Rich Ingebretsen:

Dominy Created Lake Powell, but God Created Glen Canyon
By Barry Scholl

Rich Ingebretsen sees leading the fight to drain Lake Powell and restore Glen Canyon as his destiny. You might even describe it in terms of a religious calling. He does.

"I have disdain for the reservoir. I think God is upset that we destroyed Glen," the Salt Lake resident says with quiet conviction. "I feel like we're in the right on this issue. I don't think anybody who knows the story believes God created Lake Powell, unless you believe Floyd Dominy is God."

A man of incredibly diverse interests, Ingebretsen divides his time between his medical practice, teaching in the physics department and at the medical school at the University of Utah, and church assignments. Whatever spare time he's able to carve out is spent serving as president of the Glen Canyon Institute, an organization he founded in 1996 to educate the public about the effects of dams in general and Glen Canyon Dam in particular.

Ingebretsen's unusual resume has been much discussed in stories about the institute. Unlike the stereotypical environmental rabble-rouser, he's soft-spoken, clean-cut and rather patrician in his demeanor. He abhors conflict and wants to build support among unlikely constituencies (he recently spoke to the St. George Water Users Association, where he was politely if not enthusiastically received). He describes himself, somewhat paradoxically, as both a "radical environmentalist" and a "Mormon Republican"; the latter tag, at least, might be to his advantage within Utah, where 70% of the population identifies itself at least nominally as belonging to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Rich Ingebretsen

To understand Ingebretsen's convictions, it's necessary to go back more than 30 years to a trip the teenager took with his Boy Scout troop. It also helps to review some of the politics behind the decision to create the reservoir.

Inundated since the mid 1960s by the waters of Lake Powell, Glen Canyon has, over the past four decades, achieved an almost mythical reputation as a lost wonderland. It was "the most serenely beautiful of all the canyons of the Colorado" (in the words of Wallace Stegner) and "the heart of the canyonlands country" (according to Edward Abbey). In the late 1950s, during the Bureau of Reclamation's high-flying era of dam building, this gentle, 170-mile-long stretch of the river was sacrificed in a tradeoff between dam builders and environmentalists. BuRec was determined to put dams in Dinosaur National Monument, a plan that was met with fierce resistance in the just-awakening environmental movement. David Brower, executive director of the Sierra Club, agreed not to oppose Glen Canyon Dam, among other projects, if the Bureau would walk away from the Split Mountain and Echo Park dams in Dinosaur. Brower didn't experience Glen himself until the dam was under construction, and by then it was too late. He's rued his actions ever since. Today, the octogenarian environmental firebrand is a GCI board member and among the most staunch advocates of draining the reservoir.

In 1966, when construction on the dam was already complete and waters were backing up, Rich Ingebretsen, a teenage Boy Scout, was enjoying his first and only trip into the canyon prior to its damnation. In the postwar years, it was common for Utah troops to float this gentle stretch of the Colorado, pausing at some of the side canyons for day hikes. Ingebretsen's troop was no exception. Several days into their trip, they made the six-mile trek up Forbidding and Bridge Canyons to experience Rainbow Bridge, the world's largest stone span. On his way up Ingebretsen paused alongside the trail, overcome by the beauty of his surroundings--until a Scout leader stopped alongside him. "It's too bad all of this will be gone next year," he said matter-of-factly.

Ingebretsen thought he was joking. "Gone where?"

"There's a dam downriver that will flood this entire canyon."

Hearing Ingebrestsen relate the story more than 30 years after the fact, you still get a sense of what that afternoon was like: walls of smooth Navajo sandstone rising 1,000 feet overhead, shards of sun spiking off the spring-fed pools; dragonflies hovering above cattails; monkeyflowers trailing like lace down the walls; the shouts of rowdy, joyous teenagers echoing up and down the trails. A scene full of life, something that Ingebretsen has kept smoldering within him all these years.

"I went back about five years after my first trip," Ingebretsen remembers. "Looking down into the waters where all those canyons were made my heart ache. When something enters your heart, you feel almost a religious conviction. It's almost one and the same."

Even so, Ingebretsen's personal transformation into a spokesman for Glen Canyon has involved changes he never anticipated. "Words can't describe the experiences I've had these past four years," he says. "Becoming an activist for a cause is amazing. I've spoken to [gatherings of] five people and thousands of people. At first, I was uncomfortable with being in the spotlight so much; I've always shied away from seeing my name in print and being criticized.

"I'd rather shake somebody's hand and be their friend than make enemies. I know I've made enemies. At the same time, I've met some of the most wonderful people on earth; all in all, I haven't met one person in the environmental world I don't like. Environmentalists are good people."

