This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2006, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
After six years of drought and a drop to water elevation levels not seen in decades, Lake Powell began refilling last year. And it will continue to rise this spring and summer, owing to a second consecutive year of close-to-normal snowmelt in the upper Colorado River Basin.
For those who recreate on the huge reservoir that sprawls across the Utah-Arizona border, this comes as happy news. Powell dropped to a record-low elevation of 3,555 feet just over a year ago - about 33 percent of capacity - and is forecast to reach 3,622 feet this summer when the runoff reaches its peak in July. That's a jump of nearly 70 feet, and to about half of what the reservoir can hold.
But for those who long for the day when Lake Powell will be replenished to the brim - about 3,700 feet - the wait could be a long one.
A nearly finalized agreement between the seven Colorado River Basin states regarding future management of the river calls for the joint, coordinated operation of Lake Powell in the upper basin and its sister reservoir, Lake Mead, downstream in the lower basin. The thrust of the idea is to ensure, as much as possible, that neither reservoir suffers at the expense of the other during future dry periods.
The upside: Federal and state water officials believe that, barring a hydrological catastrophe, such a coordinated approach will prevent Powell from draining to the depths it reached during the drought. On the other hand, the deal - which probably will be incorporated into an ongoing federal environmental study of drought conditions on the Colorado River - will in most years prevent Powell from refilling to its historical high-water mark.
"This agreement really puts a cap on the reservoir unless we have some gangbuster [water] years," says Jack Schmidt, an aquatic, watershed and earth resources professor at Utah State University who specializes in Colorado River issues.
Water officials don't like the word "cap," but acknowledge that a less-than-full Powell will become the rule and a filled reservoir the exception under the new agreement.
"The first thing you have to remember is that reservoirs aren't meant to be full all the time," says Larry Anderson, the just-retired director of Utah's Division of Water Resources. "The second thing is, the upper basin still hasn't developed all of its water. As it does, there will be a greater drain on the reservoir.
"But now," he adds, "as we jointly manage these reservoirs, we won't run into the problem of one being too high and one being too low. That will protect the water users first and foremost, and recreation and hydropower."
Lake Powell is a hugely popular regional tourist destination, the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area drawing nearly 2 million visitors annually, largely for boating among the parts of the redrock canyons that rise above the water. The drowning of Glen Canyon, however, has been the long lament of American wilderness advocates who say the dam was not needed for water storage and who mourn the loss of one of the most beautiful and spectacular river canyons on Earth.
Under the terms of the recent agreement, when Powell's water level is up and Mead's is low, upper basin officials will have the discretion to release extra water to the lower basin, beyond the annual 8.23 million acre-feet they are committed to provide. Conversely, lower basin users will accept less than that amount if Mead is up and Powell is low.
Anderson says that extensive computer modeling established that 3,570 feet was Powell's baseline elevation for maintaining recreation opportunities - which translates into a huge chunk of the economy for southern Utah and northern Arizona.
Under the new management criteria, Bureau of Reclamation officials expect that Powell's median elevation will hover between 3,630 and 3,640 feet over the next decade. That's still 60 to 70 feet below the reservoir's full line, but still plenty of water for boaters to launch their craft and for marinas to operate.
"In the past few years, during the drought, we made a lot of effort to ensure the public had access to the reservoir," says Kevin Schneider, management assistant for Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. "We extended the launch ramps and made sure the [navigation] buoys were in the right places. The reservoir is designed to go up and down. Our management is also designed to adapt. Regardless of what the elevation is, the public will have the opportunity to enjoy the park."
Not everybody agrees with such optimistic assessments. Environmental groups clamoring for the decommissioning of Glen Canyon Dam and draining of Lake Powell say federal and state officials are ignoring long-term historical trends - at their peril.
"They're concentrating on a historic record based upon the 20th century. But those who study tree rings call it the wettest century in 1,200 years," says Jon Weisheit, conservation director of the Moab-based Living Rivers organization. "What we've lived through has been an anomaly. The whole thing is based on bad science, and this new agreement just basically maintains the status quo. They're ignoring the good work that's being done by climatologists, something they could use and benefit from."
Richard Ingebretsen, founder of the Glen Canyon Institute, a group that advocates draining Lake Powell to uncover the lost Glen Canyon, said that at the Bureau of Reclamation's projected median elevations, many of the side canyons, including much of the Escalante River, will be above water.
"A lot of the side canyons in the upper stretches will be out of water," he said. "Almost all of Cataract Canyon."
Ingebretsen agrees it is inevitable that upper basin states will develop more of their Colorado River allotment - Utah's planned Lake Powell pipeline being a prime example. But in addition, he predicts that lower basin states will want to buy more water and said that projections show as much as a 30 percent reduction in the flow of the river because of global warning.
"Lake Powell is going to go lower and lower," said Ingebretsen.
At the other end of the spectrum are those who believe not only will the new agreement stabilize Lake Powell's water levels, it will eventually top out again - and sooner rather than later.
"The seven basin states have modeled the heck out of this. With good hydrology, with a series of good water years, I think Powell will fill up again in the future," says Don Ostler of the Upper Colorado River Commission. "But the bottom line is, this deal will allow Powell to fare better during the droughts."
And that, USU professor Schmidt says, is the central point of the proposed joint operations of the two reservoirs.
"The important thing that the public needs to understand is that the elevations of Lake Powell are only partially determined by nature and droughts," he says. "They will be determined most fundamentally by human decisions."