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‘Rewilding’ contest solicits ideas to re-engineer Glen Canyon Dam

Glen Canyon Dam
Melissa Sevigny
Glen Canyon Dam

A coalition of environmental groups have started a contest to generate ideas for how to re-engineer Glen Canyon Dam to allow the Colorado River to flow freely again. A prize of at least five thousand dollars will go the winning idea. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke with one of the contest’s sponsors, Dan Beard, a former commissioner for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and advocate for wild rivers.

Tell me what was the inspiration for launching this contest?

The idea to remove Glen Canyon and lower the reservoir, or drain the lake… that idea has been around for about twenty-five years…. And we believe there’s a need for a new generation of people to take up this idea and to continue it forward. That’s why we decided one of the best ways to do that was to sponsor a contest and ask people for ideas on how to do this. How can we make the Colorado River through Glen Canyon wild again, how can we bypass the dam, what should we do with it, and how would we do it?

So the idea is that you’re going to solicit engineering solutions that are either about taking down the dam or allowing the river to flow through the dam, is that right?

Engineering and environmental solutions… We’re not looking for engineering plans, we’re looking for ideas, suggestions, innovations, and approaches. When they built Glen Canyon Dam, they tunneled bypass tunnels around the dam site… and so it’s pretty simple idea in the sense that you could open up those bypass tunnels or dig new bypass tunnels, but there’s a lot of practical questions involved with that: how much silt is there, how would you remove the silt; does it make more sense for us to just accept a lower lake level;… does it make sense for us to make Glen Canyon a run of the river flood control facility?... There’s a whole host of the questions, and… that’s our hope, our hope is that we will generate discussion, enthusiasm, ideas, and get the debate and discussion and dialogue going in a different direction…. Climate change is having a dramatic impact on the timing and the amount of water supply in the Colorado River Basin…. The nature of the system is changing, and we need to adapt to it.

How optimistic do you feel about the possibility of being able to remove or bypass the dam?

I’m optimistic that it will happen. I don’t think it will happen in my lifetime. But I have a grandson who is thirteen; hopefully in his lifetime. I think things are going to change, and they’re going to change significantly, once we get to the point where we can’t generate power and can’t deliver water to Page, Arizona, it’s going to be a real problem at that point and people are going to look for new ways.

So for people who want to enter the contest, what do they need to know?

Go to the website, and then reach out to the contacts there… to provide additional information. We’d love to have students, professors, but we don’t want to limit it to the educational community, if there are engineering firms and others that would like to offer up proposals and suggestions, we’d love to see those as well… I’m really enthused about the possibilities here…. It’s going to help change the nature of the debate about this issue.

Dan Beard, thank you so much for speaking with me.

I appreciate you reaching out, and I’d be happy to talk to you anytime.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.