Lake Powell bounces back — but for how long?

Captured runoff reflooded natural wonders, while laying bare competing visions for Glen Canyon in the water-starved West.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Eric Balken, the executive director of the Glen Canyon Institute, boats through Davis Gulch during a trip to Lake Powell near Ticaboo, Utah on Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2023.

Glen Canyon Erik Balken navigated his small motorboat through tight S-curves in the waning days of autumn, sandstone walls weathered by water, wind and time looming above.

Veering beyond the final bend, he let out an exasperated groan.

“That’s a damn shame,” he said as his boat coasted into a reflooded redrock chamber.

A 20-foot waterfall trickled into the reservoir below, reverberating across the cliff walls known as Cathedral in the Desert, a beloved sanctuary in the heart of Glen Canyon.

“Well, it was,” Balken said with a frustrated chuckle.

The feature has re-flooded after the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation opted to store much of last spring’s record-breaking runoff in Lake Powell, the nation’s second-largest reservoir, instead of sending it downstream to the largest reservoir, Lake Mead.

Keeping Powell full enough to generate hydropower is a strategy the U.S. Department of Interior signaled it will prioritize — even if it comes at the expense of other natural, recreational and cultural assets on the Colorado River — until at least the end of 2026. That’s when the federal government and seven states that rely on the river will have to re-imagine what to do in a drier, hotter and less water-secure future. The river remains overallocated and has lost about a third of its flow in recent years.

For now, motorized boaters who love Lake Powell are breathing a sigh of relief that the federal government intends to keep the reservoir full enough that at least some of the marinas remain open. But the situation also lays bare competing interests that will try to influence the future of the engineered lake, which scientists say will likely never get close to completely full again.

Balken is the executive director of the Glen Canyon Institute, a nonprofit that considers the creation of Lake Powell an environmental mistake. He has explored and documented reemerging features since the mega-reservoir began its sharp decline about two decades ago, fueled by water shortages on the Colorado River and climate change. It caused around 100,000 acres of Glen Canyon to resurface.

Earlier in the spring, Balken found a Cathedral of the Desert that looked much like it did before Glen Canyon Dam was built and the canyon began filling in 1963. The falls dropped 60 feet, reaching the full length of the alcove. Ferns, mosses, grasses and willow had regrown.

But by October, Powell sat about 53 feet higher than its modern historical low set in April. It drowned much of Cathedral in the Desert once more.

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert, Samantha, Aubrin and Torin Garlow visit Cathedral in the Desert on May 4, 2022.

(Leia Larsen | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cathedral in the Desert seen Oct. 18, 2023.

“As a skier and a river rafter I like big water years,” Balken said. “It’s just a shame that we choose to store it in here.”

The Colorado River watershed saw phenomenal snowpack and spring melt in 2023, but by fall Powell only reached 36% full, while Mead filled to 35%.

“Even with a huge runoff year,” Balken said, “it’s clear that’s not enough to save these big reservoirs.”

It appears a repeat of 2023′s deluge is unlikely. The latest information from the Natural Resources Conservation Service reports Upper Basin snowpack is about normal for this time of year, but there’s still a lot of winter left to go.

Abandon Lake Powell, and make Glen Canyon a national park?

For now, the Interior Department claims allowing Lake Powell to continue dropping over the next few years will expose up to 28,000 additional acres and further harm the canyon’s natural assets by allowing invasive plant species to proliferate.

Balken called that conclusion bunk.

“In Glen Canyon, there are 125 side canyons,” Balken said, “and you would see recovering ecosystems in every single one of them. Each one is very different, but it is happening across this whole region.”

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Water flows down Willow Gulch on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) A Great Blue Heron flies in Willow Gulch at Lake Powell near Ticaboo, Utah on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023.

Even with the reservoir’s gains last spring, hiking through Glen Canyon’s emerging tributary canyons is like walking through time. Spots that have only been exposed for a year look like muddy sediment wastelands with no vegetation or wildlife. Pressing further into the canyon, to areas exposed for two or three years, invasives like tamarisk and Russian thistle — more commonly known as tumbleweed — are the first to grow. But they don’t last.

