It’s Time to Drain Lake Powell

It’s Time to Drain Lake Powell
A view of the Glen Canyon Dam at Lake Powell on June 23, 2021 in Page, Arizona. (Photo: Justin Sullivan, Getty Images)

The date is Feb. 9, 1997, and the man responsible for one of the most egregious environmental follies in human history is sitting at a restaurant in Boyce, Virginia, with the leader of the movement seeking to undo his mistake. Of the hundreds of dams Floyd Dominy green lit during his decade running the Bureau of Reclamation, none are as loathed as his crown jewel, the Glen Canyon Dam. In 1963, Dominy erected the 216-metre tall monument to himself out of ego and concrete, deadening the Colorado River just upstream of the Grand Canyon, drowning more than 648 square kilometres in the heart of the Colorado Plateau, and inventing Lake Powell in the middle of a sun-baked desert.

After a couple of drinks, Dominy asked his dinner guest, Glen Canyon Institute founder Richard Ingebretsen, for an appraisal of the effort to drain Lake Powell. “It’s pretty serious, Mr. Dominy,” Ingebretsen recalled telling him, holding back the seething discontent of the broad coalition he represented. When Ingebretsen described his hypothetical plan to drill through the twin boreholes bestriding Glen Canyon dam, Dominy replied, “Well, you can’t do that. It is 91.44 m of reinforced concrete.” Then Dominy did something extraordinary — he lowered his glasses, pulled out a pen, and diagrammed precisely how he would do it on a cocktail napkin. A stunned Ingebretsen could hardly believe what was happening.

“This has never been done before,” Dominy said. “But I have been thinking about it, and it will work.”

Nearly 25 years later, the campaign to bypass Glen Canyon Dam has never been stronger. Now may seem like an odd time to make the case for draining the second-largest reservoir in the country, with the West in the depths of a megadrought unmatched since the Medieval Period. Tree ring cores and remote sensing data indicate a paucity of soil moisture unseen in at least 1,200 years. Lake Powell itself, along with reservoirs across the West, are at record lows, and climate change is set to exact an even more severe toll with rising temperatures killing the snowpack that feeds them, evaporating what are essentially ponds in the middle of the desert. Yet it is the drought itself that has revealed precisely why now is the moment to execute Dominy’s plan to bypass his dam, lower Lake Powell to river level, and restore Glen Canyon.

In the 58 years since Glen Canyon was flooded, memory of what was lost has mostly been forgotten. Submerged beneath the water lies a desert canyon like none other that stretches some 322 kilometres. The Colorado River was the wildest river in North America before it was arrested by the Bureau of Reclamation during the frenetic dam-building era last century. But in this section of the river, the current flowed calmly through fern-covered walls. “It was a kind of Eden,” as Elizabeth Kolbert described it in The New Yorker this summer, “more spectacular than the Grand Canyon and, at the same time, more peaceful. It was a fairy-tale maze of side canyons, and side canyons with their own side canyons, each one offering a different marvel.” Hundreds of ephemeral streams and tributaries joined the Colorado River here, each of them achingly abundant with riparian habitat and mind-bending geomorphology, where beavers and fish thrived beneath soaring rainbows of salmon-coloured rock arches.

Glen Canyon is a natural wonder that’s been wasting the past six decades as an unnecessary water storage facility for the Bureau of Reclamation. The last time Lake Powell was as low as it is today, Neil Armstrong had yet to set foot on the moon. But the climate crisis and decades of water overuse have sent Powell’s shoreline receding. The telltale bathtub ring of the previous high water mark isn’t the only sign of change; habitats that were swallowed by the reservoir have sprung back to life — baby cottonwood trees, canyons full of frogs and maidenhair ferns, birds, bees, bears, and beavers have reclaimed their old territory.

A tire sits on dry land in a section of Lake Powell that used to be underwater on June 24, 2021 in Lake Powell, Utah. (Photo: Justin Sullivan, Getty Images) A tire sits on dry land in a section of Lake Powell that used to be underwater on June 24, 2021 in Lake Powell, Utah. (Photo: Justin Sullivan, Getty Images)

Eric Balken, the executive director of the Glen Canyon Institute, has been taking people deep into the side canyons to witness the rebirth. “I just saw a spotted owl in one of the restoration zones, which is really surprising,” he told me over the phone. “If you mentally extrapolate that restoration to the rest of the canyon, you can imagine what it’s going to look like in the years to come. It’s fascinating.”

