“Gentlemen, you are piling up a heritage of conflict and litigation over water rights, for there is not sufficient water to supply the land.”
- John Wesley Powell, 1883
He warned us.
The naturalist, explorer and Civil War veteran who so famously explored the course of the Colorado River in 1869 made enough of a mark that a lake made out of that river, the one that now stands beneath the Glen Canyon Dam, is named for him.
But Major Powell would not be at all surprised, nor would he take offense, were he to find out that his namesake reservoir had to go. That it had to be sacrificed to the naturally dry conditions of the American Southwest, a boom in population and agriculture through seven states and a record-setting drought that we must accept as the new normal.
Lake Powell, straddling the Utah-Arizona border, now sits only a quarter full. There is every expectation that it will only continue to shrink until, quite soon, it reaches the ominously termed “dead pool.” Not the ersatz X-Man, but a level too shallow to either generate electricity or provide water to cities and Indigenous settlements in the area.
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.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation gave the seven states that benefit from Colorado River waters — Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming in the Upper Basin, Nevada, Arizona and California in the Lower Basin — until August 15 to come up with a way to drastically cut their water use or have the feds do it for them.
That deadline came and went and the bureau is still pondering the matter. Which is understandable, if not altogether useful, as there seems no simple solution. It is certainly unlikely that any course of action can be found that doesn’t make one state or group of states feel they have been treated unfairly.
One option being considered, by some environmental groups and possibly by federal officials, is to drill some new tunnels near the base of the Glen Canyon Dam so that what water there is in Lake Powell can flow on through the Grand Canyon, as it has for millions of years, to bolster Lake Mead.
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.
One thing Utah could do to prove it is aware of the situation and that its opinions are worth considering would be to formally abandon the absurd $2 billion (or lots more) plan to build a pipeline from Lake Powell to the rapidly growing St. George area of southwest Utah.
It is less a matter of whether St. George needs or deserves the water, or whether it should be taking a conservation-first approach to its needs, as it is the fact that Lake Powell just isn’t going to have nearly enough water to justify the cost of such a pipeline.
Debating the worth or desirability of Lake Powell as a power-generating station, a water storage and flood control structure or a recreation destination is fast becoming a pointless waste of time, energy and money. Planning for what might happen after — which will also take time, energy and money — is crucial.
One thing we know is that Utah, already the proud and financially rewarded home of five national parks, could use another one.
The ones we have — Zion, Canyonlands, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef and Arches — are significant contributors to our state’s economy. But the Mighty Five, as they are called, draw so many visitors that sometimes we just don’t know where to put them all. Traffic can be a snarl. Some popular and sensitive areas now require reservations. Whole areas are, as they say, in danger of being loved to death.
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. (Spoiler alert: It won’t.)
As explained by Tribune reporter Zak Podmore in this week’s Salt Lake Tribune, the natural ecosystems of Glen Canyon are already showing signs of a natural rebirth, brought on by the receding waters of Lake Powell. There are reappearing natural wonders and artifacts left over from Native American settlements that could, properly managed, form the core of a natural wonder that Utah could be proud of, rain no rain, for generations to come.
All we have to do is learn to work with nature rather than against it.