In 1963, a dam was built on the Colorado River on the Arizona/Utah border, filling Glen Canyon behind it to create Lake Powell. That year, the Sierra Club published Eliot Porter’s book The Place No One Knew: Glen Canyon on the Colorado, which recorded the delicate play of color and light in parts of the deep sandstone canyon. Shot quickly before the dam filled, Porter’s images brought attention to the place, and galvanized the Sierra Club and the growing environmental movement’s opposition to similar projects in the future.
More than 50 years later, the fate of Glen Canyon and Lake Powell has taken a surprising turn. Glen Canyon Dam produces hydroelectric power and regulates the river, and Lake Powell has become popular vacation spot. But water levels have dropped dramatically in recent years due to agricultural demand and drier weather patterns. The area is the subject of a new book of photographs by Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe, with text by Rebecca Solnit.
Drowned River: The Death and Rebirth of Glen Canyon on the Colorado takes Porter’s book as a starting point, reproducing many of its pages and serving as a guide for the trio’s research as they investigated what has happened to the river since it was dammed.
As Solnit writes, “The uninvited guest, the unanticipated disaster” for the lake has been climate change, “reducing rainfall and snowmelt and increasing heat, drought, and evaporation in the Southwest.”
Over five years, she, Klett and Wolfe explored parts of the canyon as it has reemerged after being under water for decades, and attempted to retrace some of Porter’s steps.
Traveling by boat around the edges of the lake and into its narrow offshoots, they found a surreal landscape, with steep rock walls ringed with high-water marks, vast deposits of silt, and artifacts from the area’s past, ranging from 1970s beer cans to shards of pottery made by Native Americans. They also found an exquisitely beautiful place, where the interplay of water, light and stone made for breathtaking photographs.
Over the course of their visits, they returned repeatedly to some spots, and a “muddy, treacherous, muddled place” began to take shape as a healthy river. Writes Solnit, “What had been raw silt was covered in green plants, and a shallow river channel had begun to form.” Solnit describes what the images—and the book—show. “Lake Powell is dying and from its corpse the Colorado River is emerging.”
Drowned River: The Death and Rebirth of Glen Canyon on the Colorado
Photographs by Mark Klett, Byron Wolfe Text by Rebecca Solnit
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