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National Geographic - April 2006 - Glen Canyon Revisited

JFRCalifornia

Escalante-Class Member
As drought gripped the southwest in the first years of the 21st century, National Geographic sensed a story and returned to Lake Powell for a feature that described a re-emerging Glen Canyon, as the reservoir dropped to its lowest levels since it first filled. It would be the last time the magazine would visit Lake Powell.

It’s a fascinating read, only 10 pages, but full of dramatic photos taken from all over the lake. The article effectively bookends Geographic’s July 1967 piece that first presented Lake Powell in its early years. The two articles couldn’t be more different. In 1967, the tone was part curiosity, part a grand adventure into the newly accessible canyons, all mixed with just a hint of lingering lament, with a dash of optimism for the future. The April 2006 piece revisited some of the same places, but this time through the lens of rediscovery, filtered with a weary undertone, and a sort of stark pragmatism about the future. The message was clear: one day the lake will inevitably be gone, and the drought that began in 2000 was the first salvo that fired that message home. Now, fifteen years later, still in the midst of that drought, the article reads as if it were written yesterday.

The story of the ups and downs of Lake Powell was by then well known. After reaching full pool in 1980, the lake remained that way through most of the 1980s until a mini-drought at the end of the decade raised the first warning signs that it would take more to manage the water and power system of the southwest than just showing up for work. In June 1991, National Geographic wrote a cautionary piece focused on those limitations that few had seriously considered before, as it followed the path of water down the Colorado River.

But in spite of the dire warnings sounded early in that decade, the lake refilled by the end of the 1990s. Buoyed by this unexpected turn, which seemed to refute the critical narrative, water use in the Lower Basin not only continued as before, but soon reached all-time highs, especially after the Central Arizona Project came on line in the mid-1990s. Fueled by massive new growth particularly in the Phoenix area, in 2002 the collective water use from the three Lower Basin states reached 8.66 million acre feet, its highest total ever, exceeding the basin’s legal allocation by 15%.

And just at this peak, drought struck again. And didn’t let go.

By 2005, much had changed. In the face of vanishing snowpack, western water managers were developing new protocols, cutting back water use by nearly 20% in the Lower Basin. And still Lake Powell was in freefall, dropping to its lowest level in April of that year, hitting a surface level of 3555—an incredible loss of two-thirds of its volume and 145 feet of elevation. Features such as Cathedral in the Desert began to re-emerge. Was the lake disappearing?

Daniel Glick’s piece, entitled A Dry Red Season, sought to capture that moment. He found Tom McCourt, who had recently published the definitive history of the lost mining town of White Canyon, where they visited a crumbling Fort Moki, recently re-emerged from the lake.

Ft Moki 2005.jpg


He visited sinuous Twilight Canyon, hiked past the mud flats at the end of other quickly restoring side canyons, now revealing natural features not seen in decades. And inevitably, he crowned the article with that grand chamber in Clear Creek, the Cathedral in the Desert.

CITD 2005 - NatGeo.jpg

But even as this article was going to print a year later, the lake had changed once again, and in unexpected ways. It had risen 53 feet in the spring of 2005 after the snowpack returned, it’s best showing since 1999. The Cathedral was back underwater, and it seemed the drought had been broken. So some of the impact of the article was lost the moment it was published, sounding to some more like another doomsday cry into the wind. And water use in the Lower Basin began to rise again, although this time, staying within those states’ legal limits.

Now, with 2022 just around the corner, still in the thick of the same drought, the lake is even lower than it was in 2005. It took a lot of ups and downs to get to this place in the past 15 years, but here we are.

And yet, reading that article today, it strikes me that its key legacy is not as a warning, or its prescience about the future, or anything else so profound, it’s this:

It helped make Lake Powell more popular than ever. For better or worse. The visitation numbers bear this out.

