To prop up Lake Powell, water managers drained Flaming Gorge. Are they sacrificing the wrong reservoir?

Colorado River researchers say the system’s mega-reservoirs will likely never fill to half way. Smaller ones higher in the watershed are less prone to evaporation.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The view of Flaming Gorge from the Sheep Creek overlook on Tuesday, June 20, 2023. Colorado River researchers say its time to seriously consider the future of the West's mega-reservoirs.

Manila • It might sound familiar — a Western river dammed and red rock canyons flooded. Boats and farms and hoards of tourists flourish in a place where water used to be scarce. Then, a “megadrought” brings down the system which once felt so secure, so permanent, and people who built their whole lives around the reservoir begin to reconsider how much longer it all can last.

This isn’t the story of Lake Powell or Lake Mead, but the engineering and audacity behind this human-made lake is no less impressive. It’s Flaming Gorge, the third-largest reservoir on the Colorado River system, and it stores water from the Green River, the Colorado’s largest tributary. Its location is high, near the river’s headwaters, and its relatively cooler climate means it hadn’t faced the shortages and potential dead pool crises its bigger sister reservoirs have grappled with downstream over the past decade.

That all changed two years ago, when water managers opted to siphon water away from Flaming Gorge to save Lake Powell, dropping it about 20 feet. Thanks to a record-breaking winter, those drawdowns have stopped and Flaming Gorge has largely recovered.

But it has locals and water watchdogs worried about the future.

“Why would you kill Flaming Gorge to save Lake Powell, which in the long run, potentially won’t be able to survive?” asked Jessica Williams, whose family has run the Lucerne Valley Marina and its associated grill, boat rentals and cabins since the reservoir filled in the 1960s.

Some have floated the idea of draining Lake Powell instead, to benefit higher reservoirs like Flaming Gorge, where there’s less evaporation and more critical habitat supporting endangered species.

“The only purpose of Lake Powell right now is recreation, along with a little bit of hydropower,” said Mike DeHoff, founder of the Returning Rapids Project, a group that documents the recovery of the Colorado River’s historical course as drought has pushed reservoirs further into decline.

It’s not just an idea supported by stream enthusiasts and environmental groups. Researchers who closely examine the future of the Colorado River’s reservoirs have found a changing climate means Lake Powell will likely never fill again, unless human water consumption drastically changes.

“We need to honestly evaluate all options,” said Jack Schmidt, director of the Center for Colorado River Studies at Utah State University. “And we ought to have a serious conversation about the plusses and minuses of drilling river diversion tunnels so you could fully bypass Lake Powell if the system gets progressively lower.”

Daggett County residents, many of whom rely on Flaming Gorge Reservoir for their livelihoods, have endured the ups and downs of the reservoir's level.

‘To send our water down, what’s the point?’

The releases from Flaming Gorge to shore up Lake Powell began in 2021, an element of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Drought Response Operations Agreement, or DROA. Federal resource managers moved the water from one reservoir to the other to prevent Lake Powell from falling below power pool, the level where Glen Canyon Dam will no longer generate hydroelectric energy.

All said, the bureau moved 588,000 acre-feet from Flaming Gorge, which has an active capacity of 3.5 million acre-feet. Lake Powell, meanwhile, has an active capacity of more than 23 million acre-feet.

“Drop in the bucket” is a phrase commonly muttered among locals living near Flaming Gorge’s shores.

“We just don’t see us as big enough to be significant help,” said Sandy Kunkel, the mayor of Dutch John, a small town that sprung up in the 1950s to support teams building Flaming Gorge Dam. “To send our water down, what’s the point?”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Water managers opted to siphon water away from Flaming Gorge to save Lake Powell, which worry marina owners Jessica and Brant Williams.

Communities around Flaming Gorge are almost entirely dependent on a tourism-based economy. There are about 980 full-time residents, but the population balloons to about 30,000 on a busy summer weekend as visitors pour in to camp, boat, raft and fish.

Williams and her family were overwhelmed managing the Lucerne Marina over the past two seasons. They had to juggle a spike in visitation due to the COVID-19 pandemic, along with constantly dragging and re-anchoring their slips as the reservoir rapidly receded.

“We were dropping so much we couldn’t even keep up,” Williams said.

Boaters would dock for the night, then wake up the next morning stuck on the beach, she said.

“If it would have continued like that for a couple [more] years,” said Brant Williams, Wiliams’s husband, “we would’ve become river guides or something.”

With a multi-decade “megadrought” gripping the West, the dire state of Lake Powell and Lake Mead has transfixed the nation. Even after a banner winter, Powell only sits at 41% full and Mead hit a measly 32% full.

Stories from publications throughout the world have marveled at the growing “bathtub rings” and lost canyons emerging from the mega-reservoirs’ disappearing water. Others warn of the impending doom facing farms, power generators and major cities in the West that have sprung up since the Colorado River was first dammed, diverted and officially divvied out among states a century ago.

Several of these articles claim a whopping 40 million people rely on Powell and Mead, but that’s not accurate.

The entire Colorado River watershed supports around 40 million residents living in the Western U.S. and Mexico. But once the river’s water reaches Lake Powell, it all flows to the Lower Basin. It isn’t pumped back uphill to support the millions of people living in the Upper Basin states of Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico.

The Colorado River reservoirs serving those states are smaller and have received far less attention, but they still play a critical role.

