Slot Canyons, Dams, and Gardens... Oh My!

On Thursday, we had another early morning and piled into the vans unaware of the adventure-filled day ahead. Driving from Cortez, CO towards Arizona, the landscape transformed from rolling hills and snow-capped mountains to red canyons and mesas. We stopped first along Lake Powell Marina where we ate lunch and observed the lake that is continuous with the Colorado River, the large docked yachts, and the power plant emitting a haze of carbon dioxide, sulfur, and water vapor on the horizon. It was not difficult to see the impacts that humans have had on Lake Powell and the surrounding southwestern landscape. This power plant, named the Navajo Generating Station, is joint-owned by Phoenix and Tucson, and burns coal in order to pump the water of the Colorado River to these cities. The haze produced by the burning coal is the second-most visibility-impairing out of any other power plant in the country, and therefore was given a 2018 deadline to reduce the haze by the EPA.

Meanwhile, Dr. Baack was contacting the office at Antelope Canyon, waiting to figure out if the slot canyon would be safe for a tour. Intermittent rain that day led to concern for flash floods in the narrow canyon. After numerous requests to “Call again and check back in 20 minutes,” we finally got the okay to tour beautifully winding walls of sandstone in the Navajo land east of Page, Arizona. We were amazed at the range of color of the walls, from pale red-orange to deep maroon, which even seemed to sparkle if looked at from the right angle. This canyon has been featured by National Geographic and Windows users may recognize the canyon because it is pictured in the included Mac screensavers. We learned that the canyon was formed by flowing water; as the water passed over the land, it caused gradual eroding of the sandstone, creating the uniquely curving features of Antelope Canyon.

After this, we ventured to the Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River. This dam is one of many that are used to control flooding and to generate electricity. It alters the natural flow of the river, causing fluctuation in water level downstream during different parts of the day. Along with learning the logistics of the dam and the movement of water, we also had conversation regarding rights to the water of the Colorado River, which is a large issue in the arid climate of the Southwest. This region operates with a mindset of “Prior Allocation,” meaning whoever used the water first has the most rights to it. This concept is the cause of some dispute because it leads desert cities having the lowest priority. Along with this, the Navajo have been fighting a legal battle in order to improve their rights to the Colorado River water in order to support the farmland of their reservations. In their settlement with Arizona, included was $693 million to build infrastructure to get water to reservation communities via water pumps. Still forty percent of the reservation’s people do not have water piped to their homes. The Navajo continue to fight for more water due to a feeling of being cheated out of water resources that are rightfully theirs.

With the rest of the daylight, we maximized our time outside by heading to Horseshoe Bend, where we took plenty of selfies and stood in amazement (while being very careful not to fall over the edge). After returning to the vans, we made the last stop of the day, where we hiked a mile-long loop and took note of vegetation growing all around us – in the red sand, on the hillsides, and especially the Hanging Gardens found growing out of the rock wall under an overhang of a cliff. These plants are fed by a complex system in the same water table that is also connected to the Colorado River. With continued depletion of the Colorado River and the water table, it is unclear what could happen to the plants of the Hanging Gardens and the surrounding ecosystem. Finally, after a snowy ride to Cliffdweller’s Lodge at Lee’s Ferry, we gathered to snack on graham crackers and Nutella, relaxed with some group singing and guitar playing, and prepared ourselves for a sound night of sleep.

Antelope Canyon
The Hanging Gardens