PAGE, Ariz. -- Legendary conservationist David Brower came back to Glen Canyon to atone for what he believes was a sin committed more than four decades ago.
Perched above Utah's favorite water playground Tuesday, the senior spokesman of environmentalism and former executive director of the Sierra Club, said the time has come to correct the mistakes of the past and drain Lake Powell.Brower's biggest regret is the Sierra Club's failure under his tenure to fight construction of the 710-foot Glen Canyon Dam, which stilled the Colorado River along the Utah-Arizona border in the early 1960s. The Sierra Club's silence on Glen Canyon was offered in exchange for not building a dam in eastern Utah.
"I am glad we saved Echo Park (in Dinosaur National Monument), but we never should have lost Glen Canyon," said Brower, 87. "Forty years later, we are trying to correct that mistake."
But draining Lake Powell would be an even bigger mistake to the people of Page, whose lives are now rooted in a thriving recreation economy.
"In terms of value to our lives, Lake Powell is priceless," said Vivian Firlein, president of the Lake Powell Chamber of Commerce.
Some 3.5 million people visit Lake Powell every year, spending a total of $154 million in Page alone, she added. Millions more are spent by recreationists at Lake Powell marinas in Utah.
Both sides stated their case Tuesday, when about 600 supporters of Lake Powell gathered on the south side of Glen Canyon Dam, and about 200 "drain it" proponents rallied on the north side of the dam.
People on both sides spoke with evangelical passion, invoking religious imagery to defend their disparate views.
"Lake Powell is a place where God vacations," said Page Mayor Bob Bowling as a houseboat circled the bay below with a sign reading "We love Lake Powell."
Meanwhile, those on the other side of the lake were praising the spiritual values of nature, silence and wilderness.
"Glen Canyon was a quiet, mysterious place," said Katie Lee, a one-time Glen Canyon river runner and author of the book "All My Rivers Are Gone."
"Now it is the Coney Island of reservoirs."
Draining the lake, which would take an act of Congress and likely unleash lengthy litigation, is little more than a verbal threat by environmentalists. But the passion of the debate prompted the Bureau of Reclamation to request unprecedented security around the dam. Dozens of Arizona lawmen patrolled the bridge overlooking the dam, and others closely monitored both sides.
No threats or violence was reported, and leaders of both rallies pleaded for peaceful expressions from those attending.
"We're planning no violence, no friction unless they (environmentalists) force the issue," said Steve Gessig, an Escalante resident and member of People for the USA.
People in Page, a town born with the infusion of dam construction workers in the late 1950s, were not rolling out the welcome mat for their environmental visitors. Some local businesses were pledging not to serve environmentalists.
"I don't think we should feed them, house them or sell them gas," said Pearlena Gibson, a waitress at the Weston's Empire House, a coffee shop in downtown Page.
Some even closed down for the afternoon in a symbolic protest of what it would be like if there was no Lake Powell and no Page.
"What do they expect when they come into someone's town and try to close it down?" asked Don Iverson, a Page retiree who spends about 100 days a year fishing on Lake Powell. "You'd be mad too if someone tried to take away your job that feeds your family."
And it is Lake Powell recreation that feeds the families of Page. People come here from all over the world to play.
"It's so pretty down here," said Sandy resident Linda Savage, as she unloaded her bags from a six-day houseboat trip. "It doesn't make sense to drain it. It would be a humongous junkyard" with coolers, batteries, fishing poles and human trash littering the lake bottom.
The dam, which generates 1.3 million kilowatts of electricity and impounds 27 million acre-feet of water at capacity, is also an integral piece in a system of federally built dams and reservoirs along the Colorado River, bureau officials say.
Patrick Diehl, an outspoken environmentalist from Escalante, said the environmental damage from leaving Lake Powell in place would far exceed the scars of the past decades. He predicted millions of environmentalists would descend on Lake Powell to clean up the mess.
It would be harder to erase the tell-tale white water ring left behind after the salt-laden waters were drained. A white stain much like a bathtub ring still remains around the edge of the lake, a reminder of the high water mark reached in 1983.
That is an ugly contrast to the remarkable beauty that was once Glen Canyon.
"It was the most calm, serene river with alcoves and amphitheaters like Music Temple and Hidden Passage," said Ken Sleight, Utah's dean of environmental activists.
But to those who live and play here, Lake Powell offers a different but no-less-spectacular beauty.
"When we see the red rocks against the lake, it is breathtaking," said Garfield County Commissioner Louise Liston, noting that millions now enjoy the beauty whereas before only a handful ever experienced the remote wonders.