By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
Werbach bristles at any suggestion that he has not properly handled the immigration issue. "It’s hurtful to think I could have done something to stop this and didn’t," he says. "I can’t think of anything I would have done differently."
In fact, however, Werbach has already changed course. During an interview in November, he emphatically declared that he would not force-feed the club membership his own views on immigration. "I won’t use my position that way," he said then. "It would be horrible. It would send the wrong message to the membership, that anytime the president didn’t like something, he could just throw money at it and make it go away." A month later, he was using club funds for a letter to the membership reiterating his opposition. "I changed my mind," he says. "We needed to get the message out. More needed to be done."
One thing the immigration debate makes abundantly clear is that these are tough times for aspiring environmental champions. Without the easily excoriated "bad guys" of yore, the burning rivers and toxic seeps, it’s hard to snare the public’s imagination, let alone a segment on the 6 o’clock news. What the movement really needs, in times like these, is a good old-fashioned brawl.
Werbach recognized this, and found one, in the form of Lake Powell, the second-largest artificial lake in the country and a longtime Brower obsession.
Lake Powell exists because of Glen Canyon Dam, a massive concrete stop wedged into the sandstone walls of the Colorado River, upstream from the Grand Canyon at the Utah-Arizona border. The dam serves as a buffer for the so-called Upper Basin states, like Utah and Colorado, ensuring that in dry years they will be able to release their share of water downstream, to places like Los Angeles and Las Vegas. The lake, which holds 25 million acre-feet of water, also generates hydroelectric power, bringing the U.S. government more than $100 million a year and leading Brower to disparagingly label it a "cash register" dam.
The crazy thing is, the dam might not ever have been built without Brower. In 1956, acting in his role as then–executive director of the Sierra Club, Brower brokered a deal with the Bureau of Land Management allowing the construction of a dam at Glen Canyon in ex change for sparing the Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado from a similar fate. But Brower made the swap without having seen Glen Canyon, and when he did take time to venture into the mystical recesses of Navajo sandstone, he was filled with regret. "It was one of the most beautiful places on Earth," he says. "I realized I had made one of the biggest mistakes of my life."
Many other environmentalists quickly came to agree. Brower colleague Martin Litton concluded that the leaders of the movement wound up "giving up the bigger value in return for the lesser." And writer Wallace Stegner declared that, "In gaining the lovely and the usable, we have given up the incomparable." The magnitude of the mistake gave rise to a generation of activists fundamentally opposed to environmental bartering, the dam their central rallying point. Edward Abbey’s 1976 novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang, chronicled the exploits of a group of eco-warriors determined to blow the dam up. Some years later, EarthFirst! lowered a 300-foot plastic sheet down the dam wall, simulating a crack.
It wasn’t until two years ago that Brower saw his chance to make things right. Bolstered by the formation of the fledgling Utah-based Glen Canyon Institute, a group devoted to draining the lake, Brower sought Werbach’s support. Werbach’s decision was an easy one. To drain the lake would restore a beautiful place, slap down human greed and give his own efforts to revive the environmental movement a sense of purpose he had not been able to muster on his own.
For both Brower and Werbach, it was a gratifying confluence, the ultimate vindication in an unlikely and often uncomfortable alliance. Brower would see this lifelong cause carried forward with youthful vigor, and Werbach would have his issue, infused with meaning by one of the movement’s most crucial figures.
At a board meeting in the fall of 1996, Brower and Werbach made the pitch. It is one Werbach has repeated many times since, telling doubters that "the spirituality of Glen Canyon is saturated and stifled by humanity," and calling the lake "humanity’s most successful experiment in waste."
Polluted with oil and gas residue and human waste, the lake loses nearly a million acre-feet of water each year through evaporation from its surface and seepage through porous canyon walls — enough to service all of Los Angeles. The dam prevents nutrient-filled silt from flowing downstream toward the Grand Canyon, causing the water to run cold and clear and depriving many native species of the warm, muddy waters they rely on for survival. The electricity and water supplied by the dam could, they argue, be made up through alternate sources and conservation.
On that fall day, Werbach told the board that it was time for this lake to be drained. They unanimously agreed. "I don’t want to be remembered," he said later, "as part of the generation that destroyed the Grand Canyon."
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