Why Lake Powell visitors will have less lake to play in this year

Water levels are expected to reach historic lows amid a 20-year drought, threatening the reservoir’s future.

Editor’s note This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.

When boaters return to Lake Powell this spring and summer, they will find even less lake to cruise, more traffic to navigate and fewer places to reach the water.

That’s because the ever-sagging water levels at Powell and its larger cousin, Lake Mead, are expected to reach historic lows this year in the face of a 20-year drought that is making it ever more difficult to recreate on the Colorado River’s two largest reservoirs and someday could render one inoperable.

With snowpacks in the Colorado’s headwaters about 70% of normal and bone dry soils, inflows into southern Utah’s Lake Powell, whose levels are already 135 feet below full, are expected to be 45% of normal this spring, according to the latest “24-month study” released by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

The Colorado supplies water to some 40 million people across the Southwest, including most Utahns, and irrigates 5 million acres. Now its declining flows are expected to result in shortages for the river’s Lower Basin states, which have historically tapped the river in excess of their allotted shares under a century-old interstate compact. Utah and other Upper Basin states, meanwhile, continue to push diversions that would further deplete flows.

Powell’s level has continued plunging even after the arrival of spring, when snowmelt surges out of the Rocky Mountains. According to the bureau’s flow data, Powell has lost 2.5 feet since April 1, now at 3,564 feet above sea level, or 36% full. Should its level drop another 25 feet, as forecast this year, the lake would be at its lowest level since the bureau began filling the chasm behind Glen Canyon Dam in the 1960s. While 8.23 million acre-feet of water is to be released from the dam to satisfy obligations to the Lower Basin states, projected inflows are expected to be only 45% of average, or 4.9 million acre-feet, according to the 24-month study.

While many observers point to this deficit as a clear warning of looming trouble in the river’s current management, bureau officials say Lake Powell has functioned as it was designed over the past two decades of mostly dry years.

“The design was to satisfy water needs in times of drought. In that 20-year period, we drained the two reservoirs together to about 50% and now we are going under that,” said Paul Davidson, a civil engineer who heads the Bureau of Reclamation’s water management in the upper Colorado region. “We have been satisfying the [river-sharing] compact for all these 20 years. In fact, the Colorado River below Glen Canyon has not really been in drought because we have always released [the Upper Basin’s] proportionment or greater volumes to the Lower Basin.”

How a plunging Lake Powell will affect boating

(Francisco Kjolseth | Salt Lake Tribune file photo) The Hite Marina boat ramp comes to an end hundreds of yards from the edge of the Colorado River as it flows into Lake Powell in February 2021. The lake's water levels are expected to reach historic lows this year.

Regardless of whether Lake Powell is functioning as intended, it may not be able to continue supporting the high level of recreational boating traffic that many visitors have come to expect.

The recent 24-month study prompted the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area to warn the public that low water will further impede recreational access on Lake Powell, which is served by eight launch ramps that are becoming less usable as the water retreats. Powell’s water will get harder to reach, and there will be even less of it for the public to explore and enjoy.

“Longer lines and limited parking may occur, and visitors are advised to exercise caution due to a higher concentration of boaters in the same area,” said a bulletin issued last week. “Boaters should be aware that as water levels drop, channels may narrow, leading to increased boat congestion.”

For years, marina operators have had to move docks and extend ramps to adjust their operations to Powell’s retreating shorelines. Currently, five of the eight launches are closed, although the Stateline ramp at Wahweap will open for the season April 26. Bullfrog North, Wahweap Main and Halls Crossing ramps are open.

Low waters forced the Feb. 12 closure of the main launch at Bullfrog, a popular midlake destination. The other closed ramps are at Antelope Point Marina, Hite and Castle Rock Cut.

The Antelope Point public ramp will likely be off-limits to motorized vessels for the entire season, although it will remain open to kayaks canoes and paddleboards.

For Dan Beard, a former Bureau of Reclamation commissioner, concerns about the future of boating are like worrying about how to arrange deck furniture on the Titanic. Lake Powell has already struck an iceberg and it may be only a matter of time before rafts will replace houseboats in Glen Canyon.

“We ought to drain Lake Powell and restore Glen Canyon and move the water downstream so that we fill Lake Mead because Lake Mead is a critical facility to the management of the Colorado River,” said Beard, a board member for Save The Colorado. “This artificial way of looking at things — that somehow there’s a difference between the Upper Basin and the Lower Basin, and the Upper Basin is losing out — it’s a political faction that just doesn’t hold water. Pun intended.”

Shrinking lake is exposing geologic wonders

(Francisco Kjolseth | Salt Lake Tribune file photo) The Colorado River flows into Lake Powell near Hite Marina in February 2021. Powell's water levels are expected to reach historic lows this year.

Some activists see a silver lining in Powell’s contraction. Glen Canyon’s side canyons, which once harbored hundreds of ancient Native American communities, are slowly emerging into daylight for the first time in a half-century, offering a look at the geological wonders that were inundated by the dam.

Beard and other critics suspect that Powell, absent a drastic change in how the river is managed, will plummet to a level where the dam no longer can generate hydropower, eliminating one of the reasons it was built in the first place. If the surface elevation falls to 3,490 feet, about 74 feet lower than it is today, dam operators would have to shut down the turbines or risk damaging them. At 3,370 feet, the lake would cease functioning as a reservoir, a status known as “dead pool.”

Beard believes Powell has lost its relevance, because it was built to meet conditions and needs that have drastically changed over the past two decades of drought.

“The days of Glen Canyon and Lake Powell, as we knew it, are over. It’s done,” he said. “It’s frustrating to me because none of what’s happening hydrologically is a surprise. Report after report after report after report had said the same thing. The amount of water flowing into Lake Powell is going to decline, and it’s going to continue to decline because of climate change and because the nature and the timing of water being delivered in the Colorado River Basin is changing.”

Since 2000, just four years have seen above-average precipitation in the Colorado River Basin. In a recent study, the U.S. Geological Survey documented that over this period, the Colorado’s average annual flow has declined by 20%, largely because of climatic warming that has reduced Rocky Mountain snowpacks and led to earlier spring runoff.

Yet Utah and other Upper Basin states, which have historically not used their full shares of the river’s flows, are pursuing more diversions in hopes of capturing “their” water that would otherwise flow into Arizona.

According to Save The Colorado, there are 25 projects proposed that would divert a total 400,000 acre-feet out of the river each year. Among the largest is Utah’s Lake Powell pipeline, a billion-dollar proposal to move 86,000 acre-feet to St. George.

“It’s beyond irresponsible that the Bureau of Reclamation is failing to oppose new dams and diversions in the Colorado River Basin,” Beard said. “The federal government is exhibiting a schizophrenic delusion — reality is that less water should be diverted, but the federal government is allowing even more water to be diverted.”