Conservation groups have maintained for years that Glen Canyon Dam is no longer useful and should be re-engineered to allow the Colorado River to flow freely again along the Arizona-Utah border. Daniel Beard, a former commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, said the massive structure has outlived its usefulness.
"Because of climate change, the nature and distribution of precipitation in the Colorado River Basin has changed," he said. "Water is distributed from Lake Mead for a purpose - for drinking water supply, meeting international commitments and so forth. But Glen Canyon doesn't have a purpose like that."
The dam was completed in the 1960s for water storage and power generation. Over time, water levels have dropped and the river's ecology has been degraded. However, powerful interests, including seven states and the federal government, want the multimillion-dollar structure to stay right where it is.
In addition to restoring proper river flows, Beard said, bypassing Glen Canyon Dam could begin refilling Lake Mead, which is at the lowest level in its history.
"Dams are not permanent features on the landscape," he said. "They change, they deteriorate with age, they silt up - and they outlive their usefulness. And in the case of Glen Canyon Dam, it has no purpose in today's world."
Gary Wockner, executive director of Save the Colorado, also a contest sponsor, said he hopes the competition can draw sharp minds that will produce an elegant solution.
"Ideally," he said, "engineering students across the United States embrace the idea of putting in a proposal to either tear down Glen Canyon Dam or tunnel through Glen Canyon Dam, or tunnel around Glen Canyon Dam - some way to get the river flowing more freely."
Along with Beard and Wockner, contest sponsors include Clark County, Nev., Commissioner Tick Segerblom and groups such as the Great Basin Water Network and Living Rivers. Organizers have said they're also looking for donations to increase the prize fund by the time the contest closes in November.