Glen Canyon Dam, AZ

Glen Canyon Dam, on the Colorado River, is a critical resource to provide both power and water to millions in the American West. However, the large-scale disruption of the Colorado River has had unforeseeable environmental and social consequences. Issues of inequity have arisen due to the disproportionate amount of water reaching the region in northern Mexico that relies on the river[1]. Of the water that does reach Mexico, the quality is extremely poor, soiled by the high salinity levels. Issues of sustainability surface, especially because the river already fails to reach the Colorado River Delta.

“Glen Canyon Dam” (Byzewski 2012).


Completed in 1963, the dam was created to produce hydropower on a large scale to continue “greening” the West[2]. It has been an integral part of the development of the Upper Basin states’ portion of the river[3].

Quick Facts

  • Provides water for thirty million people
  • Heavily supports water regulation that provides for water in Denver, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Northern Mexico[4]
  • Provides irrigation for 15% of crops grown in the US over 4 million acres of land[5],[6]
Map of Colorado River Basin Source:
“Map of Colorado River Basin” (Wikimedia Commons 2012).

Energy Facts

Glen Canyon Dam is the principal energy generating location of the Colorado River Storage Project[7]. Collectively, the Colorado River Storage Project power plants serve primarily rural areas and small towns in Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Nebraska[8].

  • Dam consists of eight generators[9]
  • Can produce up to 1,320 Megawatts[10]



Issues of environmental justice arise as a result of the apportionment and management method of the Colorado River’s flow due to the operation of the Glen Canyon Dam. The Colorado River Basin is governed by the “Law of the River,” which is an amalgamation of various legal decisions, statues, decrees, laws, and rights. These legal decisions were all constrained by the stipulations set in the 1922 Colorado River Compact; this agreement among the seven basin states was crafted to allot the Colorado River river flow[11],[12].

Colorado River Apportionments by State Source: Boepple, 2012
“Colorado River Apportionments by State” (Boepple 2012).

Given the serious environmental disruption caused by Glen Canyon Dam, there have been talks of decommissioning the dam. However, the dam has been, and will continue to be, a keystone to the development of the Southwestern portion of America. The two fastest growing states in the last fifty years have been Arizona and Nevada; coincidentally, they are also the two driest states[13]. Lake Powell, the second largest reservoir in the country, has the capacity to store 26.2 maf, and has been referred to as the “bank account” of water to be utilized during periods of drought[14],[15].


“Lake Powell” (Staudt 2006).

A water management program titled the Adaptive Management Working Group (AMWG) was created as a body of authority to make decisions in order to accommodate the required hydropower production, water distribution, and environmental protection standards[16]. However, this group has failed to protect sufficiently the environmental, aesthetic, and cultural aspects, and has been criticized for having an unrepresentative group of stakeholders[17]. Roughly 85% of the water supplies are put towards large-scale agricultural use[18]. Water delivery priorities are based primarily on economic interests, and therefore tied to some political interests[19].

Environmental and Social Repercussions

Environmental and social issues have arisen due to a shifting quantity of annual water flow due to drought, over-apportionment, and an exponentially increasing demand for higher quantities of water as urban populations increase[20].

Mismanagement of the river’s resources wreck further havoc on the ecosystem by causing a sediment build-up downstream and therefore:

  • Lowering temperature of water[21]
  • Changing seasonal variation of flow regime[22]
  • Disrupted patterns of fish species and vegetation[23]


Another environmental externality of the Glen Canyon Dam and the overuse of the River’s water is the increasing levels of salinity. The extraction of freshwater leaves behind a significant amount of salt to travel in a decreasing amount of water. Water with high salinity has detrimental impacts on a variety of social and environmental aspects including:

  • Damaging to the growth of a variety of fruits and vegetables, thus harming agricultural endeavors[24]
  • Salt blocks up and corrodes municipal and household piping systems[25]


“Colorado River Basin Salinity 2009” (U.S. Department of the Interior 2009).

The rising salinity and sediment build-up has had a significant impact on those who live farther downstream. Perhaps those most severely affected are the Mexican population that relies on the legally allotted water supply from the Colorado River. Until 1973, no water quality standards existed, and as development of the river continued, the water that was allotted to northern Mexico was continually diverted.[26] Much of the water that did make it to Mexico was at a near-toxic level of salinity.[27] This lead to a mandate by the International Boundary Water Commission in 1973, stating that the United States must work to reduce levels of salinity in the water provided to Mexico.[28]

Monetary damages in Mexico are estimated to surpass $100 million per year.[29] While the United States is economically self-sufficient in its ability to reconstruct infrastructure, Mexico is reliant on selling water to the United States for funds to rebuild canals and water storage infrastructure.[30] This creates a further injustice, as Mexico is already struggling to obtain a sufficient amount of good quality water to provide for its own municipal needs — selling more water to the United States to pay for externalities of the operation of Glen Canyon Dam will only further the imbalance of the inadequate supply of water in Mexico.


Sustainability Issues

The Glen Canyon Dam is both sustainable and unsustainable under its current management, depending on the form of sustainability in question. Arizona has a “Renewable Energy Standard” which states that, by 2020, 15% of the state’s electricity consumed must come from renewable sources[31]. As a joint effort with the Hoover Dam, the Glen Canyon Dam provides half of this requirement already at 7.8% of the state’s generated net electricity[32]. Although this is helping to promote a shift of Arizona’s energy systems to be increasingly environmentally sustainable, the physical structure of the dam as well as its management has caused environmental degradation to the point at which it can no longer function in a sustainable way.

