As the sun slipped behind the canyon wall last Friday, I lingered at the bottom of a concrete boat ramp just outside Page, Arizona. I was there to study the disappearing Lake Powell.
We expect the sun to vanish. Not so the giant reservoirs of the Colorado River Basin. We are perplexed.
Earlier in the afternoon I had walked along and above Glen Canyon Dam. The dam was completed in 1963, its primary job being to store water at the direction of Colorado and the three other states in the upper Colorado River Basin. It took 20 years to fill and then stayed full, more or less, through the 20th century.
One year, 1983, it got too full. The winter had been snowy, but not incredibly so. Then came March — and April, May and even early June, sunshine scarce and the snow unrelenting. Vail and other ski areas that had closed reopened.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, operator of the dam, was caught by surprise. It should have released more water from Powell to roar down the Grand Canyon and into Lake Mead, the reservoir created by Hoover Dam, just outside of Las Vegas. As the snowmelt from Colorado surged through Utah, a catastrophe loomed. Plywood planks were erected along the rim of Glen Canyon Dam, to hold the water back. The dam survived, just barely.
Then came the 21st century. The winter and spring of 2002 were sobering, the Colorado River carrying less than a quarter of what was assumed to be average when these and the other dams of the 20th century were built and the compacts and other legal architecture that underpinned them were struck.
Other years since 2002 have been better, but the trend line is clear and troubling. Some call this a long-term drought, but that word implies a temporary condition. Others, with compelling scientific studies to cite, see a climate rapidly changing because of human-caused atmospheric pollution. Aridification, they say, describes what we have been seeing — and there’s no end in sight.
This shift underway was illustrated by 2020. The winter snows were productive in Aspen, Vail and Steamboat Springs, average or above, but the flow into Powell was worse than disappointing, less than 30% of average. You don’t replenish reservoirs when most of the melting snow disappears into the warming air or the drying soil.
Reservoir levels have dropped and then dropped more. Mead, the reservoir outside Las Vegas and the largest in the Colorado River Basin, was 36% full when I visited last week. The Powell I saw a day later was 28% full.
The boat ramp along the shores of Lake Powell told the story of decline far better than the semi-abstraction of water levels at Glen Canyon Dam. We had driven past the marina, with the stored houseboats, and then down the concrete ramp sloping toward the reservoir below. The ramp was about a football field in length and tilted at the angle of a beginners’ ski slope. At the bottom were barriers, then broken ground. Far below was the water.
A few days prior, water leaders from the seven basin states had met in Las Vegas for the annual Colorado River Water Users Association. They represented roughly 40 million people, most of whom live in cities outside the basin, including Denver, Los Angeles and Albuquerque. Also represented were the farmers on both sides of the Continental Divide in Colorado but also the Mojave Desert of Arizona and California. The latter deliver 80% of the nation’s vegetables during winter.
Water leaders recognize the need for changes. Much has already occurred. Enough? Those who have urged accelerated action have been proven right so far, and in the conference hallways of Las Vegas last week I saw their heads shake. The pace has quickened, they said, but not enough.
Still, there was a remarkable shift from the last in-person conference in 2019. At that conference, officials from the Trump administration spent an hour on the dais congratulating themselves and each other about a minor milepost of achievement. Adoption of a drought contingency plan.
This year, Tanya Trujillo, the Interior Department’s assistant secretary of water and science, stressed the need to focus on short-term emergency responses to the declines of Lake Powell. “We also need to be very real about the challenge of building long-term solutions in the basin,” she said.
In the past two years, Lake Powell’s surface elevation has declined 60 feet. Glass half fully or half empty? At this point, it’s far closer to empty. Then again, maybe it’ll snow until June next year.
This essay was modified to correct a misattribution in the next-to-last paragraph.
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