GLEN CANYON DAM - Gazing into Glen Canyon back in 1858, Army Lt. Joseph Ives predicted the river-sliced gorge and surrounding red-rock desert would be a "profitless locality . . . forever undisturbed and unvisited."
Instead, Glen Canyon Dam and its sister dams along the Upper Colorado River Basin have pumped nearly $4 billion into the economy. They quench the water needs of 25 million people and generate 4.1 billion kilowatt hours of electricity annually. And visitors? Try more than 2 million a year at Lake Powell alone.
On Thursday, dignitaries gathered at Glen Canyon Dam - 710 feet above the Colorado River just south of the Utah line in northern Arizona - to mark the 50th anniversary of the Colorado River Storage Project Act, which gave birth to the dam and three others.
"It was an engineering marvel," Utah Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert told the crowd amid heavy security. "From a Utah perspective, we are an arid state, averaging 13 inches of rain a year. We know the challenge from our pioneer heritage that dictated they make the desert bloom like a rose. Their vision literally made it blossom."
Herbert urged current stewards to show the "same kind of vision" to ensure that today's quality of life continues tomorrow.
Not everyone is celebrating. The dams swallowed up scenic wonders and ignited an environmental uproar that echoes to this day.
John Weisheit, conservation director of Moab-based Living Rivers, said officials are miscalculating the true nature of the 1922 Colorado River Compact - which allowed for the storage and distribution in seven Western states of water in the Colorado River Basin - by elevating hydropower production above the original intention of providing clean, healthy water for people and the environment.
"It [hydropower] became the funding mechanism for the dams," Weisheit said from Moab.
He maintains that instead of farmers paying for the dams, as originally planned, the government changed the law so it could go into the power business. Now, rather than paying back the U.S. Treasury, the money is being tapped to mitigate problems caused by the dams.
"It's not about water anymore, it's about keeping it ticking," Weisheit said. "They've stretched water supplies to the limit. It [the water] is too salty and is being wasted in reservoirs because of evaporation.
"They should rename the Colorado River Storage [Project] Act the Colorado River Survival Project."
The four dams - Flaming Gorge on the Green River in eastern Utah, Glen Canyon on the Colorado River in northern Arizona, Navajo Dam on the San Juan River in New Mexico and the Wayne N. Aspinall Dam on the Gunnison River in west-central Colorado - together store 30.6 million acre-feet of water and help irrigate 2 million acres of farmland.
"It's hard to think these days they knew when they put the Colorado River Compact together, the impact they would have on the economic development in the upper states," said Mark Limbaugh, assistant secretary of the interior.
Rick Gold, regional director of the Upper Colorado Basin, told the crowd the dams allow for long-term storage so allocations can be met for compact states.
"The system is a gift to us all in this part of the world."
* JOE BAIRD contributed to this story