The article began with a dramatic two-page foldout photo of Reflection Canyon, showing a shrunken lake meandering a deep S-turn between those two now iconic stone monoliths. This one:

Reflection Canyon 2005.jpg

That one photo created a cult, a new bucket list trophy, and a variation of that photo eventually landed on the National Park Service annual pass. In the past decade, social media has exploded that image. Reflection Canyon, which was once just another of the 96 pretty side canyons of Lake Powell, suddenly became a “must see” destination (and ironically a much more interesting experience at low water), drawing more people than it probably should have. Same goes with Cathedral in the Desert. After visitation to the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area declined from 2000-05, after that 2006 piece came out, visitation has been on a steady rise ever since. The water may be slowly going away, but the popularity of Lake Powell (or is it Glen Canyon?) is not.

Times change. Places change. Names change, too. Cathedral in the Desert was named by a Panguitch rancher’s wife in the 1920s, long before there was much thought given to Glen Canyon as a place to visit, and four decades before there was a Lake Powell. Many of the names of now iconic canyons were named by river runners in the 1940s and 50s, people who knew Glen Canyon before the dam. Some of those names have changed. Like Reflection Canyon.

Which leads me to a final digression. About names, perceptions, and realities. About Reflection Canyon.

That canyon has two forks. The 1953 USGS Navajo Mountain quad labels the main stem of the canyon (which is the righthand fork all the way from the Colorado confluence upstream) as Cottonwood Gulch. It does not name the lefthand fork. In the USGS 1981 update, the lefthand fork is still not named, but they've moved the name “Cottonwood Gulch” farther upstream, so you can't tell what the name of the portion below where the two forks come together. But in each case, there's no mention of a “Reflection Canyon”. In the 1950s, Katie Lee acknowledged the name Cottonwood Gulch, but does not refer to a “Reflection Canyon”. Instead, she called the canyon “Horse Canyon”.

So where does the name Reflection Canyon come from?

Hard to tell. Maps are all over the place. The NatGeo Glen Canyon National Recreation Area map calls the left fork Reflection Canyon, and extends the name to the main stem of Lake Powell. The Stan Jones map calls the whole thing Reflection Canyon without even mentioning Cottonwood Gulch. This might be to avoid confusion with Cottonwood Canyon, which is on the opposite bank a few miles upstream near Hole-in-the-Rock. Whatever the reason, Cottonwood Gulch is not on the Stan Jones map, and because that’s such a popular map, that might be the reason for the modern common usage. But when National Geographic in its April 2006 issue refers to the lower end with the iconic twists as “Reflection Canyon”, that really burned a label on the place, which has now been carried forward forever through the power of social media.

Maybe we'll never know the truth.

And so it is with Glen Canyon. Or is it Lake Powell? Are they the same thing? And how much of that narrative has been shaped by articles in National Geographic?

That might be the real legacy of over 100 years of the magazine’s reporting, from the first images of Rainbow Bridge published in February 1910, through the early explorations and surveys of Glen Canyon in the 1920s, the adventure trips on the Colorado River in the 1940s and 50s, the rise of Lake Powell in the 1960s, and now adjusting to the uncertain future of water resources today.

I’m looking forward to seeing what they write about next…

Cover April 2006.jpgGlen Canyon Map 2005.jpg


This one was taken in the Escalante, from near the mouth of Clear Creek.

Escalante 2005.jpg

And then finally, check out these two images taken from over Padre Bay from different NatGeo articles 39 years apart, taken from nearly the same vantage point. This one was taken in March-April 2005, roughly lake level 3555:

Padre Bay 2005.jpg

And this one, from June 1966 (published in July 1967), lake level about 3545...

Padre Bay - June 1966.jpg
 
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jayfromtexas

Well-Known Member
Thanks JFR, interesting read. Don't know where this drought will take us but these last couple of years really hit the Lake hard. Hopefully this year will be better, but it's not off to a good start. Truthfully it is still early but then again before you know it early becomes late and the game is over.
 

