Controversial Glen Canyon Dam Is Completed Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Construction of Glen Canyon Dam provided energy to the Southwest and created Lake Powell, a popular recreational lake, but it also flooded one of the most beautiful and unique lands in the United States. The loss of Glen Canyon became a powerful symbol for preservationists and environmentalists.

Summary of Event

Glen Canyon Dam, the largest of four dams in the Colorado River Storage Project Colorado River Storage Project (CRSP), was built as a result of a compromise that ended one of the most celebrated battles in U.S. environmental history. Led by the Sierra Club Sierra Club and its executive director David Brower, a well-organized coalition of preservationists conducted a protracted and widely publicized campaign in the mid-1950’s to prevent construction of the Echo Park dam within New Mexico’s Dinosaur National Monument. In winning their fight to stop the Echo Park dam, which would have flooded spectacular canyons within the national park system, Brower and his allies agreed to allow the construction of a higher dam in Arizona’s remote Glen Canyon, an area few people had visited. Glen Canyon Dam Power plants Dams [kw]Controversial Glen Canyon Dam Is Completed (Sept. 13, 1963) [kw]Glen Canyon Dam Is Completed, Controversial (Sept. 13, 1963) [kw]Dam Is Completed, Controversial Glen Canyon (Sept. 13, 1963) Glen Canyon Dam Power plants Dams [g]North America;Sept. 13, 1963: Controversial Glen Canyon Dam Is Completed[07680] [g]United States;Sept. 13, 1963: Controversial Glen Canyon Dam Is Completed[07680] [c]Energy;Sept. 13, 1963: Controversial Glen Canyon Dam Is Completed[07680] [c]Environmental issues;Sept. 13, 1963: Controversial Glen Canyon Dam Is Completed[07680] [c]Engineering;Sept. 13, 1963: Controversial Glen Canyon Dam Is Completed[07680] [c]Travel and recreation;Sept. 13, 1963: Controversial Glen Canyon Dam Is Completed[07680] [c]Architecture;Sept. 13, 1963: Controversial Glen Canyon Dam Is Completed[07680] Brower, David Zahniser, Howard Clinton Udall, Stewart L.

However, only after the compromise was struck did many of the Echo Park project’s opponents visit Glen Canyon itself; they were dismayed to discover that the area’s sandstone canyons were themselves among the most magnificent in the world. The beauty of the surrounding area is breathtaking. The canyon walls display an array of colors associated with the rock formations of which they are composed. The natural rock formations in the canyons are unique, and similar rock formations exist in only a few other places in the world.

Nevertheless, the deal to construct the dam was done, and construction proceeded with only minimal opposition. When the reservoir behind the dam began to fill in early 1961, many of the Southwest’s current and future irrigation and power needs were met, but miles of uniquely beautiful canyons disappeared under the waters of newly created Lake Powell.

Glen Canyon Dam.

(PRA, photographer)

The other three dams in the CRSP system are the Flaming Gorge on the Green River in Utah, the Navajo on the San Juan River in New Mexico, and the Curecanti on the Gunnison River in west central Colorado. Glen Canyon Dam is located on the Colorado River in north-central Arizona, about 15 miles upstream from Lees Ferry, Arizona, and about 12 miles downstream from the Arizona-Utah state line.

The reservoirs formed by the four units of the CRSP have a total capacity of nearly 34 million acre-feet. The Glen Canyon Dam, however, provides more storage capacity than all other storage features of the project combined.

The dam is a concrete-arch style structure that rises 710 feet from its foundation and contains a volume of 4,901,000 cubic yards of concrete. At the time of its construction, Glen Canyon Dam was the second-highest dam in the Western Hemisphere, after the 726-foot Hoover Dam. A bridge had to be built during construction of the dam because there were no rail facilities at the site. The Glen Canyon Bridge is a single-span steel arch and has an overall length of 1,271 feet. When completed in 1959, it was the highest arch bridge in the world and the second longest of its type in the United States. The deck of the bridge is 700 feet above river level.

The Colorado River has a very erratic flow, which ranges from 4 million to 22 million acre-feet annually at Lees Ferry. High- and low-flow years tend to be grouped together, thus compounding problems with the river. Large storage reservoirs can be filled when flows are high and can provide additional waters where needed. These large storage areas are located in the deep canyons of the Colorado River. The Colorado River Storage Project provides for the comprehensive development of the Upper Colorado River basin. The project furnishes the regulatory storage water needed to permit states in the upper basin to meet their flow obligations at Lees Ferry.

