Lake Powell is benefitting considerably from this year’s runoff following a strong snow year in the Rocky Mountains. The lake has risen 16 feet in the last month and is experiencing an inflow of 128% the average. While water levels are expected to continue to rise until the peak month of July, there is still a long way to go before the lake reaches full capacity.
“This year definitely helps,” said Bureau of Reclamation Public Affairs Officer Marlon Duke.
“But people need to keep in mind that when we came into this season Lake Powell was about 140 feet low. Even after this year, we’re going to be about 100 feet below full pool. So what we really need is three or four years just like this in a row.”
Lake Powell is currently stuck in the worst drought of its 56-year history. Its water levels and inflow have dropped significantly since the summer of 1999 — the last time Lake Powell was essentially full at 97% of capacity. The lake hit an all-time low in 2005 when its elevation sank to 3,555 feet, 145 feet below full pool.
The lake did experience a spike during the summer of 2010, when its levels got within 40 feet of full capacity. The drought has since continued, however, affecting not only Lake Powell but its sister reservoir Lake Mead as well.
“In 2000, when the drought started, Lake Powell and Lake Mead were both full,” Duke said. “Today Lake Powell is about 42% full and Lake Mead is even lower than that. Before we can start talking about whether or not the drought is over we need those reservoirs to be full again.”
Lake Mead was formed in 1935 and Lake Powell in 1963 after the completion of the Hoover and Glen Canyon dams, respectively, along the Colorado River. They were created in hopes to store and provide water for the Colorado River Basin states during times of drought. Lake Powell predominately serves the Upper Basin states of Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico, while Lake Mead provides for the Lower Basin states of Arizona, Nevada and Southern California.
While both man-made reservoirs have served their purpose throughout the current drought, experts are thankful for this year’s runoff after a particularly low year in 2018.
“We’re coming off of 2018 which was the second-driest year ever since we’ve been keeping records in the Basin,” Duke said. “We were worried because if we had another year like 2018 then that would have really put us in some trouble.”
The drought hasn’t been the only threat to the lake’s water levels in recent years. A couple different proposals and campaigns are calling for Lake Powell to be drained and to distribute its water to Lake Mead and elsewhere.
“Fill Mead First” is a campaign first started in 1996 to encourage conversation about restoring the dammed Glen Canyon to its natural state. As the drought continued, the campaign has gained traction, arguing that Lake Mead needs more water from Lake Powell to ensure big cities such as Las Vegas, Phoenix, Los Angeles and San Diego have enough. The campaign also argues that Lake Powell loses water through both rapid evaporation and water seeping into the porous sandstone walls.
BYU geology professor Gregory Carling talked about the potential benefits that could come from restoring Glen Canyon to what it once was.
“When the Glen Canyon Dam was built, it not only flooded one of the most beautiful canyons in the world but also thousands of archeological sites and side canyons,” Carling said. “Also, the way it is now with Lake Powell and Lake Mead half-full, both are losing lots of water through evaporation. So there probably is some sense in looking into what the benefits would be of draining Lake Powell and filling Lake Mead.”
Carling added, however, the proposal would have to go through a lengthy legislative process in order for anything to change.
“There are a lot of legal requirements and bureaucracy behind that, so it’s not just as easy as saying, ‘let’s drain one and fill up the other,'” Carling said. “You’d have to go back through a hundred years of the law of the river.”
Those opposing the “Fill Mead First” campaign argue that Lake Powell, one of the most popular boating and camping spots in Utah, supports the local economy through both recreation and tourism. The lake saw over 4 million visitors during each of the past two years for the first time in its history. Lake Powell supporters also argue the lake ensures a steady water supply to Lake Mead and the Lower Basin states.
The Lake Powell Pipeline is another proposal aimed at transferring water from Lake Powell to nearby Kane and Washington Counties in southern Utah. The proposed pipeline would run approximately 140 miles underground and deliver over 82,000 acre-feet of water per year to Washington County and 4,000 acre-feet of water per year to Kane County.
The proposal did take a hit last year when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ruled it would need greater oversight from other federal land agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Reclamation and the National Park Service. Officials expect a final decision to be made on the project by 2020.
Even amid the recent controversies experts hope the Colorado River Basin can take full advantage of its water resources, especially in times of drought. Representatives from all seven Colorado River Basin states recently met to sign drought contingency plans for the Upper and Lower Basins.
“This brings us one step closer to supporting agriculture and protecting the water supplies for 40 million people in the United States and Mexico,” said Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman. “Working together remains the best approach for all those who rely on the Colorado River.”