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Carman: In this sizzling summer, what’s left of the mighty Colorado River still casts its spell

Glen Canyon Dam stands as a monument to hubris, as grotesque evidence of our unwillingness to face the reality of climate change.

The temperature is north of 100. We’re floating in the current in our life jackets, looking up — way, way up — at what used to be the water line in the Colorado River at Cataract Canyon.

Diane Carman

I’m not any good at estimating heights, but I’d guess it was about two stories above the river level on this day. The riverbank calves like a glacier, with a resounding SPLAT that echoes off the canyon walls. Lazy catfish nibble on an unsuspecting swimmer passing by. Beaches sprawl along the shoreline where the river used to run, perfect for camping, if you choose to look at the upside. 

After six days of swimming in the magical world of canyons, sunshine and no cell service, we arrive at our destination. 

The take-out at the boat ramp that used to be so convenient now requires 100 yards of cable, a winch and a big honkin’ truck to make the long haul up the road that used to be the side of the lake. 

And yet amid all the evidence of decline, there’s such beauty.

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The rapids still thrill. A skilled guide can run you smack into the wall of water known as the Big Drop and launch a raft up over the other side, with passengers squealing and screaming for more. 

The scenery inspires awe and wonder. 

The solitude is seldom broken except by timid bighorn sheep or the occasional peregrine falcon. 

It remains a magnificent place. For now.

But, man, has it changed.

In 1983, the river’s enormous volume threatened to breach Glen Canyon Dam. Just 20 years old at the time, the dam appeared inadequate to contain the powerful river swollen by an early thaw of a huge snowpack. Engineers frantically went to work to save it.

Plywood panels were erected to contain the flood waters. Releases of more than a half million gallons of water per second were made and car-sized boulders roared through the spillways in the attempt to salvage the giant structure and everything else downstream. 

River flows peaked at 91,000 cubic feet per second.

Now, after 20 years of relentless drought, the river is running at around 5,000 cfs in Cataract Canyon. Lake Powell is at about 25% of its capacity

It’s tragic, and it magnifies the sense of loss of the exquisitely beautiful canyon since it seems so pointless to have wrecked it to create a silt-choked lake that sits three-quarters empty. 

Even Barry Goldwater, hardly an environmentalist, mourned the loss of the canyon. Upon his retirement, he said the only vote he regretted was the one to dam Glen Canyon, a place he had visited as a child and never forgot.

He and so many others considered the dam a mistake. 

And that was back when Lake Powell was full. 

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Now it stands as a monument to hubris, as grotesque evidence of our unwillingness to face the reality of climate change.

Last month in Washington, D.C., Sen. Michael Bennet described our two decade-long drought as a “five-alarm crisis for the American West.” He called for action to address the wildfires, water shortages and the climate change that has fueled the persistent aridification of the region and drained the lifeline that is the Colorado River, stretching 1,450 miles from Berthoud Pass to the Sea of Cortez (or wherever the last few drops evaporate on their way there).

“Colorado is literally being incinerated as a result of climate change,” Bennet said.

Then, when the U.S. Senate had the chance to take to heart his plea this month, every Republican and one Democrat torched a meager attempt at funding climate action. 

Pathetically, they said it cost too much. They said the $300 billion to be spent on reducing carbon emissions would contribute to inflation. 

11-year-old Oliver Sherman on the Colorado River in July 2022. (Diane Carman, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Oh, and their stock portfolios might also take a hit.

They pretend not to notice the runaway costs of climate change — the ravaged forests, withered crops, homes lost to wildfires and floods, mudslides so severe they close I-70, air quality so bad it confines people to their homes, power bills rising with more demand for air conditioning, and the devastating hurricanes and severe storms.

Recent estimates anticipate the already shocking price tag for climate change impacts will reach $2 trillion per year in the U.S. by 2100. And if there’s anything we’ve learned from 50 years of ignoring scientists’ warnings, it’s that things are a lot worse and happening a lot sooner than they forecast.

A case in point: the heat wave that scorched the U.K. last week was a worst-case scenario predicted to occur … around 2050.

We took our grandson to see the river, feel its power, sleep along its banks and glory in its beauty. 

He hiked to ancient granaries and petroglyphs and identified petrified wood and all manner of fossils. He rode the rapids in rafts and kayaks and swam them in his life jacket. 

He watched the moon rise over the red canyon walls and listened to the rain pummeling his tent as he fell sound asleep in the same spot a river otter had earlier left a trail in the sand.

We wanted to create a memory so rich and vivid, he’d never forget it.

Then maybe someday he’ll be able to tell his grandchildren what it once was like on the Colorado River in the olden days, way back in the summer of ’22.


Diane Carman is a Denver communications consultant.


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