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Exposing Utah's Depths

From Glen Canyon Bridge on U.S. Highway 89, you can see both sides of an argument. To the north is placid Lake Powell, a big, blue tropical cocktail in the arid no man's land of southeastern Utah. It's Exhibit A in the case for letting 42-year-old Glen Canyon Dam stand. To the south is the Colorado River, testily emerging from impoundment, cutting through sheer rock walls on its way to the Grand Canyon, wild and free, the way nature made it.

I stood there with my brother, John, in early February, thinking about Seldom Seen Smith, the fictional mastermind of a plot to blow up the Glen Canyon Dam in Edward Abbey's 1975 novel, "The Monkey Wrench Gang."

Smith, Abbey wrote, "remembered the golden river flowing to the sea ... canyons called Hidden Passage and Salvation and Last Chance ... strange great amphitheaters called Music Temple and Cathedral in the Desert. All these things now lay beneath the dead water of the reservoir, slowly disappearing under layers of descending silt."

The book has achieved cult status among lovers of canyon country and conservationists continue to call for the dam's removal. But now nature in the form of a blistering six-year drought may decide the fate of Lake Powell.

The last time the reservoir was full -- at 3,700 feet above sea level -- was in July 1999. Since then the drought has lowered the water level 144 feet, leaving the reservoir at about 33% capacity, shrinking the length of the lake from 186 miles to 145 miles and gradually re-exposing something remarkable underneath: the arches and spires of Glen Canyon. People travel halfway around the world to see the canyon of China's Yangtze River, doomed by construction of Three Gorges Dam. So was it any wonder that John and I felt compelled to go backpacking in little side canyons on the fringes of Lake Powell, where the water is rapidly receding? It was a chance in a lifetime to see something that couldn't be seen five years ago and may not be seen five years from now.
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The Los Angeles Times, 4/3/05