In Peter Goin’s 1987 panorama of Forgotten Canyon, an offshoot of Lake Powell, the water is at full capacity, its blue edges lapping at red rock. In the years since then, Goin has returned to the area many times, taking his 4×5 view camera on camping trips and on an aluminum-hull fishing boat converted into a photographic research vessel, documenting the man-made lake and recreation area. In the last 15 years, the area has undergone a dramatic change, as long-term drought has dropped the lake level 140 feet, exposing areas that had been under water since Glen Canyon Dam was built on the Colorado River in the 1950s and 60s. Water from the reservoir was allocated after a string of wet years, and in the past few hot, dry decades, it has become scarce—today the river often doesn’t reach the sea, used up before it reaches the Gulf of California. Goin’s images, along with essays by Peter Friederici, are collected in A New Form of Beauty: Glen Canyon Beyond Climate Change, published this month by the University of Arizona Press, which, as Friederici writes, documents “the vanishing of the second-largest artificial lake in America in the face of the new, potent phenomena we call climate change.”
Goin’s images range from majestic views of caves, pictographs and dramatic combinations of rock and water to pictures of the effects of low water. Among the items revealed by receding water are fish buried in mud and branches of long-dead trees, as well as man-made items lost on long-ago camping trips—broken eye glasses, tent poles, fishing lures, a plastic chair visible on the lake bottom through clear water. Other images emphasize the volume of missing water, looking out over vistas where dark, muddy water runs through stretches of bleached, exposed rock. The irony is that many of these places are simply returning to their antediluvian state, and they remain spectacular.
Goin’s images, Friederici writes, are “vivid illustrations of the historical moment when the blue-horizon dreams of twentieth and twenty first century America have been giving way to a murkier future.” But even in that murky future, Goin finds beauty and solace. Friederici describes the hard work ahead for the Southwest as politicians, engineers and citizens struggle to fairly allocate the river’s resources. He writes, “The job for the rest of us everywhere is also a challenge: figuring out how to reimagine this place, and every place.”
Picturing the Battle for California’s Water
Mustafah Abdulaziz’s Water Stories
Environmental Crusaders: Photographer Peter McBride and the Colorado River (For PDN Subscribers; login required)