Stuff I Wrote Elsewhere: The Udalls and Glen Canyon Dam

Sentinel Rock, Glen Canyon, photographed by J.K. Hillers, 1871, during John Wesley Powells second Colorado River expedition. Sentinel Rock is now inundated beneath the lake the bears Powells name.

Sentinel Rock, Glen Canyon

Following a trail of bread crumbs from James Lawrence Powell’s Dead Pool led me to the tale of Tom Udall’s trip down Glen Canyon with his dad as a boy (sub/ad req). Udall, now a U.S. Senator from New Mexico, is the son of former Arizona congressman and Kennedy-Johnson Interior Secretary Stewart Udall:

Glen Canyon Dam was under construction, and the elder Udall had organized a fact-finding trip to see just what would be lost when the dam was built. The trip was one of the last taken, by anyone, down a wild Colorado River through Glen Canyon.

The petroglyphs the boys were looking at a half-century ago are now beneath the great desert lake backed up behind Glen Canyon Dam. It was Stewart Udall who, as secretary of the interior, issued the final order in January 1963 to close the diversion tunnels around the newly built dam and submerge Glen Canyon.

As such, the journey is deeply embedded in the complex history of environmentalism, politics, water and the West.

Glen Canyon Dam, begun in 1956, was the centerpiece of the complex of dams and water conveyances that today helps manage and move water for the four states of the Upper Colorado River Basin, including New Mexico.

Building dams, big ones, is what we did back then, and Glen Canyon Dam was a critical piece of the infrastructure to manage the Colorado’s water in service of the growing West, Stewart Udall, now retired and living in Santa Fe, recalled in a recent interview.

“As a water project,” he said, “it was very important.”

Image of Sentinel Rock, photographed by J.K. Hillers, on John Wesley Powell’s second expedition down the Colorado River, circa 1871. Sentinel Rock is now inundated beneath the lake that bears Powell’s name. Courtesy USGS.