What will happen to Lake Powell?
Lake Powell extends from southern Utah to northern Arizona, a part of the Colorado River within the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. The Lake Powell water level have been low due to drought conditions, impacting recreational boating access, natural and cultural resources, drinking water wells, and visitation—Glen Canyon National Recreation Area’s primary funding source for visitor-facing projects.
Some would say the name “Lake Powell” is a misnomer. With over 90 side canyons, it doesn’t look like a lake at all. It’s also not technically a lake; it’s a reservoir formed by water from the Colorado River above the Glen Canyon Dam (GCD).
With shrinking water levels, what’s the fate of this world-class water sports destination that draws over 3 million visitors a year, supplies power to about 6 million households, and serves as an economic engine to the region—including gateway communities and more than 100 businesses serving park visitors?
Lake Powell is the second-largest reservoir in the United States behind Lake Mead, and Glen Canyon Dam is the second-highest dam in the US after Hoover Dam. Lake Powell started to fill on March 13, 1963, and was completed on June 22, 1980, with a then-capacity of more than 26 million acre-feet of water at an elevation of 3,700 feet above sea level.
In addition to acting as a spectacular recreational destination managed by the National Park Service, Lake Powell serves as an important “bank account” of water that can be drawn upon in dry years. The lake also provides water from the Colorado River to the upper-basin states of Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico, as well as the lower-basin states of Arizona, Nevada, and California. As southwestern states struggle with drought conditions, Lake Powell’s water storage becomes more critical.
Lake Powell’s water elevation fluctuates based on complex factors, including the volume of spring runoff from the mountains, water delivered to the lower basin, and water left over from the previous year. Each year from May-July, the water level increases due to spring runoff, followed by a decrease, leaving behind a visible ring along the lake’s shoreline.
"The Colorado River Basin is experiencing its 23rd year of drought and many years of low runoff conditions, which has resulted in low reservoir elevations. The reservoir system started the drought in [the year] 2000 at 95 percent full."
According to a Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) official, the total capacity of Lake Powell is 25,160,000 acre-feet, as determined by data collected in 2017 and 2018. As of August 29, 2022, the elevation of Lake Powell was at 3,352.29 feet, which is 26 percent of capacity. This is concerning, as the minimum power pool for hydropower production is at an elevation of 3,490 feet at Glen Canyon Dam, according to the BOR official.
Not surprisingly, the causes of the low Lake Powell water level include long-term drought, poor hydrology, and climate change. These factors result in hotter, drier conditions that cause low water in the system, the BOR official says.
“The Colorado River Basin is experiencing its 23rd year of drought and many years of low runoff conditions, which has resulted in low reservoir elevations. The reservoir system started the drought in [the year] 2000 at 95 percent full,” the official says.
Within the first five years of the drought, Lake Powell and Lake Mead declined to below 50 percent of capacity. Following two extremely dry periods of runoff in 2020 and 2021, the reservoirs have hit the lowest levels since they were originally filled.
“We’re seeing the combined effect of lower-than-average snowpack and drier-than-average soil conditions. Both are impacting reservoirs at an accelerated rate,” the official continues. “We are committed to continue to work collaboratively with our partners, tribes, and stakeholders to address the challenges of today and in the future.”
The BOR says problems associated with low water levels at Lake Powell include reduced hydropower production, increased water temperatures, and additional risks to the river’s ecosystem such as low dissolved oxygen rates just below Glen Canyon Dam, fish entrainment in the dam, and increased non-native fish species below the dam. Low water levels in the reservoir also pose concerns for recreational activities with a reduction of available boat ramps.
What happens if the dam is turned off? The BOR says declining releases from Glen Canyon Dam during the drought are one contributing factor to the decline in hydropower energy production. Another factor is decreasing reservoir elevations, or depth of water. The depth of water is important because the deeper the water is, the more force (or head) the water has, and the more energy can be produced per unit of water released—this is known as generating capacity and is measured in megawatts (MW).
