Thank Heaven We Have Lake Powell


By Paul Ostapuk

June 28, 2005


Page/Lake Powell - The sun slips behind a distant thunderstorm and shafts of filtered light pour out across the dry Colorado Plateau landscape. Below, on the surface of Lake Powell, a lone boat makes a slow, graceful arc and heads toward the new Antelope Point Marina on the Navajo Indian Reservation.


The lake is noticeably bigger these days. Spring runoff has been good and the lake is up 50 feet so far this year, reversing a five-year downward trend during extreme drought conditions. A drought that federal hydrologists have called the "driest, five consecutive years in a century of record keeping."


The drought prompted rumors of the lake's demise, but as I look out across the vastness of Lake Powell, I struggle to comprehend its immense nature. For even with the drought, the lake is still 465 feet deep at the dam, holds 12 million acre-feet of water in storage, and extends 160 miles uplake from Page.


Drought and water level fluctuations are nothing new for Lake Powell. In the 1990's a similar 5-year drought drew the lake down to within 10 feet of today's level. Three years later, Lake Powell was essentially full again. Such is the ebb and flow and the unpredictable nature of the Colorado River.


Lake Mead and Lake Powell represent the two big water canteens for the Colorado River system. Working in tandem, they hedge the seven Colorado River states and their growing populations against the specter of drought.


Tom Ryan, Bureau of Reclamation hydrologist acknowledges, "Let's put it this way. If we didn't have Lake Powell in place before we started this drought, Lake Mead would be virtually empty at this point. A lot of people would be in a world of hurt."


Lake Powell has broad political support in both Upper and Lower Colorado River basins. Although technically built for the Upper Basin, the state legislature in Arizona proactively passed a resolution several years ago urging Congress and the President to oppose any effort to breach Glen Canyon Dam. The Arizona resolution included statements by the Navajo Nation who proclaimed "removing Lake Powell would wreak disaster on the economic and social welfare of the Navajo Nation.” The Hopi Tribe echoed a similar sentiment indicating that officially they "do not believe that removing Glen Canyon a viable or realistic option."


How valuable are dams on the Colorado River? Besides providing drinking water, drought protection and recreation opportunities, the big dams pay for themselves by taking advantage of the free fall of water to spin turbines and create clean hydroelectric power. At Glen Canyon Dam this means nearly $90 million dollars of annual net revenue for the federal government, and an important source of low cost power to nearly 150 different non-profit energy cooperative distributors in the West. When you factor in all the economic spin-offs associated with reservoir systems, it's no wonder that economists calculate that large river systems with dams are 25 times more economically productive than rivers without them.


Today, the Colorado River system embodies a full spectrum of dams, National Parks, National Monuments, federal wilderness areas and National Recreation Areas. We raft the rivers, we hike the canyons, we drink the water, and we irrigate crops. Millions of people depend on our ability to manage water resources wisely. I’m delighted that Secretary Norton has spoken numerous times to the benefits of Lake Powell, as have all the Secretary's of the Interior before her.


However, groups like the Glen Canyon Institute, whose mission is to drain Lake Powell, offer a different reality for the West. Their vision is one of removing existing water infrastructures and preventing reservoirs from refilling once droughts deplete them. In their eyes, droughts are allies and people are a detriment. To quote Wade Graham, a trustee of Glen Canyon Institute, in reference to the recent low level of Lake Powell, the "Drought didn't drain the was the rising demand for water."    


A check of the facts, however, reveals a different story:  we can't blame the Upper Basin. Their annual consumptive use of water only increased from 4.0 to 4.4 million acre-feet during the drought. And we can't blame the Lower Basin either. California's new water management plan actually reduced their annual intake of Colorado River water down to 4.4 from 5.2 million acre-feet.


The real culprit here is the extreme nature of drought and a slow reluctance by federal managers to instigate shortage criteria for the Colorado River. Thank heaven we had water stored in Lake Powell and Lake Mead!


This year, normal conditions have returned and the level of Lake Powell has responded with a 50-foot rise. Additional good news is that the Bureau of Reclamation is predicting a further upward trend in Lake Powell through water year 2006. For environmental groups who want to drain Lake Powell, they might have forgotten that "normal" snowpack fills the lake.


Lake Powell is doing exactly what it was designed to do. The severity of the drought has, however, drawn the attention of federal water managers.  The Bureau of Reclamation has opened a public process for the development of new, low water, management strategies for Lake Powell and Lake Mead.    


In recent editorials, the Glen Canyon Institute denies that a Lake Powell comeback is possible. They claim that the initial filling of Lake Powell was a fluke event produced by the unlikely occurrence of back-to-back 100-year floods in the mid-1980's. Once again these are false statements. The truth is that Lake Powell filled slowly during drought conditions and actually reached full pool in 1980 - which was several years BEFORE the big floods of 1983 and 1984. So, is it a spreadsheet error or the political agenda of the Institute that prevents them from telling the truth?


And it's the same thing with bemoaning Lake Powell's three percent annual evaporative rate. The full story here is that every type of water or energy distribution system incurs some sort of operational loss. I'm sorry to report the "Holy Grail" and the magical "Free Lunch" simply don't exist. When environmental groups bemoan the evaporative losses at Lake Powell, they conveniently neglect to inform their audiences that moving water downstream to hotter and lower elevations only serves to increase the evaporative rate.


For example, the water stored in Lake Mead evaporates at a rate of five percent. When you store water in Tempe Town Lake, the evaporation losses increase to nearly 40 percent. So, should we drain these two lakes in order to save water? Of course not.


When water is put to consumptive use, it creates economic opportunities. Lake Mead provides water for drinking, power, recreation, and the irrigation of a million acres of farmland. Similarly, the City of Tempe, Arizona has benefited from the millions of dollars of development around its new lakefront property. Such is the reality of water in an arid landscape. It becomes an economic magnet that returns many times over the initial infrastructure investment.


It's with irony that we find ourselves in the worst drought of the past century with proposals to remove key water infrastructures like Glen Canyon Dam and Flaming Gorge. It's their political right to question the status quo. But it's also their religion.


Each drought seems to provide a new wrinkle to environmental lawsuits. During the last big drought in the 1990's, environmental groups filed a lawsuit and attempted to prevent the refilling of Lake Mead. The suit centered on the protection of non-native tamarisk trees, which supposedly had created valued new habitat for the Southwest Willow Flycatcher, an endangered bird. The Lake Mead lawsuit was appropriately denied. It is interesting that today a reverse argument is being made. This time around the environmentalists have declared that it's okay to flood Lake Mead in the name of draining Lake Powell. How quickly their agendas do change.


The reality is this: in the West we live in the constant specter of drought. In the past, great investments were made to build up our existing water infrastructures. Proposals to remove these infrastructures have no base of political support and are merely sideshows to the real issues of water management and future population growth.


Drought conditions on the Colorado River will come and go, but through it all Lake Powell is here to stay. Presently, the lake is on an upward trend and now stores 4 trillion gallons of water.


Is the drought over? No one knows for sure, but when you live out West, you quickly realize that droughts are never really 'over.' For water managers it's a continuous cycle of storing water during the wet years and carefully managing the water resource to survive the lean years ahead. That is why water storage projects are so very important in the West.


And that is why we have Lake Powell.


Friend of Lake Powell