According to the political economy perspective, economic growth is incompatible with sustainability and environmental problems are inherent in capitalism[33]. These theories are relevant in the case of the Glen Canyon Dam. One of these theories, titled the “Second Contradiction of Capitalism,”[34] can explain America’s historical overuse and exploitation of the river’s resources. In accordance with this perspective, it is impossible to align environmental and economic growth priorities; therefore in order for the dam to be lucrative and for the West to have industrialized, the environment will inevitably suffer. See below timeline.

Dam Construction and the West
Dam Construction and the West (diagram by the author 2014)

The river has suffered from the treadmill of production (requiring an increasing extraction of resources from natural systems)[35], whereby the nature of capitalism has caused the abuse of a sensitive resource by shareholders. With a growing population and increasing agricultural endeavors, the water is being siphoned off in large amounts in a way that is not sustainable, especially when considering the gradually decreasing river flow as affected by the presence of the Glen Canyon Dam. Thus, capitalism has undermined its environmental resources by exploitation of the very thing that produces the economic value.

Social Injustice

The environmental justice movement explains that there is an unequal distribution of environmental benefits and losses, producing groups of privileged (favored) groups and marginalized (unfavored) groups, usually from groups in which inequalities already exist outside of the environmental issue. According to a socio-political perspective[36], the privileged group (the U.S.) is in a better social, economic, and political position to put up more resistance than the marginalized group (Mexico) when faced with receiving decreasing amounts of water and water of poor quality. The United States consistently receives the more favorable outcome in relation to water and power resources, specifically in the case of the Colorado River. The United States’ geographical location upstream, coupled with its greater economic and political standing, puts it in a stronger position to negotiate water-related issues. Therefore, the United States has the upper hand when it comes to negotiations involving water supply and always receives the more favorable end of the bargains.

Depletion of Colorado River (O’Rear 1972).


Looking Forward

Despite the Glen Canyon Dam’s controversial history and the political problems it stands to cause in the future, it remains an integral part of powering the American West. As we move into a future that focuses on renewable energy, the Glen Canyon Dam stands as a keystone of fueling the West.

If these ecological systems can be returned to their balanced states, perhaps water quality can be improved, and the lower regions of the river will receive an equitable amount of clean, usable water. However, as we move forward into an ambiguous future for our freshwater and energy supplies, it is critical that we reevaluate the way that the dam is managed to ensure its ecological sustainability and to promote social equality. The enforcement of environmental laws will get increasingly difficult as the Colorado River continues to be overexploited, and as global water resources deplete. Forward thinking solutions must be considered; perhaps another large energy source to supplement the Glen Canyon Dam should be considered.


[1] United States Department of Interior, Bureau of Reclamation. (2011b). Colorado River basin salinity control project. Retrieved October 14, 2014 from River Basin Salinity Control Project.

[2] Reisner, M. (1993). Cadillac desert: The American West and its disappearing water. Penguin.

[3] United States Department of Interior, Bureau of Reclamation. (2011a). Glen Canyon Dam. Retrieved September 30, 2014 from

[4] Boepple, Brendan. (2012). The 2012 Colorado College State of the Rockies Report Card The Colorado River Basin: Agenda for Use, Restoration, and Sustainability for the Next Generation. Retrieved September 30, 2014, from

[5] United States Department of Interior, Bureau of Reclamation (2011b).

[6] Stratfor. (2013) The U.S., Mexico And The Decline Of The Colorado River. Forbes. Retrieved September 30, 2014 from

[7] Hydropower – Page 1. (2013). Glen Canyon Dam Adaptive Management Program. Retrieved October 22, 2014, from 

[8] Hydropower – Page 1 (2013).

[9] Boepple, Brendan (2012).

[10] Boepple, Brendan (2012).

[11] Boepple, Brendan (2012).

[12] Schott. (2014). Adaptive management in Grand Canyon: Towards a more sustainable approach. Arizona Journal of Environmental Law & Policy, 4, 160-187. Retrieved October 13, 2014 from

[13] Reisner, M. (1993).

[14] United States National Park Service. (2014). Hydrologic Activity. Retrieved September 29, 2014 from

[15] United States Department of Interior, Bureau of Reclamation (2011a).

[16] Schott (2014).

[17] Schott. (2014).[18] United States National Park Service. (2014). Hydrologic Activity. Retrieved September 29, 2014 from

[19] United States National Park Service (2014).

[20] Boepple, Brendan (2012).

[21] Schott (2014).

[22] Schott (2014).

[23] Schott (2014).

[24] United States Department of Interior, Bureau of Reclamation (2011b).

[25] United States Department of Interior, Bureau of Reclamation (2011b).

[26] Boepple, Brendan (2012).

[27] Boepple, Brendan (2012).

[28] Boepple, Brendan (2012).

[29] United States Department of Interior, Bureau of Reclamation (2011b).

[30] Williams, M. (2012, January 1). U.S., Mexico Sign Historic Agreement on Colorado River Water. Association of California Water Agencies. Retrieved October 22, 2014 from

[31] United States Energy Information Administration – EIA – Independent Statistics and Analysis. (2014, January 1). Retrieved October 22, 2014 from

[32] United States Energy Information Administration – EIA – Independent Statistics and Analysis (2014, January 1)

[33] Mohai, P., Pellow, D., & Roberts, J. T. (2009). Environmental justice. Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 34, 405-430.

[34] Mohai, P., Pellow, D., & Roberts, J. T. (2009).

[35] Mohai, P., Pellow, D., & Roberts, J. T. (2009).

[36] Mohai, P., Pellow, D., & Roberts, J. T. (2009).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s