John F. Rickenbach: Tribune’s Lake Powell series paints only part of the picture

The Salt Lake Tribune’s recent series focused on the future of Lake Powell shined an important spotlight on a critical issue: the future of the West. My concern is that as presented, these pieces paint only part of the picture.

This is not about whether or not Lake Powell should be drained, or whether it makes sense to fill Lake Mead first. This is about how to manage a future with limited resources. Both lakes exist for very good reasons — to manage water supply and power in a multi-state region, to provide flood control and to act as critical hubs for a regional tourist economy. We’d all be better served if the tone of future articles was more fact-based, less opinion, and aimed at addressing the complex issues important to more than just a few who wish that Glen Canyon looked like it did in 1949.

Here’s my suggestion for how your August 28 editorial, “Say Goodbye to Lake Powell and Hello to Glen Canyon National Park,” could have been more helpful to your readers. While clearly an opinion piece, it was not helpful that it relied on little data, half-truths, or incomplete and misleading information.

Statements like this gave away the game:

“Experts and activists have long made the case that Lake Powell should be sacrificed so that most of its water can flow downstream to preserve Lake Mead, its larger and more crucial sister reservoir near Las Vegas. This is on top of environmentalist arguments that it never should have been created in the first place.”

Here’s a more accurate take:

“A few activists and supporters with some scientific background have cherry picked data and created a narrative to drain Lake Powell by arguing that filling Lake Mead would somehow be beneficial to the 40 million people who rely on the resources in both reservoirs. This is on top of a wish list to pretend that Lake Powell doesn’t exist and hasn’t for the past 60 years.”

Then there’s this:

“Utah must prepare itself for two distinct possibilities. Either the United States will abandon and drain Lake Powell, or Mother Nature will. Our state’s power to oppose either is slim at best.”

A more accurate re-write would go:

“Utah must prepare itself for two distinct possibilities. Either the long-term drought will continue to reduce potential water supply in the region, or future snowpack might eventually provide some relief to this condition. In either case, Utah must respond appropriately and decisively by limiting water demand from the Colorado River to preserve this resource for future generations, and to create a more sustainable long-term environment for its population. Our state’s power to do this is a function of individual and political will.”

And then finally, this nugget of misinformation:

“A new Glen Canyon National Park could relieve much of the stress on the other parks, even as it would provide a boost to the local economy. It is, after all, an area that is already oriented toward welcoming visitors, and it would benefit greatly from no longer having to worry about whether next summer’s water level will reach the boat launches.”

… which should have said:

“A new Glen Canyon National Park would change the name of the existing Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, but would otherwise just create more problems than it would solve. The GCNRA and its lake-oriented tourist activities already provide a huge boost to the regional economy. Without Lake Powell, public access to Glen Canyon would be greatly limited whether it’s called a National Park or National Recreation Area, with predictable adverse impacts to the regional economy. As it is, GCNRA outdraws each of Utah’s national parks by more than double on an annual basis, with the exception of Zion National Park, where visitation is typically comparable in most years. It is notable that when lake levels are lower, visitation to GCNRA drops dramatically, putting more pressure on southern Utah’s five national parks, particularly on Zion, which saw an unsustainable spike in visitation in 2021.”

I have a lot of respect for the writers and editorial board at The Tribune, but now more than ever is the time to get the reporting right. We’re talking about our collective future here.

John Rickenbach

John Rickenbach, Atascadero, California, has been an environmental and land use planning consultant since 1990, with an expertise on issues related to the management of the Colorado River watershed. He is also a technical contributor to the Blue Ribbon Coalition, an organization focused on maintaining access to public lands throughout the West, and the author of “The Path to 3588: A Plan for Lake Powell and Lake Mead.”