The residents of Page, Ariz., have seen a steady decline in the nearly 2 million people who visited nearby Lake Powell Reservoir some six years ago. And little wonder, too. Water levels at the reservoir have shrunk gradually, sometimes even alarmingly. For a while last summer, the lake was shrinking at a rate of up to a foot every four days. Currently, water levels at the reservoir are down below 37 percent of what’s normally called “full.”
Recent moisture aside, the news does indeed appear grim. The National Park Service has spent millions of dollars extending boat ramps. And for the first time this year, the company that runs concessions at the reservoir will close most of its services during the winter. The Bureau of Reclamation says it will take at least 10 years of merely average river flows to fill the reservoir up again. Water levels haven’t been this low since President Nixon started bringing troops home from Vietnam. And unless wet weather continues well into 2005, the hydroelectric penstocks used to generate electricity at the dam could be shut off as early as the first part of 2006 for lack of water.
For almost 40 years, the reservoir’s reassuringly deep blue waters have stood in stark contrast to the usually parched beige desert that surrounds it. But Lake Powell Reservoir is offering another kind of stark reality these days: the brutal toll of drought. With the possible exception of the Great Salt Lake, there may be no other Utah body of water demonstrating the effects of five dry years in a row quite so stunningly as this immense reservoir straddling the Utah-Arizona border. That the West’s grandest and most disputed reservoir currently holds slightly more than a third of the water it’s accustomed to and could reach “dead pool” in as little as two to three years has many people worried.
For politicians and bureaucrats charged with making sure the West’s booming population will have enough water from the reservoir, there is a lot of hoping and praying that the rains and early snow last fall are a harbinger of wet times to come.
Richard Ingebretsen isn’t one of them. The lanky, energetic physician, University of Utah physics professor and descendent of Brigham Young sees Utah’s drought, literally, as a gift from heaven. “The drought has been a godsend,” he said.
For most of the last decade, Ingebretsen has lead the charge to decommission Glen Canyon Dam, drain Lake Powell, and bring the old Glen Canyon back to its former glory, before the 1956 Colorado River Storage Project gave the green light to commission a dam and fill the canyon full of water. For the past five years, nature has been on Ingebretsen’s side. In fact, to hear him tell it, the fight is all but over.
“Glen Canyon is back,” he said. “We’ve been given a second chance.”
For the first time in two generations, people are seeing what was lost when the dam was completed in 1963. In fact, Ingebretsen is making sure of it. The Glen Canyon Institute, which he founded in 1996, schedules regular field trips to take the public and the press into Glen Canyon and its slot canyons, showing them breathtaking places that have been covered by water for at least 30 years. Ingebretsen estimates his group has taken hundreds of people down into the canyon, among them reporters and media representatives from The New York Times, USA Today, CNN and National Geographic. Next spring when the spectacular slot canyon called the Cathedral of the Desert is clear of water, the group plans to take “a whole slurry” of press to see it, said Ingebretsen.
“We’re getting as many people down there as we can,” said Ingebretsen.
Now, buffeted by hydrology studies unveiled this week by The Glen Canyon Institute, chances are good he’ll be able to take those coveted press people even further down into Glen Canyon’s recesses of old. It’s all part of showing off nature’s gradual unmaking of what the late conservationist David R. Brower famously called “America’s most regretted environmental mistake.”
These studies show that, sooner or later—but probably sooner—the West’s ravenous demands for water will catch up with weather patterns to bring on Lake Powell Reservoir’s eventual death knell. Experts predict that, even if Utah’s current drought reverses course, the reservoir will still reach “dead pool” status within 29 years given the rate of the West’s water consumption. And if the current drought persists, many of those same experts predict Lake Powell’s lifespan will last only another three to five years.
Fact is, said Glen Canyon Institute Executive Director Christopher Peterson, the question behind the reservoir’s continued existence is no longer a question of if Glen Canyon Dam should be taken down, or “decommissioned.” Rather, it’s a matter of when people will capitulate to reality and embrace Glen Canyon’s inevitable return. So take your pick between a span of three years or 29. Either way, thanks to continued demands for water and the best studies of weather patterns available, “dead pool” will eventually come to life, along with Glen Canyon. You can hear the confidence in Peterson’s voice loud and clear.
“Under this scenario, we’re saying that Glen Canyon is coming back,” Peterson said. “It’s giving our generation an incredible opportunity to see this piece of natural beauty once again.”
Not So Fast
But where Ingebretsen sees redemption and opportunity, others see validation. “The drought has illustrated the need for the lake,” says Paul Ostapuk, executive director of Friends of Lake Powell, a Page-based organization fiercely opposed to decommissioning the dam.
