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After 50 years glen canyon still critical to water, power in west

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​By Lisa Meiman

Glen Canyon Dam, the largest hydropower producer in the Colorado River Storage Project, celebrated 50 years of power production, Sept. 27, at an event in the Carl B. Hayden Visitor’s Center in Page, Arizona.

“At the 50th anniversary of Glen Canyon Dam, we are not just standing at the crest of this dam–we are standing at a crest of history in the West,” said Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell, who was the keynote speaker for the event. “Glen Canyon Dam harnessed the power of the Colorado River to open the West to millions of people by providing for their water and power needs. Today we celebrate the triumphs and sacrifices of the people and communities that made this immense undertaking possible.”

Western and other federal and state agencies, along with local community groups, talked with guests as they toured inside the visitor’s center during an open house. Western also displayed the Desert Southwest helicopter and a bucket truck with its 77-foot boom fully extended in the center’s parking lot, thrilling visitors.

Inside, the big hits of the Western display were the transmission conductor board and the infrared camera, which enchanted children as they scanned the heat emanating from their friends and family. “It was eye opening to see how little people knew about transmission,” said Senior Vice President and Colorado River Storage Project Management Center Manager Lynn Jeka. “It was a great opportunity to explain to people Western’s critical role in taking power from the dam to their homes.”

“Glen Canyon hydropower is important not only to the utilities that have an obligation to provide the essential service of electricity to their customers, but to the environment and to the West,” said Colorado River Energy Distributors Association Executive Director Leslie James. “It is efficient, reliable and increasingly important to this country as a domestic energy resource.”

Glen Canyon experiences a bit of younger sibling syndrome from the grandiose grandstander Hoover Dam about 300 miles downstream. It is second to Hoover in terms of height and size of reservoir, and also is less well known and less popular with the public because of its impact to the Grand Canyon.

Dam controversy

Even amid record-breaking drought, Glen Canyon produces enough energy to serve more than 4 million people in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. The hydropower it produces offsets 2.5 million tons of coal or 11 million barrels of oil each year, according to Jewell. At the same time, Glen Canyon is near the top of the list of dams drawing criticism for negatively impacting the environment.

There is no doubt that the dam has dramatically changed the ecosystem of Grand Canyon. When the flow of the mighty Colorado River was closed behind the dam in 1963, the historical silt and sand inflows to Grand Canyon were reduced by about 90 percent. The Colorado River changed from being muddy, warm and thick to clear and cold, which has affected downstream plant and animal communities.

The Grand Canyon Protection Act of 1992 ushered in a new era of environmental awareness and science and changed dam operations to benefit fish and wildlife, as well as recreational interests, tribes and many other stakeholders. Twenty years later, Western and other stakeholders are again debating priorities and conservation actions in relation to the dam in the Long-Term Experimental and Management Plan Environmental Impact Statement.

"We are challenged to find a balance between clean hydropower production, sand for beaches, Native American tribal values in Grand Canyon, recreation and many other resource goals that clearly cannot all be maximized,” said Fishery Biologist Shane Capron.

“It is critical for us to have these conversations with all the affected groups so we can find win-win solutions for everyone’s needs, including hydropower,” said Jeka.

Fifty years ago Glen Canyon helped usher in a new era in the southwest by making the region more habitable for people. With ongoing discussions on its operations and impacts, the dam will continue to characterize the American West for a long time to come.

Check out more photos at Western's Flickr set

Row of Glen Canyon Dam's generation turbines. Check out more photos at Western's Flickr set. (Photo by Lynn Jeka)

Page Last Updated: 7/14/2015 6:56 AM