JFRCalifornia

Escalante-Class Member
Thanks JFR, interesting read. Don't know where this drought will take us but these last couple of years really hit the Lake hard. Hopefully this year will be better, but it's not off to a good start. Truthfully it is still early but then again before you know it early becomes late and the game is over.
Well, I tend to look at the possibility of a continually shrinking lake not so much as “game over” as the start of a different game. Humans are like rats and roaches—highly adaptable to new situations.

But I hope the snow comes.

Incidentally, all these NatGeo articles are available online to anyone subscribing to the magazine. You can read any issue all the way back to 1888. Pretty cool. But because I wanted hard copies of some of these, I ordered these through their back issues site (not cheap), but either way, what a great resource!
 

drewsxmi

Well-Known Member
Thank you for the writeup on the National Geographic article. A few of the other National Parks / Monuments / Recreation Areas in Utah are also experiencing high increases in visitor counts, so I compared Glen Canyon against the "Mighty Five" (Zion, Bryce, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, Arches) plus Cedar Breaks, Grand Canyon, and Yellowstone. The range of change in visitation from 2006 to 2019 varies from 19% at Cedar Breaks to 190% at Bryce. Capitol Reef was second at 140%, Glen Canyon third at 130%. By comparison, Yellowstone and Grand Canyon were both 40%. (Cedar Breaks seemed to have an off year, as they were 86% in 2017. Grand Canyon was 49% in 2018.

I would be curious to see how they count visitors. Does every car across the bridge at Page count, cars that turn off US-89 to the Carl Hayden Visitor Center or Lake Shore Drive, or is that entrance station fees? Also interested in what fraction leaves the paved roads, either on water, dirt roads, or hiking trails. I heard at one time that less than 1% of the visitors to the Grand Canyon go below the rim.

Arches and Zion have gotten really crowded in the past few years. Zion seems especially bad because almost all of the visitors are concentrated in about five miles of the main canyon.
 

JFRCalifornia

Escalante-Class Member
I would be curious to see how they count visitors. Does every car across the bridge at Page count, cars that turn off US-89 to the Carl Hayden Visitor Center or Lake Shore Drive, or is that entrance station fees? Also interested in what fraction leaves the paved roads, either on water, dirt roads, or hiking trails. I heard at one time that less than 1% of the visitors to the Grand Canyon go below the rim.
It's a good question, and there's a bit of a "black box" aspect to counting visitors. For example, how many people blow past the unmanned entrance kiosks without stopping? Do they count as visitors? (They should.) Or do I count as a visitor if I go to Wahweap overlook and take a picture? Who knows... but this snapshot from the GCNRA's 2019 monthly visitation summary at least gives you an idea how they try to categorize visitors both by geography within the GCNRA and the types of visits...

Is a houseboat trip a "recreation visit" or a "misc overnight stay"?

More questions than answers in this chart...

2019 Visitation GCNRA.jpg
 

JFRCalifornia

Escalante-Class Member
So, JFR, are you implying some visitors 'count' more than others???
Maybe. Depends. Implication is just a form of shouting to reach deaf ears. :)

But for some more serious (I'd call it "interesting") information about visits, there's a pretty good correlation between overnight stay and lake inflow. Here's a chart overlaying overnight stays and lake inflow. Pretty good match. (Ignore the pre-1985 visitation line--they didn't keep good records of overnight visits that before the md-80s.)

Annual visits vs. Inflow.jpg

Then even more interesting is this chart, showing total visits by month back to 1991. After a continual rise then 2017-19 peak at over 4 million a year, Covid put the damper on things in 2020, dropping visits to 2.5 million. But this year is something else altogether. After a promising start through April--better than 2020, but not quite back to 2017-19 levels--two things happened: Dangling Rope shut down, and the lake kept falling. And those two things (plus remnants of Covid) eroded visitor confidence, and led to summer visitation (June-Sept) at low levels not seen since the 1970s. For example--in August 2021, there were 197,000 visitors. The next lowest August visitation number back to since 1980 was 230,000 in 1984. Typical August visitation since 1980 is something like 300-600,000.

So not only is the lake reaching an all-time low, so is visitation...

Annual visitation by year.jpg
 
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