Settlement began in the upper drainage basin in 1854, when settlers established Fort Supply in Wyoming on the Emigrant Trail and diverted water from Blacks Fork to adjacent lands. Miners pushed over the eastern slope of the Continental Divide and settled in Breckenridge, Colorado, in 1859. Many who did not find gold turned to farming and supplied successful mining camps with their products. Much of the land was occupied by Native American reservations, and unoccupied land was not opened to settlement until 1905.

The Reclamation Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Service (later known as the Bureau of Reclamation) began its investigation of the area in 1902, the year the service was established. The need for the Colorado River Storage Project was envisioned at the time of the Colorado River Compact of 1922. The compact set aside 7.5 million acre-feet of water for consumption in the upper basin each year. Lees Ferry is the dividing point between the Upper and Lower Colorado River Basins. Water allocated to the upper basin was further apportioned to the individual states of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming, and Utah by the Upper Colorado River Compact of 1948. This compact also created the Upper Colorado River Commission, which consisted of representatives of the federal government and all participating states.

A Bureau of Reclamation report in 1950 called for a plan that included the construction of several dams and reservoirs to provide storage facilities with power development and other services. After much debate, the project was authorized in 1956.

The Upper Colorado River basin is rich in coal, uranium, and other minerals. It also had a high potential for agricultural, industrial, and recreational areas. The storage project captures the limited precipitation that falls in the form of snow in the mountains and rain in the lower lands and utilizes it for municipal water supplies, fostering industrial and agricultural growth.

Glen Canyon is one of the more spectacular canyons cut by the Colorado River. For the most part, it is a narrow gorge, with nearly vertical red sandstone walls that reach a height of 1,200 feet above the river. Glen Canyon Dam is located on the Colorado Plateau. Sandstone is the predominant rock type, but other shale formations are also found.

Construction of the dam started on July 1, 1956, and required that the Colorado River be diverted. Early in construction, the river was diverted through two concrete-lined diversion tunnels. One tunnel was located in each of the abutments. Parts of both tunnels were later incorporated into parts of the spillway tunnels in each of the abutments. Hydraulic models were made to test the stability of the dam and its components.

Core drillings were made in the river bed and in the walls of the canyon to determine if both would hold the water pressure that would eventually be behind the dam. Tests on the core samples were performed at the dam site and at the Denver laboratories of the Bureau of Reclamation to determine their strength and the elasticity of the strata.

The dam was completed on September 13, 1963. The hydroelectric generating plant went on line in 1964 but was not in full operation until December, 1966. The dam rose 710 feet from the river bed and had a 300-foot base width and a 25-foot top width. The length at its crest was 1,560 feet, and the crest was 3,715 feet above sea level. Spillways, one in each abutment, were each capable of carrying 138,000 cubic feet of water per second. Eight 15-foot inside diameter penstocks convey water to the turbines. Four 96-inch diameter steel pipes that pass through the dam and terminate in a valve structure at the downstream end control the outlet of water.

The power plant is located 400 feet downstream from the axis of the dam. It contains eight generating units with a capacity of one million kilovolts per ampere at 95 percent power factor. Turbine number one started producing commercial power on September 4, 1964, at 11:30 p.m. The Glen Canyon Dam and Powerplant were formally dedicated on September 22, 1966, by Lady Bird Johnson.


The loss of Glen Canyon as a result of the dam’s construction became a powerful symbol for preservationists. Many environmental activists interpreted the affair as a lesson in the futility of compromise with politicians and developers. Brower, for one, became increasingly determined to protect America’s natural wonders, and his 1969 resignation as the Sierra Club’s executive director was in part prompted by his increasingly radical stance. More radical activist groups of later decades would view the Glen Canyon episode as an environmental Pearl Harbor, a rallying point from which to draw determination for their struggle; perhaps the best known of such groups is Earth First! Earth First![Earth First] , founded in 1975 by Dave Foreman Foreman, Dave with the motto “No Compromise in the Defense of Mother Earth.”

To generations of ensuing preservationists and environmentalists, Glen Canyon would be a bitter memorial. Nevertheless, the dam did provide many real benefits to the area. Irrigation, flood control, electric power, recreation, and fish and wildlife preservation resulted from the project. Glen Canyon is one of the major dams among the more than forty along the Colorado River and its tributaries. The agricultural and industrial assets of the area are huge.

