‘It’s not doomsday yet’ for Lake Powell, but continuing drought poses litany of challenges

PAGE, Ariz. — Amid the reservoir’s record-low water levels, once-hidden structures have emerged from Lake Powell as the so-called mega-drought enters its 23rd year.

View of Lake Powell from atop Glen Canyon Dam. In the lower left corner, you may see the railroad tracks built for a concrete plant in the 1960s, Page, Ariz., June 10, 2022 | Photo by David Dudley, St. George News | Click on image to enlarge

Just below the dam, railroad tracks run along the canyon wall — the ghostly remains of a concrete batch plant that was created to construct the dam in the early 1960s.

“This is the first time they’ve been above water in 60 years,” said Gus Levy, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s deputy field division manager at Glen Canyon Dam.

They may not be visible for much longer. Beginning in May, the Bureau of Reclamation began the process of releasing 500,000 acre-feet of water from the Flaming Gorge. That water will flow from northern Utah down into Lake Powell, where it will collect and, officials hope, enable the Glen Canyon Dam to continue providing water and electricity for millions of people.

St. George News visited the dam and spoke with a variety of key players about the challenges facing the reservoir amid unprecedented drought in the West.

Gene Shawcroft

Gene Shawcroft is the general manager for Central Utah Water Conservancy District, the state’s largest water district. Shawcroft, who is also the Colorado River commissioner of Utah, earned degrees in engineering from Brigham Young University. He originally grew up on a farm in southern Colorado, where he enjoyed working and playing in the water.

“There are two elevations that we’re concerned about right now,” Shawcroft told St. George News, referring to Lake Powell’s water level. “The first is 3,525 feet; the second is 3,490 feet.” The latter is the point at which the turbines at Glen Canyon Dam, which supplies millions with power, would be turned off, an unprecedented situation.

A view of the Colorado River as it runs downstream from Glen Canyon Dam, Page, Ariz., June 10, 2022 | Photo by David Dudley, St. George News

“That hasn’t been done since water began flowing through the turbines in the 1960s,” he said.

To prevent that, Shawcroft said that various Upper Colorado River Basin states, which include Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico, are working together. While some water from smaller basins has been released, Shawcroft said that the 500,000 acre-feet of water flowing from Flaming Gorge is meant to replenish Lake Powell.

“The Bureau of Reclamation looks at snow pack, soil moisture and temperatures,” Shawcroft said. “Unfortunately, 2021-22 didn’t provide us with much runoff from snow pack. We had one of the warmest, driest Novembers on record. We had a great December, but March was horrible. It’s a moving target.”

Shawcroft said that with these conditions, the forecasted amount of runoff dropped by about 1 million acre-feet. Due to the complexities, and the seriousness of the situation, Shawcroft said that the Bureau of Reclamation is in the process of determining whether it’s approaching dangerous levels.

“It’s not doomsday yet,” Shawcroft added. “But we’re going to need to make some changes.”

Dr. John (Jack) Schmidt

Jack Schmidt is a professor as well as the Janet Quinney Lawson chair in Colorado River Studies at Utah State University. He’s researched the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon for over 30 years. Schmidt’s appraisal of the situation may feel grim to some, but it may also offer hope.

“We are the problem,” he told St. George News. “But we can also be the solution.”

The bathtub lines around Lake Powell, looking toward Glen Canyon Dam, Page, Ariz. | Photo by David Dudley, St. George News

One way people contribute to the problem is overuse of water in the face of the Colorado River’s dwindling water flows. The weather plays a crucial role, too.

“Four of the past five years have been bad,” Schmidt said. “In order to get back to a comfortable place, we’d need three consecutive winters like we had from 1983 to 86. Till then, we shouldn’t bet the farm on an inside draw of a straight flush.”

All signs point toward another scorching, arid summer.

“In which case,” Schmidt said, “we must reduce our usage in the Lower and Upper Basin states.”

What would that look like? In one example, CBS reported that Las Vegas is working to remove all nonfunctional grass, which experts say will save more than 10 billion gallons of water. The measures couldn’t come a moment too soon, as Lake Mead is currently only about 30% full. If Utahns can’t find a way to save more water, more extreme measures may need to be taken. The situation is already dire for the residents of Rio Verde Foothills, north of Scottsdale, Ariz., who may find the water to their new homes shut off within six months.

“If we don’t act fast,” Schmidt said, “we’re in for a litany of secondary impacts that will affect communities all the way down to Mexico.”

“The reality is that these conversations take a long time, and change comes slow,” he added. “But nature moves at its own speed.”

Gus Levy

Gus Levy joined the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation as a powerplant mechanic at the Glen Canyon Dam in September 2007. Since then, he’s worked as a safety specialist, a facility operations specialist, and is now the deputy field division manager. In short, he knows his way around the belly of the 710-foot beast that towers over the Colorado River.

Gus Levy, Page, Ariz., June 10, 2022 | Photo by David Dudley, St. George News

He’s been watching the water level and considering the situation.

