This article is part of a special issue on the future of Lake Powell looking at the reservoir as overallocation and severe drought dry the Colorado River. More coverage at Countdown to dead pool: Lake Powell’s uncertain future.
As a young Boy Scout, Rich Ingebretsen fell in love with Glen Canyon. On a trip in the 1960s, the troop motored up the river and explored the side canyons, to natural wonders like Gregory Bridge, Forbidding Canyon and Rainbow Bridge before returning to their starting point, a 710-foot tall concrete behemoth that marked both the end of their journey and of an era.
The Glen Canyon Dam had been completed the summer of Ingebretsen’s visit, but the reservoir had not yet filled. It would take nearly two decades before the canyons and crannies were fully inundated, submerged under Lake Powell.
When he went back years later, revisiting the areas he had seen as a young man, now beneath 500 feet of water, he recalls being bewildered and angry.
“It was an ugly thing to me,” he said recently. “I don’t think you can hate people, but I hate Lake Powell.”
He is not alone. For years, conservationists battled the federal government’s plans to build the Glen Canyon dam and in the decades since its construction they have protested the folly and fought to hasten its demise.
In 1981, author and activist Edward Abbey and a group of protesters from Earth First draped a 300-foot long roll of tapered black plastic over the edge of the dam, meant to look like a crack, embodying the call by Abbey and his cohort to “Crack the damn.”
Each time Ingebretsen would return to the former canyon, meantime, he would get angrier and angrier until he decided to start The Glen Canyon Institute with the goal of draining the reservoir and returning the canyon to its original splendor.
His coalition included the likes of David Brower, the former director of The Sierra Club, who brokered a deal to stop a dam at Echo Park in Dinosaur National Monument and sacrificed Glen Canyon instead, a move that he later deeply regretted and a wrong he tried to right until he died.
Politicians derided the proponents of draining Lake Powell as a bunch of kooks — Sen. Orrin Hatch called the proposal “loony” and Rep. Jim Hansen called it extreme — and they vowed to fight to preserve the reservoir.
But politicians are no match for nature, which in the course of the last two decades of drought is achieving what Abbey and Ingebretsen and hosts of other environmentalists never could: slowly but steadily drying up the lake.
Today Lake Powell is just 26% full — a shadow of its former self — and steadily dropping.
The boat ramps in Page and Bullfrog have had to be extended so they can reach the reservoir and still all but two are now closed due to low water levels. Long-submerged natural wonders like Cathedral In The Desert and Gregory Bridge are reemerging for the first time in decades.
When I was in college in the early-1990s, some friends and I took a detour from a camping trip to float in the water near Hite, a stretch where the Colorado meets Powell where there was roughly 600 yards of water from the beach to a cliff wall on the other side.
When I went back not long ago, we had to trudge roughly a half-mile to get from the now-worthless marina, past buoys buried in tamarisk, to reach to the sediment-caked bank of the Colorado River. There simply is no more lake there.
Upstream, some of the lower rapids of Cataract Canyon have reemerged as the reservoir has retreated.
At its current level of 3,533 feet, the reservoir is getting perilously close to the level at which it will no longer be able to generate power from the dam’s hydroelectric plant. Electrical production is already significantly reduced and, given its current trajectory, it is a question of when, not if, the turbines will have to stop spinning, barring a massive retrofitting.
When that happens, the lake itself will serve no practical purpose — aside from maybe a desert oasis for Jet Skis and million-dollar houseboats.
That’s not the main reason the dam was built in the first place. It was built to manage the balance of water for Upper Basin states — Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming — and the Lower Basin states of Arizona, Nevada and California.
It gave the Upper Basin states a spigot that they could shut off to make sure that the more populous Lower Basin states didn’t consume more water than they were entitled to receive.
Today, however, there simply is not enough water to fill Flaming Gorge, Lake Powell and Lake Mead in Nevada. This year, water managers released more water from Flaming Gorge to try to prop up Powell and keep the generating station at Glen Canyon online. Earlier this month, they announced they would be holding back more in Powell to sustain power generation.
But just as moving $10 from your right pocket to your left doesn’t make you $10 richer, shifting water from one reservoir to another doesn’t yield more water.
Aggressive conservation measures might be able to prolong Powell’s life, but many Utah politicians seem intent on spending billions to build the Lake Powell pipeline and slurp out more of the disappearing water to irrigate golf courses and perpetuate development in one of the fastest growing and water-wasteful regions in the United States.
The pace of growth exacerbates the strain on a river that is projected to continue to shrink as temperatures rise. The leading study by Bradley Udall at the Colorado Water Institute at Colorado State University and Jonathan Overpeck of the Colorado River Research Institute estimates that climate change has already diminished flows in the Colorado River by 19% and projects them — conservatively — to drop by another 20% by midcentury.
The harsh reality is this: Lake Powell is doomed.
We can keep limping along, trying to shift water from one reservoir to another in a futile hydrological shell game. Or we can use the time we have, which may not be long, to prepare for life after Powell.
That means lining up alternative electrical generation, particularly for the Navajo Nation, in anticipation of Glen Canyon going offline in the near future.
It means adopting the “Fill Mead First” strategy that Ingebretsen and The Glen Canyon Institute have been advocating for years, which would help raise water levels at Mead (itself just 27% full) and prevent the loss of between 16 billion and 98 billion gallons of water a year, depending on which research you believe, due to seepage and evaporation from Powell.
It means revisiting the compact and water law that has governed the use of the Colorado for generations to ensure Upper Basin states are still protected once they can no longer turn off the spigot.
And it means starting to help communities like Page, Ariz., dependent on the lake for so long, to transition from a water recreation-based economy to more of the Moab model, and converting the Lake Powell Recreation Area into Glen Canyon National Park.
For those of us who have never known a world without Lake Powell, this post-reservoir life may seem too surreal to comprehend. But the day is coming. We can take advantage of the window we have to prepare for the inevitable, or we can bury our heads and do nothing, then deal with the crisis when it arrives.
Whichever we choose, Glen Canyon will be making its comeback.
Correction, Aug. 29, 5:00 p.m. • The story has been updated to correct the number of gallons of water not lost to evaporation if Lake Mead was filled before Lake Powell.