What does the future of Lake Powell look like?
Bullfrog, Utah – In August 1890, John Wesley Powell warned a Senate committee of possible water mismanagement in the western United States. “There isn’t enough water to supply this land,” he said. Powell knew the area well, leading the first government-sponsored passage through the Grand Canyon in 1869, during which he traveled for three months along the Green and Colorado Rivers. He also served as the second director of the US Geological Survey.
Lake Powell, named for the Civil War veteran (he lost an arm), is hit particularly hard by the decades of drought in the western United States
From July 20th, the Water level on Lake Powell stands at 3555.86 feet – a new low for the water year. The reservoir is more than 52 feet deeper than it was a year ago. It has released 86.98% of its minimum allotment requirement of 7.5 million acre-feet for each water year through September 30th. In a recent study published by the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR), Lake Powell’s volume declined 2.5 million acre-feet between January and July 2021.
An acre of water is 326,000 gallons. There is enough water to cover an acre of land (about the size of a soccer field) a foot deep.
A 5-year projection, also released by the BOR last week, says there is a 79% chance the lake will drop below the Upper Basin Drought Response Operations Agreement (DROA) target height of 3,525 feet. This elevation provides a 35-foot buffer that minimizes the likelihood of water falling below the power pool’s 3,490-foot minimum height required to protect the infrastructure at Glen Canyon Dam. They predict the reservoir will have only 3.2 million acre-feet of natural inflow this year, which is about 30% of an average year.
Based on this data, BOR announced that it was adjusting releases from the upstream Flaming Gorge, Blue Mesa, and Navajo reservoirs to feed Powell. The Flaming Gorge will release a total of 125 acre feet by the end of the year, with Blue Mesa contributing 36 and Navajo 20.
“It is inevitable that the lake will dry up,” said Yuliya Semenova, a ranger for the National Park Service (NPS). “I’m happy to see the transition. I can see that a lot of trails are being built here. “
As the water sank over Glen Canyon, green vistas and remnants of what was before the reservoir appear. An NPS archeology team has found debris on the former shores of Bullfrog Bay that they believe to be long before our time.
A constant sighting in Bullfrog this summer were the visitors who arrived at the main ramp and were impressed by how deep the water has fallen since their last trip.
When the water level was higher, boats could go this deep into Forgotten Canyon. Photo: Parker Malatesta
Most visitors to the park this summer are unaware of the changes around them, Semenova said. “For them, climate change is in the background. Most people only come here to celebrate, they don’t think of anything else. “
The future plan involves many different considerations – and will likely be in the years to come between the seven states that make up the Colorado River Compact.
In January, Ben Ryder Howe of the New York Times documented a potential new future for water management in the west. Investment firms seek to capitalize on Western water rights by adopting a market-based approach to state and municipal management. Proponents say that water is too expensive and therefore overused – this would allow them to discourage low-value agricultural uses (more than 70% of the water in the Southwest is used for agriculture). The financialization of water rights with futures markets and hyperactive trading would likely lead to rising water prices. This could be balanced out in the future compact negotiations, but everything is in the air for now. Bruce Babbitt, who served as home secretary and governor of Arizona during the Clinton administration, told the Times, “The Western model is some kind of broad, consensus-based public discussion, and it has worked very well. My fear is that the speculators will break it. They will try to break the system. “
What many refer to as a “bathtub ring”. Photo: Parker Malatesta
Conservation groups tend to take a tougher approach. “Lake Powell is doomed,” said Richard Ingebretson, founder of the Glen Canyon Institute. “It blows my mind that they are using it to store water.” On the institute’s website, Glen Canyon in front of Lake Powell is described as a place of “canyons, towers, cliffs and grottoes; the biological heart of the Colorado River with more than 79 species of flora, 189 species of birds, and 34 species of mammals; and a cultural treasure with more than 3,000 ancient ruins. “
The group is actively committed to the full release of Lake Powell water into Lake Mead. Ingebretson claimed that the BOR idea was gaining momentum. Another ranger at Bullfrog said that on paper, the Home Office (of which the NPS and BOR both belong) believe Mead needs to be bottled by Powell – it may only take some time to fully implement.
The move has geological reasons. A 2013 study in the Journal of the American Water Resources Association found that Lake Powell lost a significant amount of water due to the porous sandstone walls that make up Glen Canyon. Lake Mead is surrounded by granite rocks, which largely prevents water loss to aquifers. “We have the scientists on our side,” said Ingebretson. “Our goal is to keep Glen Canyon alive – to restore it to last.”
Glen Canyon’s transition from water to land recreation is not safe. Ingebretson quickly warned that it was conceivable that a 1000-year storm could come as early as next year. Predictions get us nowhere, so for now we just have to speculate about the future of Lake Powell and Glen Canyon.
“This lake is not just for recreation,” said Semenova. “We have to watch out for our public waters. Mother Nature cares for us in every way and we have to protect her too. “