The irrigation potential that has been realized by the Upper Colorado River Project is enormous. Several states benefit from the series of dams and reservoirs that includes Glen Canyon Dam. The reservoirs catch the rain that is so scarce in the West and the runoff from the snow in the mountains, including the Rockies, and hold the water until it is needed for irrigating arid fields. The collection of water is also used for municipal, industrial, and other agricultural growth.

Lake Powell, the reservoir behind Glen Canyon Dam, was named for Major John Wesley Powell, who explored the canyon in 1869. The lake has a total water capacity of 27 million acre-feet and covers an average surface area of 161,390 acres.

Hydroelectric power produced at the Glen Canyon Powerplant is distributed throughout the Southwest. An estimated one million kilowatts of electric power can be generated from its eight turbines. The power plant also has a pumping station that provides water for facilities at the dam, power plant, and visitor center.

Recreation remains one of the most important features at Glen Canyon Dam. In 1958, Glen Canyon was designated a national recreation area by the National Park Service. This project came about under the Mission 66 Plan, under way at that time through the National Park Service. Glen Canyon Dam Power plants Dams

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brower, David. For Earth’s Sake: The Life and Times of David Brower. Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith Books, 1990. The first of a two-volume, essential autobiography that also discusses conservation and environmental movements in the United States. Many illustrations, a brief bibliography, and a useful index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Farmer, Jared. Glen Canyon Dammed: Inventing Lake Powell and the Canyon Country. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1999. Farmer explores the region’s natural history before the dam was built, the tourism that has developed since its construction (and since the “making” of Lake Powell), and efforts to remove the dam, drain the lake, and restore the area. Includes a bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gross, Matthew Barrett, ed. The Glen Canyon Reader. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2003. Essays in this collection of primary sources explore the Glen Canyon area, including the dam and Lake Powell. Writers include John Wesley Powell, Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and John McPhee.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Inskip, Eleanor, ed. The Colorado River Through Glen Canyon Before Lake Powell: Historic Photo Journal, 1872 to 1964. Moab, Utah: Inskip Ink, 1995. An independently published illustrated history of the Colorado River and Glen Canyon before the damming project. Includes a map and a bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McPhee, John. Encounters with the Archdruid. 1971. 8th printing. New York: Noonday Press, 1996. Classic biography of David Brower, the Echo Park project’s leading opponent. Recounts his deep regret concerning the Glen Canyon compromise.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Martin, Russell. A Story That Stands Like a Dam: Glen Canyon and the Struggle for the Soul of the West. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1999. First published in 1989, this book provides a historical look at the dam and its battled-over canyon. Maps, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Miller, Char, ed. Water in the West: A High Country News Reader. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2000. Essays explore the politics of water in the western United States. Includes discussion of the federal bureaucracy, environmentalism, water projects, and more.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Miller, Scott K. “Undamming Glen Canyon: Lunacy, Rationality, or Prophecy.” In Stanford Environmental Law Journal 19, no. 1 (January, 2000): 122-203. An extensive, detailed report on the Glen Canyon Dam and Colorado River controversies. Includes comprehensive footnotes with bibliographical references. An invaluable resource.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stratton, Owen, and Phillip Sirotkin. The Echo Park Controversy. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1959. A detailed contemporary overview of the Echo Park-Glen Canyon decision-making process.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">U.S. Department of the Interior. Bureau of Reclamation. Glen Canyon Dam and Powerplant. Denver, Colo.: Bureau of Reclamation, 1970. This publication provides the technical record of the design and construction of Glen Canyon Dam with details of the construction and the cooperation between the bureau and the National Park Service. Contains measured drawings and photographs of construction.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">U.S. Department of the Interior. National Park Service. Environmental Assessment—Development Concept Plan: Lees Ferry, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Arizona. Denver, Colo.: National Park Service, 1986. A good historical background on the area that surrounds Glen Canyon Dam, focusing on the town of Lees Ferry. Provides ample information on the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Glen Canyon Hite Developed Area, National Recreation Area, Arizona/Utah. Washington, D.C.: National Park Service, 1982. An environmental impact publication, this monograph focuses on the area surrounding Lake Powell. Deals with issues such as visitor impact, camping facilities, and meeting the needs of future visitors.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wirth, Conrad L. Parks, Politics, and the People. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980. A good history of the Park Service. Wirth was director during the Mission 66 Plan, which provided for the development of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.

Brower Becomes Executive Director of the Sierra Club

Mission 66 Plan Is Implemented

Echo Park Dam Proposal Is Defeated

Verrazano-Narrows Bridge Opens

Sierra Club Helps Block Dams on the Colorado River

Brower Forms Friends of the Earth

National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 Is Signed

Categories: History