Lake Powell reservoir elevations declined more than 150 feet from 2000 to 2021. This has resulted in a decrease in effective generation capacity of approximately 43 percent. If the dam is unable to produce hydropower, alternative energy sources will need to be sourced and utilized in the region. Additionally, the revenues from the sale of GCD hydropower provide funding for operations and maintenance of Colorado River Storage Project (CRSP) facilities, other project facilities, and several programs in the Colorado River Basin.
Revenues also fund Western Area Power Administration Operations and Maintenance, which includes significant transmission infrastructure and marketing functions, the BOR official says. Lake Powell and Glen Canyon Dam provide 79 percent of the total generating capacity of the CRSP units, which include Glen Canyon, Flaming Gorge, and Aspinall (the Navajo unit does not have a power plant).
“CRSP hydropower serves approximately 6 million customers in six states, mostly in rural and underserved communities,” the BOR official continues. Without hydropower from GCD, these customers would need to find other sources of electricity, which would likely cost more and not be as environmentally friendly or as ‘green’ as hydropower. Recipients of CRSP power also include tribal communities, universities, military installations, and more.”
"We are committed to continue to work collaboratively with our partners, tribes, and stakeholders to address the challenges of today and in the future.”
Tanya Trujillo, assistant secretary for water and science at the US Department of the Interior, says every sector in every state has a responsibility to ensure that water is used with maximum efficiency. “In order to avoid a catastrophic collapse of the Colorado River System and a future of uncertainty and conflict, water use in the Basin must be reduced,” she says. “The Interior Department is employing prompt and responsive actions and investments to ensure the entire Colorado River Basin can function and support all who rely on it. We are grateful for the hardworking public servants who have dedicated their lives to this work and who are passionate about the long-term sustainability of Basin states, tribes, and communities.”
Mary Plumb, the public information officer for the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, wants people to know that despite the low Lake Powell water level, the lake is still and will continue to be a world-class water sports destination.
The park’s August 5 newsletter discussed the 20-year drought. “As recently as 2019, Lake Powell had high water (3621.68 feet). Due to strong spring runoff and rapidly rising water, boaters were warned not to park too close to the shoreline so their vehicles would not be surrounded by water and need towing,” the newsletter reads. “Due to the drought and lack of a monsoon season in 2020, in 2021 Lake Powell dropped below 3525 feet to unprecedented low levels only previously seen when the reservoir was filling.”
Over the past two years, the park has been tirelessly responding to low water levels by moving marinas, docks, slips and walkways, and utility line chaseways. When possible, the park has taken advantage of low water conditions to extend launch ramps and continued to provide some lake access, according to the newsletter.
The BOR predicts a low water level of 3505.66 by March 2023. Lake Powell’s receding water levels and drought are expected to continue for at least five years. “All conventional methods of maintaining access have been exhausted, necessitating new ramp locations and/or extensive regrading of existing boat ramps to provide for low water access to Lake Powell,” the park’s newsletter states.
In the meantime, the park has been pursuing long-term solutions. In 2021, Jacobs Government Solutions was contracted to maintain visitor access to the public launch ramps at Bullfrog, Halls Crossing, Antelope Point, and a primitive launch and takeout ramp in the Hite area on the Colorado River.
In 2022, Lake Powell received $26 million in disaster supplemental funding. The park received two conceptual designs from Jacobs for the Bullfrog project and determined one was ideal for moving to the next design phase.
“Design work is proceeding for a North Lake Powell ramp that reaches elevation 3450 feet in the Stanton Creek area,” the Aug. 5th newsletter reports. “This includes extending the Stanton Creek Road to a new ramp parking lot and utilities. The Bullfrog Marina will likely also need to be moved to deeper water in the main channel. Barring unforeseen circumstances, the park believes this ramp will ensure sustainable, long-term recreation in North Lake Powell.”
Barring unforeseen circumstances, the Stateline Auxiliary Ramp near Page, AZ, will ensure sustainable, long-term recreation on South Lake Powell, Plumb says. “And, barring unforeseen circumstances, the park believes the proposed new Bullfrog Ramp at Stanton Creek will ensure sustainable, long-term recreation in North Lake Powell.”