Glen Canyon Dam, a giant on the Colorado River

Inaugurated in 1966, the grand dam continues to manage the waters of the mighty American river.

John Wesley Powell was the first man to navigate the Colorado River with a boat. It was in 1869, and his expedition into the heart of the Grand Canyon became a historic event. Almost a hundred years later, when the Glen Canyon Dam was inaugurated, the enormous artificial lake with a volume of 31 cubic kilometers created by the dam was named in honor of the great explorer.

Lake Powell is now one of the largest artificial lakes in the United States, and the Glen Canyon Dam stands as one of the most majestic and representative dams built during the 20th century, a testament to the country’s efforts in developing essential infrastructure, such as water management projects.

The dam was inaugurated in 1966 after a decade of construction to address the urgent need for an infrastructure that could efficiently manage the water resources in states like Arizona, where water is a precious commodity vital for agricultural and industrial development.

The primary function of the dam is to equitably distribute water to the states along the Colorado River: Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Utah, California, Nevada, and Arizona. During periods of drought, the dam can reduce water flow to states with enough supply and increase it to those in need, maintaining a constant balance of this precious resource.

Protecting against the Colorado River

Between the 19th and 20th centuries, the Colorado River caused numerous problems for the states along its banks. It wasn’t so much due to droughts as it was the repeated flooding caused by the river’s power. In 1904, for example, the river caused a severe flood in California’s Imperial Valley, sparking a public debate about the need for infrastructure capable of channeling and managing the river’s flow.

In 1922, six states along the river signed the Colorado River Compact, dividing the water resources among themselves. Then, in 1994, a treaty between the United States and Mexico was signed, finally settling the allocation of land and water in the border areas.

During those years, citizens and politicians began to consider the ideal location for constructing a major dam that could prevent floods and ensure water supply even during periods of drought.

Meanwhile, in 1936, the Hoover Dam was completed in the Black Canyon, another iconic American infrastructure that gave rise to Lake Mead, with its enormous reservoir of 39 cubic kilometers.

However, the Hoover Dam only managed the southern basin of the Colorado River, leaving the states in the north completely isolated from the river’s risks. This led to a new project being proposed: the Colorado River Storage Project, which envisioned constructing a second dam in the Glen Canyon area, along with several smaller dams at other strategic points along the river.

The project included the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam and, further south, two other dams: the Marble Canyon and the Bridge Canyon. These dams also included hydroelectric plants, capable of generating power while pumping water into Arizona’s interior, where it would not have otherwise reached.

Building an iconic structure

If this were a book, it would read like an adventure novel, as every moment of the Glen Canyon Dam’s construction was marked by challenge and suspense. In the early stages, workers faced an almost insurmountable obstacle: Glen Canyon, 210 meters deep. Initially, to travel from one side of the canyon to the other, one had to cover 362 kilometers – a true journey. Hence, one of the crucial projects was the construction of the Glen Canyon Bridge, considered an engineering marvel as it spanned the canyon at a height exceeding 200 meters and a length of 387 meters. At its completion, the Glen Canyon Bridge was the tallest bridge in the United States and one of the tallest in the world, foreshadowing the records that would be achieved with the dam’s construction.

During the peak construction period, over 2,500 people were involved at the site, all residing in the town of Page, where a veritable village was built for the dam’s workers, complete with a church, restaurants, recreational areas, sports fields, and shops. For the dam’s construction, two underground channels were created to divert the flow of the Colorado River temporarily, draining the canyon site where the massive wall would be built.

On October 15, 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower pressed a button on his desk in the Oval Office of the White House, initiating an explosion of dynamite – the first step in tunnel construction. The tunnel construction was completed in 1959, and the dam’s construction began from there. On September 4, 1964, the electricity produced by the dam was transmitted for the first time to Phoenix, Arizona, and Farmington, New Mexico. The actual construction continued until September 22, 1966, the day of the dam’s official inauguration.

Since then and until today, Glen Canyon Dam remains one of the most incredible infrastructures in the United States, a testament to the strength of a nation that deeply desired modernization while providing an incredible tool for the well-being and safety of the states along the Colorado River.