SOUTHERN UTAH – If you haven’t noticed, due to the driest years since Glen Canyon Dam was built, Glen Canyon is coming back to life, according to the Glen Canyon Institute, a nonprofit organization that has been working on restoring Glen Canyon and a free flowing Colorado River since 1996.
“This is the worst 14-year drought period in the last hundred years,” said Larry Wolkoviak, director of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Upper Colorado Region. According to Bureau of Reclamation’s figures, Lake Powell is less than 45 percent full. The once thriving Hite Marina sits dry with the free flowing Colorado River in the distance.
Eric Balken, programs coordinator for the Institute, gave a presentation at a recent Zion Canyon Natural History Association event in Springdale and said that if the weather patterns of the last few years hold, Glen Canyon will be restored to its former glory no matter what the policy of the government is.
Using pictures of slot canyons that had been under water for decades, Balken showed that a lot of the restoration has already happened. Balken said that the Institute had sponsored explorations of the newly exposed side canyons in Glen Canyon and, much to their surprise and delight, Glen Canyon is coming back much faster than they thought it would.
Balken’s main message was that we can do much better than that. In formal filings to the Bureau of Reclamation, the Institute has proposed a plan they call, “Fill Mead First.”
Earlier this year, the Bureau announced it was cutting water flow from Lake Powell to Lake Mead. Only 7.48 million acre-feet of water will be released from Lake Powell, which is projected to cause an 8-foot decline in water levels at Mead this year. Federal managers will also only allow so much water to be released so that hydro-electric power generation at Glen Canyon Dam can continue unhindered.
According to the Institute, trying to maintain two large reservoirs on the Colorado at partial capacity wastes water and creates problems.
One of the biggest problems is that, every year, Lake Powell loses water worth $225 million through leakage into the porous sandstone and evaporation. Concentrating the limited Colorado River water in just one reservoir would solve much of the problem and would restore much of Glen Canyon.
Christy Wedig, Glen Canyon Institute director, said: “Fill Mead First would recover up to 300,000 acre feet of Colorado River water to the system …. Any water releases from Glen Canyon Dam in excess of the 8.23 or 7.48 million acre-feet could be credited to the upper basin through administrative action. This credit could be drawn upon in lower flow years.”
If nothing is done and nature does essentially the same thing, no credit could be claimed by upper basin states, which includes Utah.
Wedig said that Utah and the other upper basin states could be required to deliver water to lower basin states under the terms of the 1922 Colorado River Compact, called a “compact call.” According to Wedig, “The upper basin has a fleeting moment of negotiating power with the lower basin. If water levels continue to decline, there is an increasing possibility of a compact call. Under this scenario, no upper basin diversions would be allowed until lower basin rights are met. The upper basin can use their current leverage to negotiate safeguards against a compact call.”
The claims the lower basin states have over the upper basin states regarding the Colorado River is one of the many items opponents of the proposed Lake Powell Pipeline point to as why that project may not be feasible in the long term. The Glen Canyon Institute stands with other groups that oppose the pipeline.
As for the Colorado River, Eric Millis, Deputy Director of the Utah Division of Water Resources, said the Bureau of Reclamation has mapped the river’s annual flow between 1490 and 1997 through a tree ring study. According to the data, he said the annual flow has been fairly consistent, even in lean years.
“Continued mismanagement of this crucial resource will lead to the ultimate collapse of the river’s ecological, recreational, and economic outputs,” Wedig said.
As an example, Wedig said Pat Mulroy, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, recently called for Federal Disaster Relief funds due to the impending drought. “Implementing Fill Mead First would eliminate the need for this assistance and save taxpayers money,” Wedig said.
The Glen Canyon Institute plan does not call for Lake Powell to be completely drained. Their current proposal claims to stabilize the lake at the minimum power pool level.
Wedig said this would “recover many of the landmarks throughout Glen Canyon, stabilize Lake Mead water supply and allow for power generation at Glen Canyon Dam.”
She also said the advantage of the proposal is that it could be done without renegotiating the Colorado River Compact.
St. George News Assistant Editor Mori Kessler contributed to the article.
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