This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2005, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
How low can Lake Powell go? It's at rock bottom right now.
A wet autumn, followed by an even wetter winter and what now looks to be a fairly moist spring are coming together to pull the lake level up for the first time in five years. And not just a little.
Officials at the Bureau of Reclamation - which manages Glen Canyon Dam - predict that Powell will rise between 45 and 50 feet this spring and summer. That's still about 100 feet below the reservoir's high water mark, but nevertheless marks a pretty substantial climb after the worst drought cycle the bureau has catalogued since it began keeping records on the Colorado River nearly a century ago.
"Right now, we're forecasting about 101 percent of normal in terms of precipitation," Bureau of Reclamation spokesman Barry Wirth said Thursday. "Anything we get from here on out will be a bonus."
Even average precipitation is notable, because Powell hasn't had anything even resembling the norm since the last century. In 2000, precipitation on the upper portion of the Colorado River Basin - which feeds the reservoir - was 62 percent of normal. In 2001 it was 59 percent, 25 percent in 2002 and 51 percent in 2003 and 2004. In that respect, 2005 marks a dramatic swing.
Practically speaking, that 45- to 50-foot climb in Powell's water level translates into about 8 million acre-feet of water. That's on top of the 8.1 million acre-feet of usable water already sitting in the reservoir.
That latter number will change, of course, as the bureau begins releasing water to Lake Mead and water users along the lower Colorado. But with the spring runoff, it is expected that Powell's water level will climb from its current elevation of 3,557 feet to just over 3,600 feet. The reservoir's capacity elevation is 3,700 feet.
"The projected inflow is about average, but because the lake is so low, it's going to go up a ways," said Larry Anderson, director of the state Division of Water Resources.
Wirth says he expects the reservoir to bottom out in early April and reach its runoff peak in mid-July.
For at least some, though, the lake's rising water level will be a mixed blessing. The drought, combined with the yearly drawdowns of Powell mandated by the Colorado River Compact, has revealed a bounty of magnificent rock formations and American Indian art and artifacts in Glen Canyon that have been submerged since the early 1960s.
Now, an environmental group is asking that the increased runoff projected for Powell be shipped down to Lake Mead so these canyon jewels can be appreciated once again.
"What we're talking about are places like Cathedral in the Desert, that have come back," said Chris Peterson, executive director of the Salt Lake City-based Glen Canyon Institute. "We say there's enough room in Lake Mead to send that 45 feet down there and protect these places. What's going to happen is they're going to be overtaken in the spring, then they'll come back in the fall when the water level goes down again.
"Let the water flow through Glen Canyon and don't flood these places again," he continued. "They don't need to go back under water."
Wirth says flatly that the proposal won't fly.
"We're going to operate Lake Powell as it is intended to be operated, as it has been operated in the past," he said. "The water in Lake Powell is held as part of the upper Colorado River Basin's obligation to the lower basin [under the Colorado Compact]. When we have above-average precipitation, that's when we refill the bank in anticipation of the next drought."
In fact, Wirth argues that the five-year drought is proof positive that Powell, Mead and the Colorado River Compact are working.
"Yes, Lake Powell went down. Way down. It got down to a percentage in the mid-30s as far as capacity goes," he said. "But the Colorado River system still was at half its capacity in terms of overall storage. So the system worked, through the worst five years ever recorded. We're proud of that."