That’s an oft-repeated sentiment from the dam’s supporters: If it weren’t for Lake Powell Reservoir, we’d really be in trouble. The idea to drain the reservoir might still seem just as whacked as ever in the eyes of many people. While it’s still too soon to know if the moisture of the past few months will be little more than a mirage, or the beginning of the end of the drought, the question now has to be asked: Can we live without Lake Powell Reservoir?
To Ingebretsen, the dwindling reservoir is proof that drowning Glen Canyon was a bad idea from the start. In the mid-1990s, Ingebretsen picked up where radical environmentalists like those made famous in Edward Abbey’s legendary novel The Monkey Wrench Gang left off. Lake Powell had to go, he decided, and Glen Canyon had to be restored. Many old-time rafters who went through Glen Canyon in the 1950s and early 1960s, including Abbey, Wallace Stegner and Ingebretsen himself, a Boy Scout at the time, say the canyon rivals its more famous brother, the Grand Canyon, in beauty.
But Ingebretsen wasn’t interested in monkey wrenching. Instead, he wanted to find a way to drain Lake Powell Reservoir that was rooted in science and public process. Using a name that sounded more like an academic think tank than an environmental group with a radical agenda, Ingebretsen founded the Glen Canyon Institute for the sole purpose of draining Lake Powell Reservoir. Although no less of an icon of the environmental movement than Bower, who, as executive director of the Sierra Club at the time, called the building of Glen Canyon Dam the greatest disappointment of his life, the idea of removing the dam or otherwise draining the lake has remained controversial even within the environmental community. But thanks in no small part to the drought, the idea has gained a foothold in public consciousness.
In fact, the drought alone may accomplish what two generations of environmentalists have been unable to do. Ongoing research by scientists who study weather patterns and climatic indicators like ocean temperatures and tree rings suggest that the past five years might be more normal than the comparatively wet 20th century. Many of the same scientists also believe that the effects of global warming likely will mean a drier West in the future.
“Six months ago our argument would have been different. But now it’s drained. It’s gone. It will never fill again,” said a confident Ingebretsen from his U office on a recent overcast Sunday afternoon.
Ostapuk, an environmental engineer during the day who got involved in the debate after reading too many news articles he believed didn’t tell the truth about the lake, shrugs off such assertions. He said the reservoir is only doing what it was designed to do. “The West is prone to drought and Lake Powell is always going to be going up and down. That’s just the reality of the Colorado River.”
Rethinking the Compact
Although Glen Canyon Dam wasn’t completed until 1963 and the resulting reservoir didn’t fill until the late 1970s, Glen Canyon’s fate was largely sealed in 1922 when the seven states the Colorado River runs through signed the Colorado River Compact. The compact split the river between the upper basin states of Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah and the lower basin states of Arizona, Nevada and California. The compact became the foundation for the Law of the River, a series of state laws, agreements and court decisions hashed out in the years since that regulate virtually every drop in the river.
Hydrologic data in 1922 estimated the river’s average yearly flow at 16.4 million acre-feet. The compact allocated 7.5 million acre-feet a year to each basin, with the rest going to Mexico. (An acre-foot is 326,000 gallons, or enough water to cover an acre a foot deep). Glen Canyon Dam allowed the upper basin states to meet their requirements under the compact to the lower basin even in dry years. Water released from Lake Powell Reservoir helps keep Lake Mead full, ensuring that the faucets of 18 million people who depend on that lake for water won’t run dry. Glen Canyon Dam also gave the upper basin flexibility to tap into its 7.5 million acre-feet once the water was needed. In essence, Glen Canyon was drowned in order to create a giant bank account of water as a hedge against drought. The recreation the reservoir provides was little more than a side benefit. The hydroelectric power the dam generates is no more than a cash register that pays for the dam and environmental restoration efforts downstream.
The 1922 compact has stood for 82 years, but that doesn’t mean it’s not without its shortcomings, said University of Utah law professor Robert Adler. Shortcomings that Adler, who is writing a book on the water law surrounding the Colorado River, believes make a strong argument for rethinking the compact.
Perhaps the compact’s most fundamental flaw is that it overestimated the average annual flow of the river. A report released last summer by the U.S. Geological Service says the first part of the 20th century saw the highest runoff on the Colorado River in the last 450 years. The report estimated that between 1895 and 2003, the river’s average annual flow was actually 12.4 million acre-feet, 4 million acre-feet less than the compact is based upon.
