Who would have believed it? Water levels at Lake Powell have dropped to 50 percent for the first time since it filled in 1980. This draining is likely to continue to the point where the reservoir could vanish in the next three-to-four years.
With snowpacks below 25 percent of normal, and continued
warnings from the U.S. Geological Survey, EPA and others that a
severe and sustained drought should be anticipated, Lake Powell's
days may be numbered. A 1995 study published by the American Water
Resources Association predicted that a severe drought would lead to
Lake Powell's draining within eight years. Things are right on
Now that Lake Powell is down by some 87 feet,
three boat ramps have been closed: Antelope Point, Stateline and
Hite. The National Park Service is working with a $3 million
emergency appropriation to extend other ramps as the reservoir
continues to decline. But construction of the recently approved $70
million Antelope Point marina complex is in limbo, because boats
can’t be launched from what has been revealed by drought to
be a cliff.
Once Lake Powell drops an additional 28
percent, it will no longer generate hydroelectricity because Glen
Canyon Dam's penstocks will be exposed, and water will no longer be
able to turn the generators. There's also a problem with sediment,
since fluctuating river flows that occur during low reservoir
levels will speed the movement of sediment toward Glen Canyon Dam.
The U.S. Geological Survey says that major droughts of
the past, such as the years from1942 to 1977, went largely
unnoticed. We notice this drought because the West has four times
the population and we’ve been mining our groundwater.
Federal scientists have also informed us that the
previous century was 20 percent wetter than normal. That means our
ability to put water to work was helped by luck as much as it was
by massive engineering projects. Even at those inflated levels,
Colorado River water allocations are 20 percent above what the
We’ve managed to avoid crises in
the past because not all the Colorado River Basin states used their
full allocations. Even so, the river reached the sea only twice in
the past two decades. Add to all this a drought cycle that is
predicted to last 25 years, and Lake Powell, along with every other
reservoir in the upper Colorado River storage system, won’t
have water to store.
Vanishing bodies of water in the
Western United States shouldn’t surprise us: It's part of our
legacy. In 1890, the Geological Survey's first professional paper
discussed the principles of global climate change. The publication
analyzed how a body of water that was once 800 feet deep -- Lake
Bonneville -- had reduced itself into the briny and shallow Great
In the 19th century, the physical geography of
the planet provided undeniable evidence that humans can become
victims of climate change. In the 20th century, we gained new
tools, such as tree-ring data, that allowed us to reconstruct the
climate of the last 400 years. This reaffirmed that the
Earth’s climate varies dramatically. Whether these changes
result from the effects of greenhouse gases or from natural cycles,
the results are the same.
Scientists have given us ample
warning, but our water-management experts don't listen. At a recent
gathering in Moab, Utah, John Keys, Commissioner of the Bureau of
Reclamation, worked to calm the fears of those concerned that the
Colorado River may soon be unable to provide for the 25 million
people plumbed into his system.
"They (the reservoirs)
are doing exactly what they were designed to do," he said. But when
it was pointed out that these reservoirs are declining over 10
percent per year, and thus could empty in another five to six
years, he had no plan for how the federal government would handle
Certainly many of us will be pleased to
see the uncovering of Glen Canyon. It will be nature’s way of
reminding us that we are not in control.
It would be
truly unfortunate, however, if the warnings these declining levels
represent are not heeded, and all those presently reliant on the
overuse of Colorado River water get plunged into a crisis with no
plan of action.