As water managers across the Colorado River basin scramble to slow falling water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead, a coalition of groups supporting motorized recreation at the reservoir is calling for even deeper water cuts to boost the reservoir.
Revitalizing reservoir recreation at Lake Powell may require a 30% reduction in basin-wide water use, or nearly 4 million acre-feet of water beginning next year, according to a report released Wednesday by the BlueRibbon Coalition and PowellHeadz.
All but two boat ramps along Lake Powell’s 180-mile length are currently closed, and the ramp at Utah’s Bullfrog Marina, which was extended last year due to low tides, could close as early as September, according to the national park service.
John Rickenbach, a California-based environmental consultant who authored the report for the Fill Lake Powell campaign, said that water levels in Lake Powell must be stabilized to protect hydroelectric power generation, recreation and water supplies.
The Colorado River drainage basin is currently experiencing a 22-year mega-drought linked to climate change, and water use has exceeded the amount of water available in the river during that time.
“Unless everyone is making big cuts,” Rickenbach said, “then you just don’t have a system for the FBI to operate in [of Reclamation] can do things right and for the benefit of all.”
The advocacy groups supporting the campaign are pushing to fill Lake Powell to an elevation of 3,588 feet in five years, a level at which most of the park’s recreational facilities and boat ramps would be operational. The reservoir is currently at 3,534 feet and could drop below 3,500 feet by next year, threatening hydroelectric power generation at Glen Canyon Dam.
Rickenbach’s analysis shows that even under average winter snowpack and runoff conditions — which numerous climate models say are becoming increasingly unlikely — unprecedented reductions in water use would be required to meet the coalition’s goal.
If near-term runoff is closer to the 21st century average, which is down almost 20% compared to the previous century, it would be necessary to reduce basin water use by 30% for the next to serve Lake Powell to target group level two years and 25% thereafter. If reductions don’t start until 2024, the proposal could become much more difficult to implement.
The Bureau of Reclamation has found that cuts of a similar magnitude to those in the Fill Lake Powell report need to be planned for. The federal agency gave river basin states until Monday, August 15 to submit plans to reduce water use by 2 to 4 million acre-feet, or 16% to 32% of current use.
But with 40 million people across seven states, 30 Native American tribes and Mexico dependent on the water of the Colorado River, asking users to make additional cuts to protect houseboating on Lake Powell is a big plea.
“I think this report shows why we need to act now,” said Dan Beard, who served as commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner in the Clinton administration and has been critical of the agency.
Beard said the report highlights the difficulty of managing both Lake Powell and Lake Mead under mega-drought conditions.
“I congratulate you on your analysis,” Beard said, “but this report clearly shows how difficult it will be politically and economically—impossible as far as I’m concerned—to artificially shore up Lake Powell.” We need to go in a different direction, lowering the level of Lake Powell, abandoning Glen Canyon Dam and saving Lake Mead.”
Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the United States, generates more hydroelectric power than Lake Powell, attracts more visitors each year, and can store more water.
Lake Mead’s water supply needs far exceed those of Lake Powell, Beard said.
Rickenbach said his report looked at stabilizing levels in both Lake Mead and Lake Powell, and he dismissed calls to modify the dam to restore Glen Canyon, a long-standing appeal by some environmentalists.
“It would be a great thing if there had never been a Glen Canyon Dam,” Rickenbach said, “but because there’s a Glen Canyon Dam, and it’s been around for almost 60 years, and people rely on it on it – millions of people, for example, for many reasons – that, I think, is the baseline you start with before you go in any other direction.”
Lake Powell generated $420 million in economic activity in 2019 when the April reservoir was 100 feet higher than this year’s low. Visitor numbers have fallen with water levels, falling from 4.2 million visitors in 2019 to 3.1 million in 2021, but a park services study found economic activity fell only slightly to $410 million last year.
Farmers in Yuma, Ariz., by comparison, have proposed paying $1,500 per acre-foot for water they don’t use to protect reservoirs, the LA Times reports. By that metric, 4 million acre-feet of cuts would cost $6 billion.
And waterfront recreation isn’t the only economic driver in the Lake Powell area. In a press release last week, the park service said that onshore recreation in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area has “increased exponentially” in recent years, including in the free-flowing section of the Colorado River below Glen Canyon Dam.
The Bureau of Reclamation and water managers throughout the basin have discussed the need to maintain Lake Powell at an elevation of 3,490 feet above the hydroelectric generation limit and have developed guidelines for a target elevation of 3,525 feet.
The park service announced last week that it was reviewing a $26 million plan to move boat ramps and marinas in Bullfrog to a lower part of the reservoir, allowing them to be used up to 3,450 feet. The only ramp currently open at the southern end of the reservoir near Page, Arizona, can be extended to an elevation of 3,490 feet, at which point hydroelectric generation would cease.