A world beneath Lake Powell is being resurrected

Drought in the Colorado River Basin reveals unseen marvels.


Five years ago this August, I traveled to the shores of Lake Powell to meet journalists from the Salt Lake Tribune. We were there to boat into Clear Creek and see Cathedral in the Desert, the iconic sandstone cavern in Glen Canyon that was inundated by the reservoir’s rising waters in the 1960s.

At the time, the Cathedral was still half-full, revealing only a part of what many consider one of the most magical places on the Colorado Plateau.

When our group arrived at Bullfrog Marina, we were greeted by a park ranger. Rich Ingebretsen, founder of the Glen Canyon Institute, explained that some of us were with an organization working to restore the Colorado River. The ranger replied, “Trying to restore the river, huh? Well, I guess we are having a bit of an identity crisis here.”

He had certainly seen the reservoir drop, leaving dramatic bathtub rings on the canyon walls. Since Lake Powell was last full in 1999, the reservoir had experienced extreme fluctuations, reaching its lowest point in April 2005. In only six years, it had gone from 99 percent capacity to a mere 30 percent.

Downstream at Lake Mead, things aren’t much better. In November 2010, that reservoir reached its lowest point since it began filling in the 1930s. Now, it is becoming clear that more than the reservoirs are facing an identity crisis; so is the Colorado River –– and the more than 30 million people who rely on it today.

Hite, Utah in 2005 showing mudflats that had surfaced due to low water in Lake Powell.

Water management in the arid Southwest may be at a breaking point. If you’ve tuned into the news lately, you’ve heard the dire stories of drought in the Colorado River Basin. There also have been numerous studies from government agencies and academic institutions assessing the imbalance on the Colorado River between supply and demand. One study from the U.S. Forest Service and Princeton University concluded that both Powell and Mead could dry up in a few decades.

Increasing demand, persistent drought and climate change are all tightening their grip on the water supply of the West -- even as Las Vegas works to complete its “third straw,” an intake valve pulling water from Lake Mead. That valve, however, could end up installed in a near-empty reservoir. And for the first time in history, Glen Canyon dam managers have announced that they will begin to curtail downstream releases to mitigate shortages.

Pat Mulroy, the powerful director of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, recently said, “It is the new normal. And it is climate change. We are living what the scientists (have said) for the last couple of years, that the rate of change that we are experiencing climatically is far more dramatic than they expected it to be.”

Meanwhile, as the reality of this “new normal” becomes more palpable every year, a miraculous transformation has been taking place in once-drowned Glen Canyon.

Escalante River and Stevens Arch in 2005, showing where Lake Powell would normally reach at full pool. Photo by Elias Butler.

As the waters of Lake Powell retreat, the area once called “the place no one knew” is coming back to life. When Lake Powell reached its previous lowest point in the spring of 2005, there was a surge of interest in the newly emerged canyons of Glen Canyon. Outdoor enthusiasts, news media and photographers flocked to walk on the floor of Cathedral in the Desert. A headline in The New York Times proclaimed, “Glen Canyon is on its way back -- viewable in much of its former glory.”

Between 2003 and 2007, journalist Annette McGivney and photographer James Kay rediscovered the recovering side canyons of Glen Canyon. In creating their book Resurrection: Glen Canyon and a New Vision for the American West, the two hiked up 40 side canyons to document the re-emergence of what had once been proposed as a national park. It had been widely assumed that all the 160 inundated side canyons of Glen Canyon were lost to Lake Powell, but McGivney and Kay were amazed to witness the rebirth of large portions of this magical place.

Places like Smith Fork, Willow Gulch and Davis Gulch, once smothered by 30 feet of sediment, had been flushed out by flash floods and largely returned to their natural state. The waterfalls, slot canyons, plants and wildlife had reappeared in a few short years. According to James Kay, “It was nothing short of a miracle.”

Over the next couple of years, if current conditions continue, we might be able to see more of these miracles. With both the Powell and Mead reservoirs hovering around half-full, and with little possibility that they will ever be filled again, it is time to rethink the way we store Colorado River water.

Bishop Canyon in 2005, showing where the canyon had resurfaced due to low water in Lake Powell. Photo by Elias Butler.

A recent study in the Journal of the American Water Resources Association, said that by prioritizing water storage in Lake Mead, we could save the same amount of water that’s now lost to seepage from Lake Powell – an amount equivalent to the entire state of Nevada’s annual Colorado River allocation.

Based on these data and the immeasurable value of a restored Glen Canyon, it just makes sense to allow Lake Mead to fill first. Then the world beneath Lake Powell could once again spring back into life.

Eric Balken is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He directs programs for the Glen Canyon Institute in Moab, Utah. Photos by Elias Butler.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.