Jack Lytle, a Daggett County commissioner, said he understands all the dams on the Colorado River sustain a holistic water web overseen by federal resource managers who face daunting challenges and demands. Still, he emphasized Flaming Gorge shouldn’t get regularly tapped to prop up Lake Powell if it’s not going to make a significant difference.

“We don’t want to see as big of swings as we experienced with the DROA every year,” Lytle said. “We don’t want that to become the norm.”

Flaming Gorge’s murky history and its role in saving native fish

Although Flaming Gorge holds just a fraction of the water historically stored in lakes Powell and Mead, it has transformed the West in profound ways.

As crews finished building the 500-foot dam in 1962, the Utah and Wyoming departments of fish and game poisoned more than 400 miles of the Green River with the chemical rotenone. They mostly wanted to get rid of nonnative “coarse” fish, like carp and catfish, to make way for more popular nonnative sport fish like kokanee salmon, lake trout and rainbow trout, turning their brand-new reservoir into an angler’s dream.

“This is about father-and-son and fishing trips,” said John Weisheit, founder of Living Rivers, an environmental group focused on protecting the Colorado River watershed. “That’s how we managed our fisheries.”

The move horrified scientists who had long studied the Colorado’s native fish, which weren’t even considered as part of the poisoning plan.

“I am taking measures to ensure that future projects are reviewed to assure experimental work is taken into consideration,” wrote U.S. Interior Secretary Stewart Udall after criticism of the rotenone project mounted, “and that possible deleterious effects are evaluated by competent and disinterested parties.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Outlets at the base of the Flaming Gorge Dam.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Studies have found dams built by the federal government have effected native fish populations on the Green River.

A few years later, in 1967, Udall released the nation’s first list of endangered species. The Green River’s humpback chub and Colorado pikeminnow made the roster. A slew of other environmental regulations followed, like the National Environmental Policy Act, which require careful review before ecosystems get obliterated.

“Flaming Gorge,” Weisheit said, “is why we have the Endangered Species Act.”

Studies have found it’s not the states’ application of rotenone that nearly wiped out native fish in the Green River. It’s the dams built by the federal government.

Concrete impoundments like Flaming Gorge have interrupted the yearly surge of spring snowmelt, turbidity and floodplain fish evolved with and need to spawn and thrive.

In 2006, the Bureau of Reclamation altered its operations at Flaming Gorge to simulate spring runoff conditions — by then, the list of endangered fish below the dam had grown to include the razorback sucker and bonytail. It took a few years of experimenting to get the timing right, but by 2021, the humpback chub was downlisted to “threatened.”

Drawing down Flaming Gorge to support Lake Powell in the future, however, could make the reservoir too warm to continue supporting fish downriver.

“The important thing is, if the Endangered Species Act doesn’t work in the Colorado River,” Weisheit said, “it doesn’t work anywhere because this is where it was born.”

An arid environment like the Colorado River Basin needs some dams, Weisheit conceded, especially after its population has swelled to tens of millions of people.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rafters enter the Green River below the Flaming Gorge Dam.

But, he said, no dam lasts forever.

“Especially on the Colorado,” he said, “because it’s the muddiest river in the world.”

The most sediment-laden part of the Colorado River enters Lake Powell. There, the river drops its load and the reservoir loses its capacity to store water inch by inch, year by year. Flaming Gorge, however, is located closer to the pristine runoff from the Wind River Range and Uintah Mountains. The water is colder, clearer and carries less mud.

“The question is, which dams can we take down that won’t affect the purposes of these things?” Weisheit said. “The most redundant dam on the system is Glen Canyon Dam — you don’t need it.”

The future of the Colorado Basin’s reservoirs

This spring, researchers affiliated with Utah State University, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Colorado River Water Conservation District released the first study that takes a serious look at draining Lake Powell to benefit the rest of the Colorado River system.

“Under any sort of politically conceivable reduction in consumptive use, on average, total storage in lakes Powell and Mead will only ever be 50% of capacity,” said Schmidt, the USU researcher and lead author of the study. “Where should we store the water? Powell, Mead or 50-50?”

Decommissioning Lake Powell and moving all its water to Lake Mead could resuscitate Glen Canyon, the environmental gem conservationists and outdoor enthusiasts mourned decades ago as it drowned, turning into a reservoir. It would have the added benefit of introducing more natural, sediment-filled streamflows to Grand Canyon as well, benefiting more of the Colorado River Basin’s native fish.

On the other hand, the basin stands to lose a lot of hydroelectricity, along with recreational opportunities, like fishing and boating, at Lake Powell. But those uses have already been pinched by drought.

“I believe it is wrong to characterize the future of these reservoirs as an inevitable,” Schmidt said. “The future of these reservoirs will be the result of very intentional human decisions.”

This year’s record-breaking runoff has bought the region’s resource managers some time to make hard choices about the system. The Lower Basin states have temporarily agreed to curb their water use in exchange for $1.2 billion from the federal government. But it’s clear those cuts won’t be nearly enough to refill Lake Powell or Lake Mead, and using taxpayer dollars to get farmers to grow less food doesn’t seem like a sustainable, long-term solution.

Flaming Gorge, meanwhile, is expected to fully recover from its DROA drawdowns by next spring. Whether it will get tapped again in the future remains unknown.

“That was a crazy winter. And I don’t think we can [plan] on having that again,” said Williams at the Lucerne Marina, adding she hoped Westerners downstream have taken recent conservation messaging to heart. “I don’t think you should bank on having a green yard in the desert.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Green River flows through Red Canyon and Flaming Gorge.