One of the most surprising friendships he has forged is with Floyd Dominy, retired commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, who oversaw the construction of hundreds of dams, including the one at Glen Canyon, during his decade-long (1959-69) tenure at the helm of BuRec. Among many environmentalists Dominy is considered something of an anti-Christ. "I don't respect his views on building dams, but he's a colorful, charismatic character. He's engaging," Ingebretsen says.

The two met in 1995 when the fledgling institute brought Dominy to Salt Lake for a debate with David Brower. They have remained in touch since, periodically conversing on dam-related issues. Their most famous encounter, repeated in the pages of Outside magazine and elsewhere, occurred in a suburban Virginia restaurant in 1997. Ingebretsen and Dominy were discussing the pros and cons of dams when Dominy asked Ingebretsen how serious he was about draining the reservoir. Ingebretsen replied that he was very serious. While not backing away from his opposition to the idea, Dominy explained that David Brower's proposal to core out old concrete-filled water bypass tunnels wouldn't work: 300 feet of solid concrete presented too great an obstacle.

While an astonished Ingebretsen watched, Dominy then began sketching on a napkin. His idea was to drill through the sandstone around and underneath the dam and line the tunnels with concrete. It would be expensive, it would be unprecedented but, Dominy concluded, it would work.

Ingebretsen asked him to sign and date the napkin. "Nobody will believe this," he explained. And Dominy complied.

A more logical friendship has blossomed with David Brower. "He's my hero," Ingebretsen says proudly. "Brower teaches vision. You've got to look at the future; you've got to do something, and not just sit around bemoaning how bad things are. The other thing he has is drive; if you have an idea, you run with it. If I could accomplish as much as he has ..." Ingebretsen trails off and makes a soaring motion with his flattened palm.

After a pause, he picks up again. "The funny thing is, I was mad at Brower and mad at the Sierra Club until I met him.I'd always heard these stories about the trade of Glen Canyon for Echo Park. And then I met him in October of 1995. That's when I came to know what really sorry he was. And I immediately joined the Sierra Club and became a lifelong friend of David Brower."

Ingebretsen is also quick to credit GCI's board of directors for inspiration. "If I've done anything, it's just to bring people together into a room," he says. "The board deserves a lot of credit for our success; they're some of the most talented, brightest men and women on earth."

In 1996, when the Glen Canyon Institute first went public with its goal to drain Lake Powell and restore the Colorado River ecosystem, mainstream reaction was overwhelmingly negative. Draining Lake Powell was alternately described as a preposterous prank and a surefire recipe for disaster in the thirsty West. Ted Stewart, then executive director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, accused the movement's backers of being anti-family. "I know people whose entire family recreational life is tied up in Lake Powell," he fumed to The Salt Lake Tribune. The Tribune editorialized against the proposal under the headline "A No-Drainer."

But in the past three years, Ingebretsen says public sentiment has begun to catch up with the idea. "Initially, they called us wacky," Ingebretsen agrees, "but they don't call us that anymore. GCI is invited to all environmental organization meetings and we participate in panels all over the country. We've inspired a dam decommissioning movement, and we're so far out there that everybody else looks conservative."

Support, he's finding, comes from unlikely places. "I get letters from elementary school kids asking how they can help. I get letters from Bureau of Reclamation employees who support us. Boat owners down there have told me they'll move their boats when it's drained. In fact, I haven't met anyone yet who doesn't sympathize with the problems of the dam once they learn about the situation."

Ingebretsen, who is single, remains close to his family, including his mother and five siblings. Initially, though, they were a tough sell. "They were slow to come on board," he reveals. "They're very conservative and couldn't understand this environmentalist cause. My little brother goes down to Lake Powell every summer. He says as long as it's there, he'll use it; and when it's drained, he'll float the river.

"He's pretty typical of the people who use Lake Powell," Ingebretsen continues. "They may like it, they may use it, but they're finding out they don't need it. That's what people are learning."

Nonetheless, he remains cautious about predicting a timeline for success. "This is a movement whose time has come. The momentum is growing all the time, but this is at least a two-decade battle. The draining isn't going to happen today, but I feel certain it will."

And what then?

Ingebretsen already has his itinerary planned for his first float trip down a restored river. "I want to see Music Temple and Cathedral in the Desert," he reveals. "Before I saw photos of the river, I used to wonder what [those places] looked like. I want to see them brought back to life. We won't let them--or the rest of the canyon--be silted in forever."

Spoken with the conviction of a true believer.

For more information on the Glen Canyon Institute, call 520.556.9311 or visit their web site: (

To Zephyr Main Page August-September 1999