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SALT LAKE CITY — As Gus Levy traipses across the 710-foot-tall Glen Canyon Dam, there's a bounce in his step, he's smiling and his eyes are wide and bright as he details the complicated workings of this structure built in 1960.
You'd never know there was a drought, that inflows are sagging from the Colorado River and power generation serving seven states — as far away as Nebraska — may be in jeopardy.
"I never get sick of this. This place is still so striking to me," he said. "It's an impressive place."
Levy worked at a nuclear power plant in Ohio and joined the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation as a safety officer at the dam. He is now its acting facility manager. He admits he's a tool guy: He likes to bang on things with wrenches and hammers.
The dam is an endless labyrinth of complex machinery. It is more turbines and pipes, concrete and steel fashioned to harness the power of the Colorado River.
In the arid red rock scenery of Page, Arizona, it is a testament to man's ingenuity, to the desire to build a flourishing West even in the harshest of desert conditions, heat and seemingly insurmountable engineering feats.
Glen Canyon Dam is the second-highest concrete arch dam in the United States, just 16 feet shy of the towering Hoover Dam at Lake Mead in Nevada.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, hydropower was one of the first sources of mechanical methods to produce energy for electrical generation. Up until 2019, hydropower was the United States' largest sector of renewable energy generation. Its share has decreased over time because of other sources of renewables coming online.
The first U.S. hydroelectric power plant to sell electricity opened on the Fox River near Appleton, Wisconsin, on Sept. 30, 1882. Two years earlier, the first industrial use of hydropower to generate electricity in the United States was to power 16 brush-arc lamps at the Wolverine Chair Factory in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
In a briefing earlier this summer, Bureau of Reclamation officials made clear their commitment to keep water flowing to the turbines at Glen Canyon Dam, despite calls from some environmental advocates who say that this drought should bring to the table a new generational way of thinking — that dams should be a relic of the past.
Hydroelectric power produced by the dam's eight generators helps meet the electrical needs of the West's rapidly growing population. With a total capacity of 1,320 megawatts, Glen Canyon produces around five billion kilowatt-hours of hydroelectric power annually which is distributed by the Western Area Power Administration to Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and Nebraska. In the immediate vicinity, without the dam, the lights in Page would go dark.
Critics of Lake Powell have argued it should be drained, that Glen Canyon should be restored to its natural state and the Colorado River should be allowed to flow unhindered. At the very least, they argue for millions in new money to be invested in infrastructure lest catastrophe ensue.
But Lake Powell, its surrounding slot canyons and reputation for great angling in 2021 generated $410 million in economic benefit and was ranked 25 out of 423 National Park Service units for visitation. It is a recreational mecca that locals, the state of Arizona and the state of Utah are desperate to save.
The awe factor
The dam's infrastructure is stunning to behold.
At the time of its construction in 1959, the Glen Canyon bridge was the highest arch bridge in the world and the second-highest bridge of any type. It spans more than 1,000 feet, took eight years to build and fueled the establishment of Page to house the onslaught of necessary workers.
The dam backs up Lake Powell, which is the second-largest human-made reservoir in the country, next to Lake Mead.
Lisa Meiman, public affairs specialist with the Western Area Power Administration, said it gets power from 10 hydropower dams — with Glen Canyon providing 80% of that power generation for its 135 wholesale customers.
The power directly generated by Glen Canyon is enough to support electricity needs for 300,000 U.S. homes, but when factored into the role it plays in the energy grid of the Southwest, it helps to support 5.5 million customers in six states.
"It's reliable, it's flexible, and Glen Canyon can adjust output within seconds to respond to the grid needs and energy demands. It's also clean and renewable," Meiman said.
She pointed to one study that included Salt Lake City and Denver as part of its analysis on why Glen Canyon power generation could go the way of the past — but she noted that Salt Lake City and Denver are not its beneficiaries.
"We serve rural communities like Page, Arizona, Gunnison, Colorado," she said, with a little more than 6,500 residents and more than 50 Native American tribes that lack the ability to hook up to an alternative power source.
"Removing a large reliable power plant is not what you'd want. It would push our operating constraints even closer to the edge," due to population growth, increase in energy consumption and drought, she added.
"It is a very large power plant," Meiman said, adding the idea of tearing out Glen Canyon Dam is a fool's errand.