A “Mistake:” The Origins of Dominy’s Dam

Dominy’s dam, which the former House Interior Committee Chair Mo Udall as well as five-term Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater have called “the biggest mistake in their legislative careers,” killed what was the biological heart of the Colorado River. With more than 79 species of plants, 189 species of birds, and 34 species of mammals, it was an ecological marvel. The canyon was also home to a staggering array of Indigenous sites and artifacts dating back hundreds of years, all of them now underwater.

All that was traded away for the longest reservoir in the world, with approximately 3,219 km of coastline. Unfurled, Lake Powell’s shoreline would stretch from Maine to Florida. Its primary function? To temporarily detain water for metered release to replenish Lake Mead. As Kolbert put it, Dominy built a reservoir for a reservoir.

The redundant Glen Canyon Dam harnesses the Colorado River just upstream from Lee’s Ferry, an arbitrary point chosen to delineate “upper basin” states — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming — from “lower basin” states — Arizona, California, and Nevada. Separating the river into two jurisdictions is seen as one of the original sins for the world’s most litigated river. Ingebretsen said Lake Powell was born as a security measure, founded on the distrust between upper and lower basin states.

The division was created in 1922 as part of the Colorado River Compact, an agreement meant to settle interstate disputes over water rights by promising half of the river for each basin. By the 1940’s, however, it was clear that the Colorado’s flow had been grossly overestimated. As the lower basin states’ insatiable demand for water grew — particularly California, which by 1952 was consuming nearly 1 million acre feet more than its allocation — the upper basin’s sense of security from the compact agreement waned. Feeling squeezed between the compact’s stipulation to deliver 7.5 million acre feet a year to the significantly more populous and rapidly developing lower basin amid the river’s diminishing flows, the upper basin began to fear that if it didn’t use its apportionment, it would lose it.

The lower basin states had Hoover Dam and several others. Now, the upper basin states wanted a dam of their own to regain a sense of security. But by then, the Bureau of Reclamation was losing money on virtually every dam building project. In response, the bureau invented a scheme called “river-basin accounting” whereby an unprofitable dam-building project could be considered economically sound if the agency aggregated the revenues generated by all projects in any river basin. Multiple dams built for money-losing irrigation projects could, for example, be justified with a hydroelectric dam acting as a cash register to offset the losses.

To safeguard their water and metre supply sent downstream — and justify the construction of more irrigation projects — upper basin states felt a high arch dam above Lee’s Ferry would provide both. A dam at Glen Canyon would ensure the lower basin would not receive a drop more than it was allocated, preserve the opportunity for future development in the upper basin, and create the financial justification for the construction of even more dams.

Ironically, the upper basin states don’t actually pump water from Lake Powell, but they guard its storage jealously. By the time the Colorado River reaches the slack water of Lake Powell, it is already out of reach of the upper basin states, whose water comes from reservoirs built even further upstream.

“There’s only one reason that dam is there,” Ingebretsen told me in a phone call earlier this fall. “It’s there because of that fear that the lower basin will get the water.” At the heart of it, he may be right. Even the most convincing arguments for keeping Lake Powell full sound hollow when compared with the immense, innumerable benefits of lowering it.

A Sensible Start: Fill Lake Mead First

The procedure that Dominy drew on the napkin, once a fantasy of nature lovers, has been integrated into an increasingly pragmatic and realistic plan called Fill Mead First. The modest proposal was formally introduced by the Glen Canyon Institute in 2013. Balken said that in the eight mostly dry years since, climate change and ceaseless consumption have proven it to be the sensible course of action. The idea goes like this: there isn’t enough water to fill both Lake Mead and Lake Powell, so fill Mead first.

