National Park Service struggles to keep boat ramps open as Lake Powell hits historic low

Business owners say limited access to the reservoir is hurting their bottom lines.

Lake Powell • For kayaking guide Jessie Pulliam, each trip to Antelope Canyon on the southern shores of Lake Powell ends with a workout.

The concrete slope of the Antelope Point Launch Ramp hasn’t touched water since last winter due to dropping reservoir levels, and like other paddling guides who offer tours near Page, Ariz., the 23-year-old Pulliam has grown used to hauling heavy kayaks up the steep, sandy slope that now separates the ramp from the water.

Every day since she started the guiding season in March, the hike has grown a little bit longer. But when she returned from a short vacation earlier this summer, she fully grasped the speed at which the nation’s second-largest reservoir is shrinking.

“There were a couple of rocks out there before I left,” she said on the boat ramp Tuesday, pointing to the reservoir below. “I could stand on them, and the water was at my chest. When I got back the next week, it was at my ankles. Literally that much water [disappeared] in a week and a half.”

[RELATED: Hedge funds eye water markets that could net billions, as levels drop in Lake Powell]

Late last month Lake Powell, which straddles the Arizona-Utah border, hit its lowest level since the Colorado River first backed up behind Glen Canyon Dam in the 1960s. Twenty years of drought in the river basin that have been linked to climate change and a dismal snowpack in the Rocky Mountains last winter both contributed to the current situation at the reservoir, which has continued to drop by over one vertical foot per week.

The first-ever emergency release of water from dams upstream of Lake Powell began last month, but it isn’t expected to significantly raise lake levels.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A boat heads towards the Glen Canyon Dam, from Wahweap Marina, on Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021.

All but three of Lake Powell’s boat ramps are currently closed to motorized boaters, and two of those ramps — the main launch at Wahweap and a concessionaire’s boat ramp at Antelope Point — could be unusable within a week, leaving only Bullfrog Marina in Kane County on the reservoir’s northern end and an auxiliary ramp near Wahweap.

Even the Antelope Point Launch Ramp where Pulliam starts her tours for Hidden Canyon Kayak could become inaccessible to non-motorized craft before the end of the month since the reservoir is on the verge of dropping into a sheer-walled canyon.

“I’m pretty much guaranteeing we’re not going to make it through August,” Pulliam said.

Businesses struggling

The problems aren’t isolated to Lake Powell’s southern end. Earlier this year, storm damage prompted the National Park Service to close Dangling Rope Marina, the only fuel station in the 100-mile stretch between Wahweap and Bullfrog, further limiting options for the more than 4 million visitors that Glen Canyon National Recreation Area sees in a typical year.

The closures are causing major disruptions for local businesses that cater to recreational boaters.

“I’m down 71% for the month of July,” said Robert Wilkes, owner of Skylight Boat Rentals in Big Water, Utah, said of his business. “That’s huge.”

“I’m down 50% from last year,” said Bob Reed, owner of Up Lake Adventures, also in Big Water. “Since they allowed Dangling Rope Marina to close all year long, there’s no fuel mid-lake. I had to cancel every one of my overnight trips for the rest of the year. I had to cancel everything.”

But both Wilkes and Reed emphasized that even with historically low reservoir levels, there is still plenty of water for boaters to enjoy — if they can find a way to launch and fuel their boats.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Big Water business owners, Robert Wilkes, listens to Bob Reed, as they discuss the problems with the low water level and the boat ramps, at Lake Powell, on Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021.

“There’s not a low water issue,” Wilkes said, noting the main channel is over 300 feet deep behind the dam. “There’s water in the lake, quite a bit. [My customers are] more nervous about what the park’s going to be doing about ramps.”

Every business owner who spoke to The Salt Lake Tribune said they wished the National Park Service had taken a more proactive approach to modifying boat ramps before being forced to close the existing facilities.

Metal extenders below the end of the Wahweap ramp are slippery and multiple vehicles spun out Tuesday as they were trying to pull back uphill with loaded trailers. Earth moving crews worked on the side of the ramp to prepare an auxiliary launch that’s going to be opened to motorized vessels that are shorter than 36 feet in length, which excludes most houseboats.