The compact also barely acknowledged Mexico, and didn’t consider at all the rights of American Indian tribes and environmental issues. These last two in particular Adler calls “wild cards.” A complex lawsuit the Navajo Nation leveled against the Department of the Interior in 2003 might eventually give the tribe an allocation of Colorado River water that could reach upwards of 2 million to 3 million acre-feet. That alone could have massive implications up and down the Colorado.
The dam’s hedge against drought also comes with a heavy environmental price tag. The river’s usual red-brown color comes from enormous amounts of sediment that are the river’s lifeblood for everything from microorganisms to fish to plant life. But the water that comes out of Glen Canyon Dam is cold and clear. And it’s wreaking havoc on the Grand Canyon ecosystem, where native fish and bird species have been in decline for years. Before the dam was commissioned, fish relied on Glen Canyon’s slow, warm water and sediment as an ideal breeding ground.
Wade Graham, a Glen Canyon Institute trustee, points out the vital ecological link between Grand Canyon and the Glen Canyon of years past. “We need warm water and mud from Glen Canyon in order for the Grand Canyon to survive,” he said.
November’s artificial flood, in which the gates at Glen Canyon Dam were opened for four days, was an effort to improve native fish habitat and beaches downstream in the Grand Canyon. This fall’s wet weather meant tributaries to the Colorado, like the Paria River in Arizona were loaded with sediment. Officials at the Department of the Interior hoped the flush of water from Lake Powell would push nearly a million tons of sediment further downstream, creating sandbars and beaches along the way.
The Interior Department tried a similar flood in 1996 that appeared to be successful at first. But the beaches and sandbars that were created quickly eroded away, and the experiment eventually was considered a failure. This time the Interior Department is hoping shorter but more frequent floods, timed when there is heavy sediment in the river system, will do what the first flood did not.
Dave Wegner sees the floods as little more than short-term Band-Aids. Wegner spent 22 years as the Bureau of Reclamation’s lead scientist for the entire Colorado Plateau. Although he oversaw the 1996 flood, he was slowly becoming disillusioned with how the river was managed. He soon left the bureau and helped Ingebretsen put together the Glen Canyon Institute. He has sat on its board ever since.
Wegner compares efforts to restore the health of the Colorado River to efforts at restoring the salmon fisheries in the Pacific Northwest. “We know what the problems are. We know what to do. Scientifically, it’s a no-brainer,” he said. “We know the dams are depleting the salmon stocks. The question becomes, ‘Do the politicians and the public have the fortitude to look for sustainable solutions rather than Band-Aids?’”
Wegner agrees with Alder that part of the solution means rethinking the 1922 compact. Where the two men may disagree is on the issue of timing. Adler’s environmentalist credentials include sitting on the advisory board of the Friends of Great Salt Lake and he was one of the principle lawyers involved in the lawsuit that eventually stopped the Legacy Highway. He won’t say if he thinks the compact should be rewritten before any decisions are made about Lake Powell Reservoir. But he does think that draining the reservoir under the current compact could mean another dam will have to be built upstream.
“Either that, or reduce the demands on the river,” he added.
Wegner believes that reconsidering the compact is part of the debate over the dam. “Discussing the compact goes hand and hand with whether the dam makes sense or not.”
Not everyone, however, agrees there is a problem with the compact. “The compact is fine,” said Larry Anderson, director of the Utah Division of Water Resources. “I think the compact has worked just as it was intended.”
Like Adler, Anderson acknowledges that the upper basin states come out on the short end of the compact. But he points out that 82 years after the compact was signed, the upper basin states still aren’t using their full allocation. Utah’s share of water under the compact is just under 1.4 million acre-feet, but the state currently uses only about 1 million acre-feet.
“It’s hard to whine when we’re not using everything we’ve got,” Anderson said.
But Adler believes a five-year dry spell and the Southwest’s ongoing population boom over the past 30 years only add to the compact’s shortcomings, and that a reworking is only a matter of time. “The basin states and the federal government are going to realize that something has to give. The sooner we realize that we are using water in an unsustainable way, the sooner we are going to rethink the whole construct.”
Life Without Lake Powell Reservoir
Aside from the compact, the two sides in the debate have polished arguments. The Glen Canyon Institute argues that the dam is unnecessary as a water source, since the reservoir does not provide water to any customers except the 9,000 residents of Page and the nearby Navajo Generating Station. In other words, said Ingebretsen, the upper basin won’t lose any water because Lake Powell Reservoir essentially isn’t used as a water source now.
The energy supplied by the dam is less than 1 percent of the power to the Western Power Grid, and the loss could easily be made up by other sources, according to the group. Decommissioning the dam would also go a long way towards restoring the Grand Canyon ecosystem.
Wegner argues that decommissioning the dam is the only long-term solution. “If we’re going to protect the Grand Canyon, we need to look at living without Lake Powell.”