“People are taking a serious look at it now,” Balken told me. He said an intentional surplus at Lake Mead would save water, restore Glen Canyon, replenish nutrients and sediment for the Grand Canyon and its 11 endangered and threatened species, and still preserve Dominy’s dam as backup storage for epically wet years, which will still happen even as climate change dries out the West. Lower basin states would continue to withdraw water from downstream Lake Mead, as they currently do, and the gauge at Lee Ferry would continue to monitor water delivery from the upper basin states, whose supply would remain unaffected.

At this moment, Lake Powell is on life support. In an act of desperation this July, the Bureau of Reclamation emergency-released water from upstream reservoirs to raise the lake 1 metre, staunching the losses temporarily. In its two-year forecast published in September, the Bureau of Reclamation acknowledged the possibility of Lake Powell dropping below the minimum level needed for power production by next winter. The National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Centre declared a La Niña in October. That natural climate pattern increases the chances of a drier-than-normal winter in the Southwest, which would make Lake Powell’s descent below the minimum power pool threshold an even more plausible scenario.

A water shortage on the river was also declared this fall — incredibly, it’s the first-ever. Drought and climate change, often cited as the culprits of Colorado River problems, are only part of the story. Incorrect assumptions and bad calculus by last century’s development-driven leaders placed too much user demand on the river. The overestimations of the early 20th century mean that the current century’s Colorado River barely supplies water for 40 million people — and 5.5 million acres of reclaimed desert cropland, across seven states and Mexico — and rarely reaches its delta in the Gulf of California.

The megadrought that began at the start of the millennium has parched soil and vegetation and made surface water scarce. Indeed, the over-allocated, snowpack-dependent Colorado River is being further depleted by the warming climate — the U.S. Geological Survey found that there is 20% less flow today than there was 100 years ago. In absolute numbers, that means there’s nearly 3 million acre-feet less water than the 17.5 million acre-feet allocated as part of the complex compact governing the river, all with seven times the number of people depending on it.

The imbalance has left two desert bathtubs barely full and dwindling fast. Today, both Powell and Mead are about one-third full. Around 1.1 million acre-feet are lost to evaporation each year — the annual allocation for the entire state of Nevada — leaving an increasingly saline reservoir behind. Additional losses of as much as 12 million acre-feet from Lake Powell seeped into the Navajo Sandstone during the dam’s first 20 years, some of which scientists say might return to the river downstream. But by storing all of the water at Lake Mead, evaporation and seepage losses would be mitigated, saving around 50,000 acre-feet per year in a region where every drop counts.

Scientists and Colorado River managers don’t expect Mead or Powell to completely refill for decades, if ever. Glen Canyon Dam is still detaining water for the same reason most deadbeat dams are still standing — because the economic incentives have yet to force the issue. On the Colorado River, though, they are about to.

The Time Is Now

Every dam built has its moment that proves when it’s time for decommissioning has come. Eric Balken believes the tipping point for the conversation around Glen Canyon Dam would be the loss of power generation. Though hydroelectricity was not a primary motivation for its construction, the upper basin has come to rely on its cash register dam at Glen Canyon to fund its river management. The dam provides relatively little hydropower, just one quarter of the Hoover Dam. But losing hydropower means more than just losing electricity production. It would reduce the upper basin’s ability to deliver sufficient water downstream, which would be a violation of the Colorado River compact agreement, a death sentence for the sensitive Grand Canyon ecosystem, and an unacceptable outcome for all stakeholders involved.

If Powell drops below minimum power pool and a thoughtful plan like Fill Mead First is in place, however, it could be the beginning of renewed life on the Colorado River, instead of catastrophe. Filling Lake Mead first will not resolve the issue of allocation, but at the very least the plan would not lose water and would enable the states to meet their agreements when Lake Powell inevitably plunges below power pool.

All Eric Balken wants is for the states to at least consider it. “We’re trying to make the case that we need to start talking about this now, so we don’t get to a place where it just happens,” he said.

Opponents of bypassing Glen Canyon Dam cite the renewable power generation that would be lost, which they say would spike energy prices and deplete the hydro-powered funding that supports river management, including species protection. But a 2018 analysis by the Glen Canyon Institute concluded that if the dam stopped generating hydropower, it would have a negligible impact on the Western power grid. Electric rates would increase by an average of eight cents per month for residential customers of hydropower while tens of millions of dollars would be saved each year in taxpayer subsidies and water lost to system inefficiencies.