“They actually provide ground cover or the next wave species,” Balken said. “We’ve seen examples where there’s dried tumbleweed, and then you see wildflowers and forbs coming up underneath.”

Farther down the canyons, large sections of the sediment look like they were flushed away — a sign of flash flooding. Native willow and cottonwood shoots flourish, stabilizing the banks. The canyon becomes lush with speedwell, stream orchids and primrose. The trees get taller, their trunks get thicker. Beaver are busy building dams and the sandstone walls echo will the sounds of songbirds, frogs and newly emerged waterfalls.

“It’s like seeing something come back from the dead,” Balken said. “It’s so intriguing and inspiring.”

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Eric Balken, the executive director of the Glen Canyon Institute, points out various types of vegetation in Davis Gulch during a trip to Lake Powell near Ticaboo, Utah on Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2023.

But as he navigates through some of his favorite Glen Canyon haunts, like Davis Gulch, Balken takes note of emergent ecosystems re-flooded since last summer. Dead young willow poke out of the reservoir like spindly skeletons.

“One element of this reservoir that’s underappreciated is just how environmentally devastating it is,” Balken said. “People think ‘Oh, the water is up, that’s good, because we have more water stored. But the consequences of it are huge.”

Environmental groups like Glen Canyon Institute and even some of the basin’s biggest water users advocate a “Fill Mead First” policy, or even for bypassing Glen Canyon dam entirely. It would allow the canyon to return and recover, improve flows through the Grand Canyon and keep water running downstream to big farms in California’s Imperial Valley.

Balken has stayed busy the past few years giving tours of emerging Glen Canyon haunts to journalists from across the nation, working for The New Yorker, Smithsonian Magazine, CBS News and more. He’s contributed to a growing chorus calling for Glen Canyon to be permanently drained and protected as a national park.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Vegetation is seen in Davis Gulch at Lake Powell near Ticaboo, Utah on Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2023.

“Doesn’t this feel like a national park?” he asked hiking past LaGorce Arch, once a popular feature to boat under, now looming high above a burbling creek and swaying willows.

He pointed to Canyonlands National Park to the north, Grand Canyon National Park to the south, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument to the west and Bears Ears National Monument to the east.

“Glen Canyon is at the heart of all of that,” Balken said.

Boaters make their case for preserving an economic engine

But both bypassing Glen Canyon Dam and establishing a new national park would take acts of Congress, and could prove unpopular among politicians and the public.

More than 2.8 million people visited Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in 2022, almost entirely for motorized boating, even with the reservoir at record-low levels. That’s more than all the visitors seen at Canyonlands, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante combined in the same year. Preliminary numbers from the National Park Service show a whopping 5.2 million visits to Lake Powell last year. Tourism at the reservoir generated a $410 million economic windfall for surrounding gateway communities in 2021 and supported 3,840 jobs.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) A houseboat is seen at Lake Powell on Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2023.

Nathan Zaugg counts himself among those who love Lake Powell.

“It’s a beautiful marriage of the natural and manmade,” he said. “There’s no place like it.”

The Farmington resident first visited the reservoir in 1993 and now makes the trip south two to five times each year. He owns a houseboat and has also seen firsthand all the dynamic changes in Glen Canyon over the decades.

“Two years ago, in October, we went down and were able to [boat] underneath the Gregory Natural Bridge,” Zaugg said, “which had been inaccessible for almost 50 years.”

And while dropping reservoir levels have revealed natural wonders to a new generation, other formations beloved by boaters became isolated or difficult to enjoy. The National Park Service struggled to keep the trailhead to Rainbow Bridge National Monument open, and it’s currently only reachable by small crafts. Zaugg pointed to The Crack, a popular slot canyon currently only accessed by scaling a rope. If Lake Powell recedes again, “it would become inaccessible except to amazing rock climbers,” he said.

