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Drought is revealing archaeological sites that were submerged when Lake Powell filled


The severe drought that has brought the second biggest reservoir in the U.S. down to its lowest level ever is also now revealing lost treasures - thousands of archaeological sites that were flooded when Lake Powell was filled in the 1960s. Melissa Sevigny with member station KNAU in Flagstaff, Ariz., reports.

MELISSA SEVIGNY, BYLINE: The San Juan River cuts a deep channel through stands of dead trees and bleached boulders. Until recently, this red rock river valley was underwater. It's full of stone dwellings - some built more than a thousand years ago - and remnants of pottery and ancient trails that were flooded by Lake Powell.

KIM SPURR: There have been some past managers at Glen Canyon that have just assumed that all archeological sites that were inundated were destroyed.

SEVIGNY: That's Kim Spurr, an archaeologist with the Museum of Northern Arizona.

SPURR: And we decided to go look and see what we found.

SEVIGNY: What they found surprised her. At least a quarter of the sites documented before the reservoir filled survived their submersion and are on dry land again.

SPURR: The goal of this project, the basic goal, was to get information so that we can recommend ways that the Park Service managers can preserve and protect these archaeological sites in the future.

SEVIGNY: That begins with public education, says Navajo Nation anthropologist Erik Stanfield. From his pickup truck, he points to petroglyphs of human figures and stalks of corn which have been marred by vandals.

ERIK STANFIELD: You know, if sites are kind of trampled on - graffiti is a huge problem out around the lake.

SEVIGNY: Stanfield wants more attention on Glen Canyon's rich cultural heritage.

STANFIELD: Just to kind of re-inventory, take another big look at what is out here. So much has changed.

SEVIGNY: Bill Lipe was a young anthropology student who helped with the first inventory just before Lake Powell filled.

BILL LIPE: You know, I couldn't even swim, you know? We had to work - we worked two summers on the Colorado River out of motorboats and rafts.

SEVIGNY: There was no requirement to study or save cultural sites doomed by a dam. But the National Park Service documented more than 2,000 of them.

LIPE: We all felt a sense of loss. This was a wonderful place. On the other hand, at that time in the late 1950s, it was just assumed that - at least by guys in their 20s - that, you know, dams were going to be built.

SEVIGNY: For Navajo resident Hank Stevens, it meant the loss of a sacred landscape.

HANK STEVENS: You know, let's say that we decided to flood the Arlington Cemetery in D.C. That's kind of the situation that we have right here.

SEVIGNY: Not far from the San Juan River, Stevens chooses two rounded river rocks to use in the preparation of medicinal herbs...


STEVENS: And then from there, we can use...

SEVIGNY: ...Exchanging a pinch of corn pollen and a prayer.

STEVENS: (Non-English language spoken).

SEVIGNY: His Dine ancestors hunted, farmed and gathered plants in Glen Canyon - activities that imbue the land with spiritual meaning.

STEVENS: Anywhere you go here along the shorelines of San Juan River could be a sacred shrine.

SEVIGNY: Stevens wants to restore cultural practices, including traditional farming, to the land exposed by drought.

STEVENS: Now it's an opportunity to - for the Western world to open their minds and their heart, to actually listen to the Native American people, to maybe incorporate some type of co-management.

SEVIGNY: He says no one knows if the reservoir will rise again. For now, he sees a second chance.

For NPR News, I'm Melissa Sevigny.

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Melissa grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert. She has a B.S. in Environmental Science from the University of Arizona and an M.FA. in Creative Writing and Environment from Iowa State University. Her first book, Mythical River, forthcoming from the University of Iowa Press, is about water issues in the Southwest. She has worked as a science communicator for NASA’s Phoenix Mars Scout Mission, the Water Resources Research Center, and the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. Melissa relocated to Flagstaff in 2015 to join KNAU’s team. She enjoys hiking, fishing and reading fantasy novels.