The Glen Canyon Dam seems less of an immovable object today than the Colorado River compact. The 1922 agreement was never a sustainable arrangement to begin with — but it was also never meant to be. When it was drawn up, just 6 million people relied on withdrawals from the river. As the co-founder of Living Rivers and Colorado Riverkeeper, John Weisheit, told me, the architects of that agreement didn’t intend it to be a forever document. It was simply the best that could be done at the time. It was supposed to be improved, but that never happened.

The maths never made sense and now the entire Southwest is hooked on a deficit model of water consumption. Drought and climate change are now exacerbating the flaws in the compact agreement. Runoff arrives earlier and is lower due to less precipitation and diminishing snowpack, and the trends are likely to worsen this century. At the same time, a 2013 study by the Bureau of Reclamation projected that the Colorado River-dependent population is expected to increase to between 49.3 million and 76.5 million by 2060, putting more pressure on a faltering system.

What About Page, Arizona?

One community stands to be most immediately impacted by draining Lake Powell: Page, Arizona. The city was intended to be a temporary encampment to support the construction of Dominy’s dam. Page stuck around, though, and is a tourist hub today complete with a verdant golf course set amidst the red rocks. The city is the sole entity pumping its water directly from the reservoir, though its population of 7,500 hardly needs access to the whole 27 million acre-feet, residents could still get their water from the Colorado River running freely. The greater concern for Page is its marina economy, which is completely dependent on Lake Powell’s 4 million annual visitors. But as makeshift boat ramps descend ever lower to meet the receding water and the endless wonders of Glen Canyon reemerge, people in Page are starting to imagine what their economy as a gateway to America’s newest spectacular natural area might look like.

Superintendent William Shott of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Rainbow Bridge National Monument said that he has seen an 80% increase in visitation since his tenure began in 2015, the majority of which has been land-based recreation. “In some ways, it’s an even better time to come right now because you are able to see things you haven’t seen,” Shott said on the Lake Powell Life podcast which aired August 4. “I think there’s a ton of opportunity here.”

The mayor of Page agrees, but he stopped short of endorsing the Fill Mead First plan. When Mayor Bill Diak answered my call, he was aboard a boat near the base of the dam. He said he could envision Page post-Lake Powell and is prepared to help his community thrive even in an era of dramatic shifts. “We’re going to change,” he told me confidently. “Is Page ready to do that? I think we are resilient.” While Diak sees the diminishing lake as “problematic” for his community, faulting decades of over-allocation of water compounded by drought and climate change, he understands the bigger picture.

“Glen Canyon Dam was a necessity at the time,” Diak said. “When I look back at it, it was progress, but we had no idea what progress was going to cost us in the future. And it has cost us.”

Diak believes we must learn from experience and find a palatable solution that does the most good for everyone involved. “Even if it is harmful to my community by losing an opportunity that we presently have, sometimes that opens a new opportunity and we always need to be looking in that direction.” Diak added that living in the Colorado River Basin means “learn[ing] to live within our means.”

End of an Era

Negotiations to reallocate who gets how much water from the river are currently underway, with a historic moment to redress the inequitable apportionment of the river. Daniel McCool, professor emeritus at the University of Utah and a water resource development and Native American water rights scholar, said the 1922 compact is an albatross on the necks of the entire basin.

“That era is over,” McCool said. “The time the compact served has come to an end. We are at a crisis point and we need a new compact, one based on percentages, contemporary values, and economic reality.” He said that the current agreement is hopelessly obsolete and that an entirely new management plan is needed — one that includes a free-flowing river through Glen Canyon.

McCool is part of an ongoing rejuvenation survey of what the canyon looks like today. Before the gates of Glen Canyon Dam closed, documentation of the thousands of archaeological sites from millenia of pre-Colombian habitation filled 14 volumes. Famed conservationist and river outfitter Ken Sleight, who called me from his ranch outside of Moab, described witnessing the heartbreaking inundation of Indigenous sites and artifacts tumbling into the rising water. McCool and others are cataloguing resurfaced artifacts after being underwater for six decades, calling it re-emergence science.

