Tim Lane and I were still sweeping storm boards on Red Mountain Pass, June of 1983 for the Insitute of Arctic and Alpine Research San Juan Project. It was a big winter but the heavy snows (above normal density, almost 15% or twice the average) didn’t really begin until February and continued much like this year (2019) into late spring (June). It was truly an amazing experience on a daily basis wondering if the storms were ever going to end. All of this snow finally melted in the north San Juan mountains and flowed into the Colorado river basin and eventually to Glen Canyon dam to overflow its top.. Kevin Fedarko wrote ‘The Emerald Mile‘ that contains a fine chapter on the winter of 1983 that created this near disaster.
The first public sign that something was up came in the form of a short story in the Arizona Daily Sun in Flagstaff. It was only six paragraphs, but it appeared on the front page above the fold:
“Glen Canyon Dam Water Releases to Increase,” the headline read.
It was June 2, 1983, and the story didn’t even begin to hint at the drama that was about to unfold.
“PAGE — Early snowmelt due to higher than normal temperatures is forcing the earlier than normal release of water from Glen Canyon Dam here, authorities said Thursday.”
Almost every word was an understatement.
“The water releases were to begin at noon today and (Glen Canyon recreation area superintendent John) Lancaster said they could go as high as 38,000 cubic feet per second,” the story said.
The releases were likely to continue for the next month and campers along the Colorado River were advised to seek higher ground and secure their boats.
Two weeks earlier, embattled Interior Secretary James Watt had paid a visit to Glen Canyon, the nation’s second highest concrete arch dam, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of its completion.
Soaring 710 feet and anchored in Navajo sandstone, the dam was conceived in desert thirst, born into controversy, and swaddled in argument.
The debate over Glen Canyon Dam was not just emblematic of the new American West, but part of its fabric.
On one side, Native Americans and environmentalists decried the loss of a pristine canyon filled with sacred and historic sites and an ecosystem as beautiful and enigmatic as the Grand Canyon. On the other, developers and chambers of commerce argued for the need to protect downstream users from flooding and to provide the water and power needed to turn small desert cities into the sprawling metropolises they’ve become today.
By June 1983 the debate had long been settled in favor of growth, but there was a new question looming: Could people safely control nature? It was a question fueled by nature’s unpredictable wrath as 8 trillion gallons of water in one of the nation’s largest reservoirs bore down on 10 million tons of concrete in one of the nation’s largest engineering marvels.
It was uncharted territory for both people and nature, and the stakes were high.
Within a month of the AP news story, water in Lake Powell would come within inches of topping the dam’s massive spillway gates as engineers frantically tried everything they could think of, rigging 4-by-8 sheets of plywood to extend the top of the gates and releasing more than half a million gallons per second into the Colorado River.
Lake Powell water levels rose steadily during June and July 1983, forcing the Bureau of Reclamation to use plywood barriers to keep the lake from spilling over the closed gates on Glen Canyon Dam.
(Photo: Photo courtesy Bureau of Reclamation)
Before it was over, the force of the water releases would gouge house-size holes in the dam’s crippled concrete spillways. The white water would tinge red from the bedrock sandstone, and ominous rumbling sounds would be heard as boulders the size of cars belched from one of the spillways into the river.
The more water the engineers released, the more damage they did. But they had no choice.
“We were sitting on a pretty good catastrophe waiting to happen,” said Art Grosch, an electrician who worked at the dam and ran electrical cable into the mangled spillways.
“That lake (Powell) is 190 miles long and has something like 2,300 miles of shoreline,” he said. “And it was rising a foot a day.”