A more permanent launching option is under construction at the Stateline Boat Ramp, a few miles from Wahweap, but it isn’t expected to open before Labor Day.

“That should have been done in March,” Wilkes said. “We don’t get all the data the park service gets, and we still knew that we weren’t going to have that much water this year. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out. By Labor Day weekend, the season is over.”

A spokesperson for Glen Canyon National Recreation Area says that April projections said the ramps would be operational through October, but that the projections changed in the spring as the lake dropped faster than expected.

The recreation area “identified two legacy ramps that can reach low lake levels, received approvals and located funds for a $3 million rehabilitation project for the Stateline Auxiliary Ramp, and secured funding and contracting to address ramp extensions in North Lake Powell,” the spokesperson said. “These legacy structures cannot be fully restored while still submerged, but as water recedes we are able to rehabilitate the ramps and provide access at lower and lower lake elevations.”

Sean Baloo, owner of Aquanuts boat repair shop in Big Water, said a lack of communication between the park service and businesses that operate on the reservoir has also been a problem.

Baloo was launching a houseboat for a client at Wahweap last month, the day the park service imposed new restrictions. He said no advance notice was given and he only learned about the closure once he arrived at the ramp.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lone Rock at Powell, on Sunday, September 6, 2020 and Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021.

“I was like, ‘Where am I going to turn around at?’” he recalled telling the park ranger. “I blew a tire trying to get out.”

The park service has been warning of upcoming closures at Wahweap, Baloo acknowledged, giving advance notice about upcoming changes at Wahweap and Antelope Point. “That’s better than showing up and learning it’s shut down,” he said.

‘A huge crisis’

At a Senate subcommittee hearing on national parks last week, Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., questioned Michael T. Reynolds, who served as acting director of the National Park Service in the Trump administration and currently is the regional director for the park service unit that includes Lake Powell.

Kelly read a letter from Page Mayor Bill Diak about the ramp issues, warning that the situation could “crush the economy of Page.”

“The drought situation on the Colorado River is a huge crisis,” Reynolds said. “We are investing and moving — … this is an inartful term — moving money around to try and prioritize for [boat ramps].”

On the far upstream end of Lake Powell, river rafters taking out from Cataract Canyon below Canyonlands National Park are also struggling to deal with a steep earthen ramp built by crews hired by Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.

Some commercial companies have been connecting three vehicles together with tow straps to pull loaded trailers out of the river. Others are pulling boats up the ramp with inflatable rollers.

“It’s dangerous,” said Jason Taylor, Utah operations manager for Western River Expeditions in Moab. “Every single trip you’re rolling the dice on whether someone is going to get hurt or not.”

The ideal boat ramp for Cataract Canyon rafters would be just downstream at Hite Marina, said Mike DeHoff of the Moab-based Returning Rapids Project, which is documenting changes to the upper end of the reservoir as the water drops. Hite was one of the first ramps to become unusable when Lake Powell levels began fall after the turn of the millennium, and it hasn’t reached the reservoir for the majority of the last 20 years.

“Glen Canyon [National Recreation Area] sure is doing a lot to ensure access for all recreation-based motorized users,” DeHoff said of the construction projects underway near Page, “and it really doesn’t care much about the river running side of things.”

A spokesperson said they were aware of the situation and said “maintaining the North Wash site as a primitive take-out area is an ongoing challenge due to its location on the waterway.” The statement said the recreation area is conducting minor repairs to the site and suggests the Halls Crossing area as an alternative. Halls Crossing is a full day’s motor from the standard takeout spot.

Water managers, meanwhile, are struggling to avert “dead pool” in Lake Powell, a point below where power generation becomes impossible and billions of gallons of water could be trapped in the reservoir with no easy way to release water into the Grand Canyon below.

But no matter what happens to the reservoir levels after next year’s spring runoff, Wilkes said the reservoir will remain a world-class recreation destination and is encouraging people to book rentals for 2022 when the boat ramp issues are expected to be sorted out.

“As long as there’s access, there’s plenty of water in the lake,” he said.

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about southeast Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.