“We’ve been in a drought since 2000,” he told St. George News. “For 20 years, we’ve delivered the same amount of water. I wonder what’s going to happen in the next five, 10 years.”

The Bureau of Reclamation website says that Lake Powell has 26.2 million acre-feet of water storage capacity.

“It serves as a ‘bank account’ of water that is drawn on in times of drought,” according to the website. “This stored water has made it possible to successfully weather extended dry periods by sustaining the needs of cities, industries and agriculture throughout the West.”

Pushing the bank account analogy a step further, Levy said we may be overextending our credit limit.

“We’ve been spending more than we make for more than 20 years,” he explained.

Transformers at the Glen Canyon Dam, Page, Ariz., June 10, 2022 | Photo by David Dudley, St. George News

Glen Canyon Powerplant generates about 5 billion kilowatt-hours of hydroelectric power annually. That electricity is distributed by the Western Area Power Administration to Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and Nebraska. Additionally, Glen Canyon Dam supplies water to Nevada, California, Arizona and Mexico.

“If this drought persists, a lot of people will be affected,” Levy said. “About 78% of that water goes to agriculture. Those farmers grow a lot of stuff for us and also for people back East.”

Eric Balken

Eric Balken is the executive director of the Glen Canyon Institute. He grew up in Salt Lake City and developed a connection to Utah’s mountains, rivers and deserts at a young age. He earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental science and geography from the University of Utah and accepted his current position in 2015.

In contrast to many other sources with whom St. George News spoke, Balken and the Glen Canyon Institute have a bold vision for the future.

A view of the Colorado River from Glen Canyon Dam, Page, Ariz., June 10, 2022 | Photo by David Dudley, St. George News

“The mission is to restore Glen Canyon and a free-flowing Colorado River through the Grand Canyon,” Balken said.

Balken remembers a time in the 1990s when Lake Powell was full.

“Moving water out of the reservoir seemed preposterous,” he said. “I think it was a really hard sell. And what changed the conversation, of course, was climate change and the supply and demand deficit.”

To call the situation a “drought” may be inaccurate.

“Brad Udall, among various climate scientists and researchers, say that this isn’t a temporary phenomenon,” Balken said. “They call it aridification, which is a much more dire and apocalyptic word to use.”

In the mid- to late-2000s, the impacts of climate change and the overuse of the river became apparent, Balken said.

“Since then, we’ve done a lot of work on the hydrology and economics, a legal analysis,” he said. “Now, we’re shifting our focus towards the ecosystem and ecological research and looking at the return of life in the canyons because the reservoir is only 25% full.”

Given that stance, it should come as no surprise that Balken and the Glen Canyon Institute oppose the proposed Lake Powell Pipeline, a 140-mile-long pipeline that would cross through parts of Utah and Arizona until it reaches Sand Hollow Reservoir with around 80,000 acre-feet of water for Washington County in Southern Utah.

The institute is not alone in its opposition to the pipeline. In September 2020, water officials from six states – Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Wyoming – asked the Interior Department to “refrain from issuing a Final Environmental Impact Statement of Record of Decision regarding the Lake Powell Pipeline.”

A graph compares average municipal per capita water use in Southern Utah versus other major metro areas in the West. | Image courtesy of Utah Rivers Council, St. George News

“We strongly oppose that pipeline,” Balken said.

Even with the recent conservation measures St. George officials put in place, Balken said that residents need to learn to live with less water.

“St. George still has some of the highest per capita water use in the in the West,” he said.

According to a report by Utah Rivers Council, St. George residents use about 302 gallons of water a day, more than twice the U.S. average of 138 gallons per day.

“You have to look at the projections of what’s happening on the Colorado River and ask yourself: Is this source of water reliable enough that we’re going to commit a multibillion dollar infrastructure project to it?” Balken said.

“The answer is no,” Balken added. “Building a pipeline into this dwindling resource, to pump water to one of the least water-efficient cities in the west, seems really irresponsible. As a Utah taxpayer, it frustrates me. As an environmentalist, it gives me great concern.”

The crux of the Lake Powell Pipeline question relies heavily on what it means for St. George. Elected officials recently warned that pausing the Pipeline may stall the city’s “growth economy,” which translates to about 30% of St. George’s economy.

“At some point, we will no longer be a growth economy,” Councilman Jimmie Hughes said during a City Council meeting March 11. “When do we start planning for that?”

Brock Belnap, an associate general manager at the Washington County Water Conservancy District, told St. George News in April that if the project doesn’t come to fruition, the community would need to make some tough decisions.

“If we only have the Virgin River Basin as our source of water, then our growing community will have to learn to do more within its existing supply,” Belnap said. “Because as more people come in, you’ll have to slice the pie (of available water) smaller.”

In which case, Councilman Gregg MacArthur made a bold prediction.

“We (would) have to convert from a growth economy to something else that remains viable,” he said.

Ed. note: This report is part of a series by St. George News examining conditions at Lake Powell as drought conditions persist in the region.

Read more:

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2022, all rights reserved.

Free News Delivery by Email

Would you like to have the day's news stories delivered right to your inbox every evening? Enter your email below to start!