a submarine breaching, then descending through the murky vaults of Lake Powell.” Even as he ventures farther down the reservoir, where it becomes more lake-like, the sediment the river delivers “keeps moving in the form of gravity flows, streamers of mud and silt slowly but inexorably advancing along the reservoir’s floor toward the dam.”
Once again he pauses the action to provide a key insight into the reservoir’s fate. Underwater mapping shows that most of the sediment accumulation is in the middle of the lake, he informs us. Then the kicker: “As a result, Lake Powell might fill more quickly and thoroughly than expected, another variable to figure into the many equations.”
Then he deftly maneuvers back to the water, describing the alcoved “remnants” of Glen Canyon, where “places that once towered high over the river … are now at eye-level.” At this point, he has to hunt for a current, finally giving up. “It is now a ghost sliding along the bottom of Lake Powell,” he writes. Even now, though, it’s not completely dead: “There is a heartbeat down at the bottom.”
Pulling the banana onto terra firma and making camp above the lake’s edge, destination reached, he closes the piece with a final scene that marries the journey with its purpose: the story of a river that’s slowly destroying the reservoir built to tame it.
That night, sitting in the crease of the San Juan’s canyon quarter-filled with lake water, I pull out my journal. The top of each preceding page had been titled, “Lower San Juan.” Starting the next page under a headlamp, I hesitate, go to the top, and finally pen, “Lake Powell.”