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Lake's Low Water Level Exposes Prized Canyons

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Lake's Low Water Level Exposes Prized Canyons


Lake's Low Water Level Exposes Prized Canyons

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Years of drought have drastically lowered the water levels in Lake Powell. That's the huge reservoir behind the Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona. While that worries cities downstream that depend on the water, it does have an up side. Some natural treasures have been exposed for the first time in decades. NPR's Ted Robbins went with a Glen Canyon pioneer to see one special place before it's flooded again.

TED ROBBINS reporting:

Throw out any mental image of a lake as a round or oval body of water. From the air, Lake Powell looks more like varicose veins, swollen tendrils of the Colorado River and its tributaries backed up about 185 miles behind Glen Canyon Dam. It's enormous.

(Soundbite of boat)

ROBBINS: But from the water, speeding away from Bullfrog Marina on a boat, it looks a little less so. Years of drought have lowered the level by half, and a white bathtub ring of mineral deposit marks the former high-water level on the orange Navajo sandstone. After an hour and a half, we approach what appears to be a solid sandstone cliff, but there's actually a break in it and a narrow passageway. As we round the corner, the famous natural grotto known as Cathedral in the Desert is revealed.

Ms. KATIE LEE: Oh, it's so nice to be in here when it's quiet. We lucked out.

ROBBINS: Traveling with us is 85-year-old Katie Lee, who explored Glen Canyon before the dam flooded it.

Ms. LEE: I want to get over there by the fall.

Unidentified Man: Can you get that?

Ms. LEE: You don't have any oars, do you?

Unidentified Man: We got one, yeah.

Ms. LEE: We do? Let's have it.

(Soundbite of paddling)

ROBBINS: We slip into a place where the canyon walls, several hundred feet high, come together like hands cupped to hold water.

Ms. LEE: And I hear the waterfall and I can remember that sound really well, 'cause it fell into this beautiful pool and the pool was only about as big as this part where we are right now. You know, just a little circular pool right here. That's all it was.

ROBBINS: A waterfall, covered just five years ago, now cascades down the sandstone. The light shining through a small portion of visible sky bounces off the water and plays across the canyon walls. People play quietly in a canoe and two kayaks. Derek Peacock(ph) rows over.

Mr. DEREK PEACOCK: This is awesome. I mean, this is our country. We came all the way from Oregon and Washington 'cause this is the--red rock is where my soul and spirit is, and we love this country. So we think it's--the Navajo sandstone is just amazing.

ROBBINS: But for Katie, this is a bittersweet trip. What she sees here is only what was lost.

Ms. LEE: And the canyon rings are gone because there's no trees here, but you would hear the canyon rings, and they were the Glen Canyons, and you'd hear the trees rustling a little bit with the breeze blowing by. So there's a lot missing. Want to see some pictures of how it used to be?

ROBBINS: She shows Derek Peacock her slides, taken in 1957, years before this canyon was flooded by the dam. Katie Lee won't be happy unless Lake Powell is drained, but Derek Peacock says without Lake Powell, he'd never have known this place existed.

Mr. PEACOCK: It is unfortunate that a lot of people can come here and overpopulate it, but at the same time at least it opens up the place so that people can experience it a little bit. So it's a double-edged sword, isn't it?

ROBBINS: Lake Powell is expected to rise some 50 feet by the end of summer, once again covering the beach and the waterfall and some of the magic of Cathedral in the Desert. Ted Robbins, NPR News.

INSKEEP: You can find photos of Glen Canyon at

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