“We’ve never been presented with a situation like this where we, in effect, get some land back,” McCool said. “A diminished Lake Powell presents a splendid opportunity to rectify some of these historical injustices. We can have a just, fair, equitable, and inclusive collaborative process to decide what to do with Glen Canyon.”

Indigenous groups, who were displaced from their ancestral homeland, were left out of the original agreement and subsequent negotiations, resulting in severe and persistent water inequities. Returning Glen Canyon back to river level would be a step toward restorative justice for First Nations of the Colorado Plateau, said former Navajo Nation Council Delegate, Mark Maryboy. He was elected as the first Native American county commissioner in Utah history in 1986. “Draining the lake would begin the healing process for Native Americans,” Maryboy told me. “Now is the moment and the longer the delay, the more damage is done.”

Maryboy is hopeful that the first Native American Secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland, who is Laguna Pueblo, will do something about it. Two of the administrative bodies holding much of the power over what happens with the Glen Canyon, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Upper Colorado River Commission, which oversee the dam and water allocation respectively, declined to comment for this story.

The 29 tribes in the basin hold senior legal rights to roughly 20% of the water in the Colorado River. The tribes are in a position to play a significant role in balancing water demand and supply and otherwise shaping the future of the region if they are not excluded from the process. McCool said water leasing and marketing could be a sorely needed new source of income for tribal groups holding water rights.

If Not Now, When?

Carp surface at Dangling Rope Marina, reachable only by boat 69 km from Glen Canyon Dam, at Lake Powell on March 26, 2007 near Page, Arizona. (Photo: David McNew, Getty Images) Carp surface at Dangling Rope Marina, reachable only by boat 69 km from Glen Canyon Dam, at Lake Powell on March 26, 2007 near Page, Arizona. (Photo: David McNew, Getty Images)

Floyd Dominy worshipped dams so much so that he built 16 of them on his property in the Shenandoah Valley alone. In all his dam building, however, the typically unrepentant Dominy seemed to acknowledge the great folly of Glen Canyon. “I want to apologise to you,” Dominy said to Ingebretsen, before signing and dating the cocktail napkin sketch. “I want to apologise to you about the destruction of the Grand Canyon, we didn’t anticipate that,” he admitted, referring to the stranglehold his dam placed on the delicate downstream habitat in one of the nation’s most treasured national parks. “I also want to apologise to you about Cataract Canyon [a famous 23 km, or 23-kilometre, stretch of rapids beloved by river rafters]. I’m sorry.”

If Dominy had tried to build Glen Canyon Dam today, it would be dead in the water. Not only would it be illogical from a water governance standpoint, it’s unlikely that it would get through the environmental review process now required by the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970. The mad dam-building of the last century has given way to an era of dam-unbuilding, with most of the nation’s more than 1,200 dams dismantled in the past two decades and significant removals scheduled. While a full disassembly of the Glen Canyon Dam is too costly and impractical, allowing the water to go around it isn’t. Bypassing Glen Canyon was a hard argument to hear when Lake Powell was full, which it last was in 1999. Now that the lake is two-thirds empty, the climate has warmed, the precipitation has dried up, science has advanced, and social values have progressed, it is time to seriously consider the Fill Mead First proposal.

The ecological value of filling Mead first has been given insufficient weight by those who have the final say over its fate. As critics of the proposal focus on how little water filling Mead first would save, the reservoir shrinks toward dead pool. Meanwhile, the canyon ecosystems that have reemerged are proof life can return. The more time that passes before redress, the more difficult the task becomes, more than 2.3 million tons of sediment accumulate in Lake Powell daily.

The situation on the Colorado River might feel perilous at the moment, but it offers a chance to do the right thing for this and future generations. The collaborative relationship holding last century’s dam-obsessed water management framework together is fraying, creating an opportunity for a flexible new framework that McCool said must be led by the Secretary of the Interior.

Sacrifices by all those who depend on the Colorado River must be made. Lower basin states must make significant efforts toward lessening their dependence on distant water sources and pledge to decommission significant acreage of unsustainable agricultural land. It is time for states to do the hard thing and make deep changes. The rewilding of Glen Canyon would be a step toward a sustainable new framework, one that places greater value on river ecosystem health across the West and Indigenous rights.