Deb Dedon
Deb Dedon Subscriber
Oct 01, 2013 03:06 PM
Wish I could feel more cheered by the drop in Powell's water levels, but that means even less water for the drought-stressed. Developers have conned tax-hungry municipalities into permitting far more sprawl than can be supported by local water supplies, but try hammering this message through a thick, bureaucratic skull.
randy moore
randy moore Subscriber
Oct 01, 2013 04:35 PM
Here's an interesting twist; in about another year or two of succession, that stretch of the Escalante River is going to start hosting breeding Southwestern Willow Flycatchers and maybe a few pairs of Yellow-billed Cuckoos. If some enterprising hydrologist figures out a way to refill Lake Powell, there's going to be some interesting ESA legal wrangling to consider.
Crista Worthy
Crista Worthy Subscriber
Oct 01, 2013 04:59 PM
I first visited the Glen Canyon Reservoir, aka Lake Powell, in 1996. I am embarrassed to say I had never heard of it. But my husband had been there as a teenager. We landed a small plane at the airstrip above Hite, rented a motorboat at the marina, and took him water skiing again. We returned in 1999 and started going there (via Bullfrog Marina)a couple of times a year. We would go in October and April, when the place had very few people, and simply hike up the side canyons. It was beautiful but devoid of life. Then I found Gregory Crampton's book Ghosts of Glen Canyon, History Beneath Lake Powell and was shocked at what an environmental and cultural crime had been committed by building this damn dam. But I loved hiking up those side canyons from the reservoir; the place is magical. And then the drought began. In fall of 2002 the water levels had dropped many feet. We had to hike an hour each day through smelly muck to get above the water line. But by the following year, the muck had cleared out. Each year the water fell away and the side canyons were scoured down to bedrock by flash floods. Cottonwoods began to grow, birds appeared, and we even found beaver dams. Life was returning so quickly. And then in the spring of 2005 we paddled into Cathedral in the Desert, now revealed for the first time in decades. It was a profoundly moving experience. By 2006, many canyons had cottonwoods 25-30 feet tall. But then the area began to receive more water and the reservoir began to fill again. Countless trees were drowned. Such senseless waste. I am so glad there is now more talk of the "fill Mead first" idea. I'd love to see the dam gone but I doubt that will happen in our lifetimes. Still, a policy of keeping the reservoir at one low level, with a stable shoreline, would provide so much habitat, and much of Glen Canyon would again be revealed. I know the dam provides electricity, and that's worth a lot of money. But how much? Someone must be able to quantify the value of the electricity. Because the water has value as well. In the future, the water saved by keeping Lake Powell low may exceed the value of the electricity the dam could produce, if climate change continues to dry up the West. I'd love to see a study quantifying that.
scott dittrich
scott dittrich
Oct 02, 2013 02:01 PM
Its easy to sit back in a cloud of smoke and let wishful thinking distort one's reality.
The Anasazi declined and abandoned their irrigated crops and eventually returned to a hunter/gathering society because of prolonged drought conditions. Water is the lifeblood of the West and the environmental issue we should all focus on - because it is possible to make a difference with relatively little effort. We are depleting the aquifers under our feet and we have pledged more water than the Colorado produces. The desert cities will scream politically when their water rations are cut from Powell and Mead. They have much more clout than those who want to return to a time when America had fifty million people, mostly living in the East and mostly living as farmers. Reality strikes hard. Yes the canyons were beautiful, but the flash floods killed thousands downstream before the two big dams. We now do not well manage the precious water behind those dams. We waste a great deal, perhaps as much as 80%. Israelis grow crops in a similar climate with 90% less water. People in LA and Phoenix and Vegas have green lawns. Instead of draining these great reservoirs when the rainfall is a bit less than normal we should keep them full in preparation for a real drought, which could last decades rather than a few years. This will require water management that slowly reduces the outflow of the dams. Costal cities like LA should, like San Diego, begin plans for desalinization plants. Instead of dreaming of the historic canyons of Lake Powell and busting down the dams we should be trying to revolutionize how the West looks to protect this fragile resource.
David Newell
David Newell
Nov 01, 2013 02:28 PM
Scott, your comment about the Anasazi may be prescient. Could be that "hunter gatherers" is what we should be, to optimize a Thriving Earth. Certainly, many of the "threads" of what currently are causing the death of the planet, can be traced back to the commencemnt of agriculture; the sense of "ownership" and blocking out other uses of normally multiple and transient occupancies. Agriculture is STILL identifiable as a huge, HUGE, problem as you consider mega-ag enterprises, gene modifications, patented seeds, water useage, fertilizer energy uses, and CO2 production. It's all coming down, I do regretably believe.
Eric Nielson
Eric Nielson
Feb 10, 2014 03:15 PM
Why does this tree hugging group need Lake Powell unearthed? I like the canyons too! Go hike Canyonlands. Go hike Moab. It's a bit selfish to sacrifice a water reservoir for your desire to see pretty canyons.
Kyle Klain
Kyle Klain Subscriber
Feb 11, 2014 07:14 AM
Eric, I believe Glen Canyon represented the height of the human hubris in trying to control the desert and promote unchecked growth. It's firstly symbolic, then secondly, it was (and apparently still is) a desert wonderland only short to the Grand Canyon.