Can Lake Powell be drained? Different solutions to the western drought

Basking in the sun on a boat at Lake Powell is the quintessential backdrop for a perfect summer vacation.

The reservoir straddling the Utah-Arizona border has been a beloved destination that has spanned generations for many families. The shimmering green waves against the red rock canyons are home to many summer memories, but also one of the largest water reserves in the nation.

The enormity of the lake emerging from a desert in the West is not only spectacular, it is in danger.

Blue-green water levels are getting lower each year, raising questions about the lake’s future for tourism and recreation, as well as hydroelectric power generation.

According to the National Parks Service, since 1964, Lake Powell’s busiest year for recreational visitors was 2017 with nearly 4.6 million guests. In 2021, Lake Powell saw 3.1 million guests.

The future and fortunes depend on Lake Powell

As a generator of energy, Lake Powell is a crucial key to the future of the West.

According to the National Park’s Service, the water supply has supported development in Page, Arizona, and in 2019, Lake Powell brought $ 502.7 million in economic benefits to the community.

Tourism in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area created $ 410 million in economic benefits in 2021 according to the National Park’s Service. The new report showed that tourism dollars created jobs in local access regions around Glen Canyon.

The report also claimed that Lake Powell had a cumulative benefit of $ 42.5 billion for the US economy. Despite those numbers, many groups have the idea of ​​draining the lake all together.

The announcement of reducing the amount of water released by Lake Powell in May fueled the urgency to find long-term solutions. As water levels continue to drop, the future of Glen Canyon is a subject of controversy among many people across the nation.

What is the risk?

Operational guidelines for the Colorado River from the US Bureau of Reclamation are expected in August, which will inform management of the river in 2023 as well as the nation’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell.

Tanya Trujillo, assistant secretary for water and science at the department of the interior, said there is no time to waste making decisions about the Colorado River and Lake Powell.

“We are taking extraordinary action today because now is the time to do more,” Trujillo said in May.

Many share this urgency. Eric Balken, executive director of the Glen Canyon Institute, wrote in the May issue of Deseret Magazine that time is running out before Utah and other states that rely on the Glen Canyon Dam can deal with a Lake Powell that isn’t. generates hydroelectricity.

Low water levels are pictured at the Wahweap Marina in Lake Powell in Wahweap, Arizona.

Low water levels are pictured at Wahweap Marina in Lake Powell in Wahweap, Arizona on March 28, 2021.

Kristin Murphy, Desert News

Why draining Lake Powell isn’t realistic

Although the idea of ​​draining Lake Powell has caught on among activist groups, the reality is that protections are in place and the lake’s water level will only drop if the drought brings it down naturally.

Trujillo explained the need to leave water in Lake Powell in a letter sent to all seven states of the Colorado River Basin: Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, and California. The dam produces power for more than 3 million people, and Powell’s water drainage would impact these people in many ways, according to Trujillo.

“Under such circumstances, the Glen Canyon Dam facilities face unprecedented challenges in terms of operational reliability, water users in the basin face greater uncertainty, downstream resources may be affected, the western power grid would face greater uncertainty. uncertain risks and instability and water and electricity supplies in the west and southwestern United States would be subject to greater operational uncertainty, ”Trujillo wrote.

CNBC reported that all seven states agree that some action needs to be taken, but Utah is among four states that have presented a plan to raise water levels by releasing 500,000 acres of water from the Flaming Gorge Reservoir in May. .

Releasing more water into Lake Powell would buy more time for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and water managers in the basin, but according to Bart Miller, program director at Western Resource Advocates, the benefit is short-term and now we need to focus. on long-term solutions.

The Bureau of Reclamation reported that due to the benefits of Lake Powell, Congress continues to ban the use of any public funding in planning or actions that would drain Lake Powell.

“Previous administrations of both political parties, as well as the United States Congress, have said that the Glen Canyon Dam is here to stay because it is serving millions of people in the southwestern United States,” John W. Keys, former Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, said on an action planning committee regarding the lake in 1996. “Congress, through the passage of the Grand Canyon Protection Act of 1992, made it clear that the dam and reservoir have a place in the lake. tapestry of the country “.

The Bureau of Reclamation has pledged to operate the Glen Canyon Dam in compliance with the River Act, collecting records of regulations around the Colorado River, and all relevant environmental laws.


People walk to Lone Rock Beach on the shores of Lake Powell in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in Utah on March 26, 2021.

Kristin Murphy, Desert News

The argument for draining Lake Powell

The idea of ​​draining Lake Powell is still popular with activist groups across the country despite protections in place.

The Grand Canyon Trust proposes draining Lake Powell to transfer its water to Lake Mead in the hopes that Lake Mead’s environmental benefits will help it retain water better. The project was dubbed “Fill Lake Mead First”.

Two years ago, the Glen Canyon Institute published a peer-reviewed study that showed water storage in Lake Mead rather than Powell would save 300,000 acre feet or more per year. The study states that more water evaporates from Lake Mead due to its hard rocky shores and greater surface area, while Lake Powell loses water as it penetrates its sandstone banks and falls into underground aquifers that are never recovered.

One concern with the drying up of Lake Powell is that the canyon would be ruined by sediment buildup, but the Glen Canyon Trust claims the canyons self-restore. Confidence points to evidence in areas such as Cataract Canyon, Escalante River, and Hole in the Rock, where it reached Lake Powell.

Glen Canyon Dam on a sunny day with Lake Powell behind.

The Glen Canyon Dam is pictured in Page, Arizona on March 28, 2021. The dam blocks the waters of Lake Powell for use by Southern California.

Kristin Murphy, Desert News

The need for long-term solutions

It’s no secret that Lake Powell levels have been low for years. It took 17 years to fill it after the completion of the Glen Canyon Dam in 1963 and it remained full until the turn of the century. In the early 2000s, a course of dry winters began reducing water supply from nearly 100% capacity down to 34% in five years.

In May, Lake Powell crossed the 3,525-foot hydroelectric limit, which is about a hundred feet from the level where water can no longer be used to generate power.

Projections from the Bureau of Reclamation show that Lake Powell could sink beyond levels where power cannot be generated. Recent projections say it could drop to “dead pool,” the lowest water level cleared by the dam’s river outlets. More than 40 million people rely on the water of the Colorado River Basin and even more rely on the beautiful scenery for vacation, exercise, and livelihoods.


Edyth Hanford and his mother, Melody Hanford, paddleboards in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in Lake Powell, Utah on March 27, 2021.

Kristin Murphy, Desert News

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