As federal officials and the seven states in the Colorado River basin are negotiating the largest cuts to water use in the region’s history, a coalition of recreational users on Lake Powell are calling on water managers to partially refill the nation’s second-largest reservoir.
In 2019, the 4.3 million recreational users who visited Lake Powell generated $420 million in economic activity, according to the Blue Ribbon Coalition, which announced a campaign to “Fill Lake Powell” earlier this month.
The reservoir dropped by 100 feet between its high in 2019 and its low this year, and only two of the 11 boat ramps on the lake are currently open, though it still boasts well over a thousand miles of shoreline.
“Last year as the lake levels got so low, you had the recreation users kind of just raising the question, ‘Why aren’t the recreation users of Lake Powell organizing themselves into more of a collective force to influence the management on the lake?’” said Ben Burr, executive director of the Blue Ribbon Coalition.
Burr joined forces with businesses on the reservoir and the social media brand Powellheadz to advocate for a target elevation of 3,588 above sea level, far above the level of 3,525 that was set in a 2017 drought contingency plan to protect hydropower generation at the Glen Canyon Dam.
But refilling Lake Powell won’t be an easy task. The Southwest is locked into the driest period in as much as 1,800 years, and climate models project runoff to continue to decline in the basin as temperatures rise due to fossil fuel emissions.
The population of Southwestern cities like Phoenix, Denver, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Salt Lake City has skyrocketed over the last century, though urban population growth does not always result in more water use. Las Vegas, for example, has added 800,00 residents since 2002 while also reducing water use by 23% thanks to an aggressive conservation program.
Around 80% of Colorado River water goes to agriculture, and places like California’s Imperial Valley, which is heavily dependent on irrigation from the river, generated over $2 billion in gross value of agricultural production in 2019.
Raising the level of Lake Powell from 3,525 feet to the coalition’s target of 3,588 feet would require 4.6 million acre-feet of additional water to be stored in the reservoir, more Colorado River water than Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Nevada used collectively last year.
The total inflow into Lake Powell is expected to be only 5.6 million acre-feet this year, 58% of average, and 7 million acre-feet will be released downstream to Lake Mead.
The Bureau of Reclamation set a 60-day timeline earlier this month for water users in the basin to figure out how to cut between 2 and 4 million acre-feet of water consumption just to prevent lakes Powell and Mead from dropping to dangerously low levels in 2023.
Burr, a former staffer for Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, acknowledged that refilling Lake Powell will be a heavy lift given current conditions, and the coalition has set a goal of reaching the 3,588 elevation target in five years.
“We don’t expect to come in and completely move the needle on every issue,” he said. “This is a policy situation where there are a lot of important competing interests that should be there, but recreation should be there, too.”
Burr spoke favorably about incentivizing the construction of desalination plants to treat ocean water for use in California, and about improving forest health in the headwaters to enhance runoff.
The Blue Ribbon Coalition primarily advocates on behalf of recreation access for motorized users, and it frequently wages fights against conservation measures on public lands, including national monument designations. Twenty years ago, the group helped stop an attempt to ban jet skis on Lake Powell, Burr said.
Those who advocate for the restoration of a free-flowing Colorado River in Utah, including the Glen Canyon Institute, Save the Colorado and former Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Dan Beard, have argued that Lake Powell presents more of a liability to water managers than an asset.
In order for the Glen Canyon Dam to continue generating electricity — and for the federal government to continue making around $120 million in annual hydropower sales — over 4 million acre-feet of water needs to be stored in the reservoir, reducing flexibility for how that water can be used.
Beard recently told The Salt Lake Tribune that sending water to Lake Mead, which is currently 28% full, should be the priority since it provides water to Las Vegas, plays a critical role in water storage to 25 million people downstream, and generates more power than the Glen Canyon Dam.
Lake Mead National Recreation Area also sees two to three times more visitors in a given year than Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and saw more than 8 million visitors in 2020.
The Bureau of Reclamation’s policy is to balance the storage in both reservoirs, keeping as much water in the lakes as possible while also meeting obligations to water users.
Record-low levels on Lake Powell have also spurred a new type of tourism: people seeking out sites in Glen Canyon that were submerged until recently or to witness the ecological restoration that is taking place in the canyon. Lake Powell Resorts and Marinas, the biggest park service concessionaire in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, is advertising places like Cathedral in the Desert and Gregory Arch, which only recently were revealed.
“It’s starting to catch on that there are still things you can do that haven’t been done in 50 or 60 years,” Gregg Martinez, economic development coordinator for Page, Ariz., recently told KJZZ. “If it does turn back into a river, not a lake, we simply go from world-class houseboating to world-class whitewater rafting.”
Martinez said he would like to see lake levels go up to protect reservoir-oriented businesses, though he added that land-based attractions like Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend drive more business to Page than Lake Powell does.
Proponents of Fill Lake Powell see a potential need to modify water law in the Colorado River basin to meet their goals.
“I’m sick of just hearing like … all this is just climate change and there’s nothing we can do about it,” Powellheadz founder Zach Smoot said in an April Instagram video. “That’s just not true, like, it’s not. The problem is there’s too much water going out and not enough water coming in.”
Both Burr and Smoot suggested the Colorado River Compact of 1922, which obligates Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico to send a set amount of water through the Glen Canyon Dam, should be revised in order to allow more water to be stored in Lake Powell.
Policy experts, including former Interior Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Anne Castle, have expressed skepticism that renegotiating the compact — a foundational piece of Colorado River law — would be politically possible.
But Burr said the crisis proves some big changes are needed in the basin, including more incentives for water conservation, and if the law of the river can be modified, he’ll advocate sending more of that water to Lake Powell.