Powell sinking to 29-year low
BY TODD GLASENAPP
PAGE -- A lot of white is showing around Lake Powell this summer, at the height of a four-year drought.
The white bathtub ring above the reservoir is growing by more than a tenth of an inch every day, and the reservoir has dropped more than 57 feet below its full pool of 3,700 feet elevation. If the trend continues, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is projecting the lake will record is lowest mark in 29 years by year's end.
The drop is causing lake visitors to adjust to potentially hazardous boating conditions, forcing the closure of boat launches and upping the ante on waste disposal in once-covered areas.
But beautiful sandy beaches are popping up everywhere. And it isn't raising alarms. The Glen Canyon Dam and nearby Navajo Generating Station will need a much larger loss of water before they're in trouble.
The bathtub ring is revealed after water recedes. Iron in the water bleaches the red Navajo sandstone.
The 186-mile-long lake straddling the Arizona-Utah line depends heavily on spring runoff from melting snow in the Colorado Rockies. The past few winters have produced below-average precipitation in the Colorado River watershed and Lake Powell is showing it.
This was the first year in Lake Powell's 39-year history that spring runoff didn't raise the lake by a single foot, said NGS meteorologist Paul Ostapuk.
The lake is getting only 18 percent of its normal average flow from the Colorado River, dam manager Ken Rice told a Page audience a few weeks ago. The 14 percent inflow of May reportedly set a record for that month.
Nearby Page has recorded just .37-inch of precipitation for the year and just .06 of it has fallen since February, according to the National Weather Service in Flagstaff. The last recorded rainfall was a brief shower June 3 that dropped two-hundredths of an inch.
Page averages 2.39 inches through June and 6.55 for the entire year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said.
Rice views the drought, which began in 1999, as just another phase in an unending cycle of dry and wet weather. The current drought merely demonstrates the importance of having the reservoir for water storage, he said in a presentation at the Carl Hayden Visitors Center on June 5.
NGS spokesman Ostapuk said the lake would have to fall another 160 feet from its current 3,642 feet before the coal-fired electric plant and the dam's power plant would be threatened. At Roosevelt Dam in the Valley, the Salt River Project last week had to shut down its hydroelectric generating plant due to low water.
"The critical lake elevation for both Glen Canyon Dam and NGS in regard to power generation is 3,490 feet," Ostapuk said. "Currently, Lake Powell has 16.4 million acre-feet of storage and is two-thirds full. A lake elevation of 3,490 feet represents 6.2 million acre-feet of water storage, roughly 25 percent full."
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation predicted earlier this month that the lake will fall to 3,620 feet by the end of the calendar year. The lake has not been measured at that mark since the spring of 1973, when it had yet to fill from the 1963 completion of the dam.
"Hydrologic conditions often change, however, and the actual end-of-the-year elevation of Lake Powell will depend, in large part, on weather conditions in the Colorado River Basin from now through the end of the year," the Bureau's Upper Colorado Region office said in a report posted on its Web site.
Releases into the Colorado River below the dam are being scheduled to meet the minimum objective release of 8.23 million acre-feet, BOR said. The releases are consistent with the requirements of the 1970 Criteria for Coordinated Long-Range Operation of Colorado River Reservoirs.
For the 3 to 4 million people who visit Glen Canyon National Recreation Area every year, lower levels mean boaters must take more care in navigating around obstacles. Rocks that were visible last year are now just under the surface.
"The cove they came to last year is going to be much different this year," said Glen Canyon spokesperson Marianne Karraker. "Those are the folks who really need to exercise caution. They can't assume that they know the lake this year."
Another unsettling dynamic looming in summers ahead is beach closures. In 1995, 12 beaches had to be closed because in periods of low water, campers left human or animal waste on beaches. When the lake rose, the waste was washed into the lake and high counts of the bacteria e. coli. turned up. The lake went up nearly 60 feet from 1991 to 1995.
Regulations require people camping overnight along the lake to carry portable toilets. If day users dispose waste, they must do it at least a quarter-mile above the high-water line.
The recreation area set up fee stations five years ago to raise money to help avoid beach closures. Some of the money has paid for floating restrooms and pumpout facilities in Warm Creek, Face Canyon, Rock Creek, Oak Canyon, Escalante River, The Rincon, Halls Creek Bay and Forgotten Canyon.
Low water has forced closure of the three-year-old boat launch at Antelope Point and has necessitated the use of four-wheel-drive vehicles at the launch at Hite Marina.
For swimmers, getting to the lake has become more of a chore. The lake is much further away, particularly at Lone Rock Beach, where a 4WD vehicle is needed to spare oneself a lengthy walk.
The most accessible spots are the swim beach near Wahweap Marina and the Coves past the Stateline Launch Ramp, Karraker said.
Cliff-jumping, particularly at the Coves, has been made much more adventuresome with the low water. A cliff that stood a dozen or more feet above the lake in times of high water is now 70 or 80 feet up.
Karraker and Glen Canyon law enforcement personnel strongly recommend against cliff jumping. A Colorado man died while doing it last summer, and a serious injury already has been attributed to cliff jumping this summer.
One positive side to the low water is the appearance of new beaches.
"Just looking in this area near Page, Antelope Island has yards and yards of beach available that we didn't see last year," Karraker said. "There certainly are more beaches available to people wishing to camp on the lake."
Glen Canyon seasonal ranger Sharron Malmquist said people at the visitors center are asking if there are places to camp. She said she tells them, "Yes, they are just in different places.