Environment: The vanishing lake that could leave a tourist industry high and dry

Click to follow
The Independent Online
The Sierra Club, a leading group of US environmentalists, want to drain a vast lake in Arizona. They claim that it is doing untold damage to the Grand Canyon. But residents of the state think the idea is just plain barmy, reports Tim Cornwell.

The residents of land-locked Arizona, at last count, owned more boats per capita than any other state. One very good reason is Lake Powell, the 180-mile long vacation boating spot created by a dam across the Colorado River more than 30 years ago.

Bordered by jagged cliffs rising from calm emerald waters, with innumerable canyons and coves, it enshrines the Western easy life. A good way to see it, it is said, is to rent a houseboat for a lazy, boozy cruise. It is not hard to imagine the storm of outrage, therefore, that has greeted the call by a major United States environmental group for the draining of Lake Powell, 600ft deep at its deepest point.

The group, the Sierra Club, endorsed a proposal that would leave four marinas and numerous lodges and campsites dry and high in a tourist industry that draws 2.5 million people and 400,000 boat launchings a year. This week, a group of Western Congressmen called a hearing in Washington largely to expose the weaknesses of an idea they called "nonsense", "ridiculous", and the silliest notion to reach the 105th Congress.

"When I first heard about it, I thought it was a joke," said Republican Ben Nighthorse Campbell, the only native American in the Senate. But the Glen Canyon Dam, constructed in 1963, has been a cause celebre in some conservation circles for years. Earth First!, the hard-line environmental action group, once dropped a 300ft long stretch of plastic down its side to simulate a crack.

The dam is blamed for slowing water flow through the downstream Grand Canyon to a trickle, destroying its natural life by silting up beaches and killing off rare species of fish. Glen Canyon itself, now partially drowned, was said to be a place of extraordinary natural beauty, with walls soaring up 800ft from the floor from canyon floors so narrow a man could touch the sides with his arms outstretched. And evaporation from the lake, it is claimed, loses enough water a year to supply the city of Los Angeles.

But Lake Powell is part of Arizona's self-image of a state, traditionally associated with red-blooded brigands, desert, and cacti, as a recreation mecca that also boasts the country's sixth largest city, Phoenix. A Britain- Arizona festival launching in October is designed to boost business and tourist links with Britain, featuring everything from the Princess Royal to Wallace and Gromit and a 9pm-6am demonstration rave for Arizona youth.

The Arizona Republic, a newspaper which mirrors the state's conservative outlook, said this week that losing the lake was a "fanciful lunacy" and begged to know why Congress had given even an "ounce of legitimacy" to this "bizarre idea". Draining the lake now, locals say, would leave a massive salt rim, and thick silt and mud, along with piles of rotting fish, that would take years to clean up. The Sierra Club, with 600,000 members, is usually touted as a blue-chip environmental group with a mainstream agenda of preserving endangered wildlife and habitat. But in attacking Lake Powell, which straddles the Utah-Arizona border, it has touched sensitive nerves, and by most reckonings is unlikely to win much political support.

Local business interests are still in fury over President Bill Clinton's decision, two months before last year's presidential election, to create with much fanfare a 1.7 million acres of wilderness in southern Utah, off limits to mining and development. The fact that the Clinton administration recently said it would honour existing leases on the land did not much help.

But Lake Powell also intrudes on that particularly Western issue, water. Part of a network of lakes and dams along the lower Colorado, it took 17 years to fill, according to a Sierra Club spokesman. It acts as a vast water savings account to guarantee steady supplies in dry years to California and the cities of Las Vegas and Phoenix, both growing at an astronomical rate. It also supplies hydro-electric power to 4 million people, and clean water to a coal-fired power plant that employs 1,000 Navajo Indians.

River dams were vital to the West's development, but their environmental side-effects are increasingly under scrutiny. The Sierra Club, in its early days, originally agreed to Glen Canyon Dam as a compromise to block another dam further downstream. But in Washington state, on the north- west coast, Congress has approved funds for the first dismantling of a dam to restore salmon runs from the Pacific.