(Leia Larsen | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Lake Powell bounces sunlight onto sandstone features near Lake Canyon on Oct. 17, 2023.

He noted if the Colorado River system didn’t have Lake Powell, it wouldn’t have captured surplus during heavy snow years seen in the 1980s and 1990s. Mead would’ve instead filled to capacity and let the excess flow to the Sea of Cortez, putting into question how more than 40 million people in the American West and Mexico would have managed through the current multi-decade “megadrought.”

“Lake Powell,” Zaugg said, “has been the saving grace of the Colorado River system for quite some time.”

Ben Burr, executive director of the BlueRibbon Coalition, advocates for recreation access, with an emphasis on motorized use. His nonprofit supports what’s sometimes called a “Fill Powell First” approach, although Burr said that phrasing doesn’t quite describe their proposal.

“It’s [more] how do we manage differently for recreation?” Burr said.

Traditionally, Burr said, the Interior Department has managed lakes Powell and Mead with water and power consumers in mind.

“We don’t see ourselves as having any priority over them,” Burr said, “but we think we should have a seat at the table,” especially given the economic impact motorboat recreation has in the area.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Boaters fish next to their boat at Lake Powell near Ticaboo, Utah on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023.

The Bureau of Reclamation is already sending less water downstream from Glen Canyon than normal because of so many years of drought. Under its latest proposal, if the reservoir sinks to 3,525 feet above sea level — about 25 feet above the minimum elevation needed to generate hydropower — it will trigger more cuts.

Burr would like to see cuts deployed sooner, at 3,588 feet — the minimum elevation needed to keep marinas open.

“That’s our ideal,” Burr said.

Colorado River and environmental scientists forecast the combined storage of Powell and Mead will rarely exceed 50% of their capacity in the future. Burr said he’s familiar with those studies.

“Predicting the future on the river is something we’ve gotten wrong since [the 1920s],” he said, “and something we’ll probably continue to get wrong.”

But he said the policies in place codified since the 1922 Colorado River Compact are “probably too rigid” and the arid West will need to adapt to a future with less water. Draining Lake Powell, he said, is not the answer.

“It’s not like having a lake there,” he said, “precludes you from hiking Glen Canyon.”

Drafting the course forward

For now, the Interior Department has rejected both the “Fill Mead First” and “Fill Powell” proposals as it plots out its course for managing the river through 2026.

While the bump to the Colorado Basin’s flows last spring didn’t bring Powell or Mead anywhere close to full, it bought the Lower Basin time. In May, those states agreed to conserve 3 million acre-feet through 2026 in exchange for a $1 billion payment from the federal government.

In October, about a week after both Zaugg and Balken last visited Lake Powell to assess the rising reservoir’s changes, the Interior Department issued its new, revised draft report for short-term operations at the Colorado River’s biggest reservoirs.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) The bathtub ring is visible at Lake Powell near Ticaboo, Utah on Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2023.

The document offers up a single proposed action. The department will operate Powell’s Glen Canyon Dam and Mead’s Hoover Dam at the minimum reservoir elevations needed to generate hydropower at normal levels. If Lake Powell dips too low, it will reduce its releases downstream. If Lake Mead also sinks too low, Lower Basin states will need to submit another plan for further cuts to their water use.

Meanwhile, federal, state and tribal governments are busy figuring out a bigger plan for how they’ll keep the system viable past 2027.

Lake Powell, Zaugg said, is beautiful at any elevation and worth saving. He, too, values formations like Cathedral in the Desert, which he visited when it reemerged and again this year when it re-flooded.

“They’re different experiences,” Zaugg said. “They’re both amazing experiences.”

Balken, however, said he’s confident Lake Powell’s dam will at least get re-engineered in his lifetime, and much of Glen Canyon will resurface for good.

“The Colorado River is being hammered by climate change. It’s being overused,” he said. “Change is coming to this place, whether we like it or not.”

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