And then there is evaporation. An estimated 860,000 acre-feet evaporates off the lake every year. That’s water that could otherwise head downstream for use by the lower basin. “Enough water has evaporated off Lake Powell since the dam was built to provide Salt Lake City with water for 200 years,” said Ingebretsen.
Supporters of the dam counter that if it weren’t for the dam, Lake Mead might either be full of sediment or, in the case of an extended drought like the past five years, nearly dry. And besides, argues Ostapuk, when Lake Powell is full it only covers about 13 percent of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.
As for evaporation, the amount of water that Lake Powell loses amounts to between 2 percent to 3 percent a year. “Every time you store water, you have an operating loss. Glen Canyon is one of the best places to store water because it’s a narrow canyon, and it’s at a higher elevation,” says Ostapuk.
Under current drought conditions, and without Glen Canyon Dam, the Division of Water Resources’ Anderson said the upper basin states would probably be shutting down upstream users with junior water rights and sending all water to the lower basin to meet the requirements of the 1922 compact, which guarantees water to the lower basin but not the upper basin. “From that perspective Lake Powell is extremely critical,” said Anderson.
About the only thing the two sides agree on is the beauty of Glen Canyon. “We still have this wonderful mix of water and canyon,” and plenty of opportunities for recreation, said Ostapuk. “Glen Canyon is a very special place. I prefer it way more than the Grand Canyon.”
Again, armed with a new round of hydrology studies, Ingebretsen believes time is on his side and the side of everyone else who cherishes Glen Canyon’s return. “Lake Powell is useless. It has no meaning. To argue whether or not to drain the lake is silly at this point because it’s already mostly drained.”
That this is a silly argument might be the second thing Ingebretsen and the dam’s supporters agree on. As much as ever, many people scoff at the idea of there not being a Lake Powell Reservoir. In November, Bennett Raley, the Interior Department’s secretary for water and science, told USA Today, “Glen Canyon Dam is there. It’s not going anywhere. Periodic discussion about tearing it down or draining [Lake Powell] are fun for those that engage in that rhetoric, but that’s not the real world.”
“I think they’re serious about draining it,” says Anderson. “From my perspective, I think they’re wasting their time. The citizens of the West don’t support them.”
But in the Glen Canyon debate, “wasting time” and “real world” are relative terms. Hydrology numbers, climatology, and projected demand for water in the West all point to the inevitable day when the level of Lake Powell Reservoir will drop as the reemergence of Glen Canyon rises.
“The simple mathematics of water in the Colorado River is that Glen Canyon is coming back,” said Graham.
The Institute has even sent a letter to the National Park Service, putting the agency on notice that its management plan might want to anticipate that coming day, and soon.
Foolish talk? Consider what people have found ever since the reservoir’s water level began its precipitous drop. As the Institute’s Website points out, dropping water levels at the reservoir have exposed “forty miles of the Cataract Canyon, nearly a dozen new rapids and hundreds of miles of side canyons. … The recovery of these emerging canyons is occurring at an astonishing rate.”
The canyon’s bathtub ring, revealed as the reservoir drops, hasn’t proved nearly as durable as defenders of Lake Powell had predicted. It’s disappearing even as the Park Service cleans up trash left by boaters.
“We were told that the bathtub ring would last 1,000 years and that trash would be a problem. But what we’ve seen instead is the emergence of sprouts and saplings, animal prints, and some amphibians are back. The ability of the canyon to recover is instantaneous and powerful,” Graham said. “This place that was once condemned to death is very much full of life.”
Peterson concurs. “Opponents used to say, ‘It’s ruined, don’t worry about it.’ But it’s restoring itself very fast.”
Ingebretsen insists that officials up and down the Colorado are pondering life without Lake Powell Reservoir. He says the real turning point will come when Powell reaches “dead pool” and the hydroelectric pumps are shut off. “At that point people are really going to start to consider the value of the reservoir. When the pumps go off a lot of people and organizations will get on board,” he said.
Ten years from now Ingebretsen envisions either of two scenarios. The first is that the drought continues and the lake is essentially drained, maybe it will take two years, maybe six, and there will perhaps always be some kind of lake behind the dam, but at some point, Lake Powell Reservoir as we know it essentially won’t exist. In that case all of Western water use will change, he said. Or the lake begins to fill back up. “Then we go back to the old arguments. But even the old debate will change. It will be much easier.”
Meanwhile, he and his associates will be taking as many people as possible into the areas of Glen Canyon that were once flooded to show them what we’ve been missing. “Now the issue can’t be ignored,” he said. “We couldn’t have asked for a better scenario.”