With dropping reservoir levels, calls may be made on upstream
by Will Sands
|A sprinkler system goes unused Monday morning on
farm and east of Highway 550 and south of Durango. With
the continuing decline of levels in Lake Powell, there could be a downstream
call on water, which could affect local
irrigators and and those with junior water rights./Photo by Todd Newcomer.
Rapidly declining water levels at Lake
Powell have splashed over headlines throughout the nation this
summer. And lower levels in the country's second biggest reservoir
have spawned emotions ranging from pleasure in river runners to
panic from house boat owners. However, the reservoir's needs are
also threatening to move upstream. If levels continue to drop
sharply at Lake Powell, water usage in Durango and the entire San
Juan and Colorado River basins could be restricted.
Lake Powell was born in
1963 with the completion of the 710-foot Glen Canyon Dam. Over the
next 17 years, the desert sandstone of Glen Canyon was steadily
inundated with water, finally reaching "full pool" in 1980. At 27
million acre-feet, Lake Powell is second only to Lake Mead near Las
Vegas in size. And while nearly 3 million people visit Powell
annually for recreation, the reservoir was constructed principally
to provide water storage for states like Nevada and California.
Constructed as a "buffer,"Lake Powell has helped Colorado River
water users in upstream states meet their obligations to downstream
states and Mexico. It has been particularly essential during dry
A long-term forecast for the Colorado
While many are hopeful
that weather will reverse the impacts of drought in the West, one group
is confident that it’s too late. Living
Rivers is a conservation group based in Moab with a mission of decommissioning
Glen Canyon Dam and draining Lake Powell.
David Haskell, a policy director with the group, has argued that
Colorado River flows into Lake Powell have been steadily diminishing
over the last 15 years.
“Undisputable scientific data now point strongly to the fact that
Lake Powell has become a water-management liability, and the situation
is only going to get worse,” he has written.
Haskell notes that the average annual flow of the Colorado River and
its tributaries into Lake Powell was 12 million acre-feet a year up
until 1990. He says that the flow has dropped to 10 million acre-feet
during the last decade and that according to the Department of Energy,
the flow will be less than 7 million acre-feet by 2050.
Drought aside, Haskell states that upper and lower basin states and
Mexico are already using more water than is flowing in the river. He
says the upper basin states are now taking 5 million acre-feet of this
water and the lower basin states and Mexico are using 8.25 million.
Along with Powell losing a half-million acre-feet a year to evaporation,
he says that there is currently a deficit of 3.75 million acre-feet
“In the very short term, use of this water will delay the crises,
but there will not be enough water to fill the reservoir again,” Haskell
Haskell argues that Glen Canyon Dam should be done away with and future
storage efforts should focus on underground aquifers that eliminate
"The upper basin states
are supposed to deliver 75 million acre-feet of water downstream
every 10 years," said Chuck Wanner, water issues coordinator for
the San Juan Citizens Alliance. "If we're short and can't satisfy
our obligations and deliver, Lake Powell fills that need. In wet
years, Lake Powell goes up. In dry years, it goes down."
Although Lake Powell
took 17 years to fill, the last five years of widespread drought
have done much to diminish the body of water. Glen Canyon is now
stained by a "bath tub ring" 130 feet deep where the waters have
receded and left a white stain of mineral deposits on the
sandstone. This summer, officials watched as the reservoir's level
fell as much as 21 inches a week and launch ramps receded far from
Paul Ostapuk, a member
of the board of directors with the Friends of Lake Powell, noted,
"We have some inconveniences now. The media sometimes claims that
we're empty. That hurts us more than the reality."
However, Ostapuk and
Wanner agreed that a major inconvenience could be in store for the
entire region if levels continue to drop. Continued drought could
potentially diminish the reservoir levels to the point where it
could no longer fill the gap between upstream and
"If the drought
continues as it has, in two more years, the levels of Lake Powell
could be down to where we can't generate hydropower," Ostapuk said.
"That's a level nobody wants to see."
Ostapuk added that if it
drops beyond that level, a fundamental shift in western water usage
will have to occur. "The bottom line is that if there's no Lake
Powell, the upper basin is going to have to come up with more water
and deliver it downstream through the river," 4 he
Wanner noted that Lake
Powell's water rights have a priority date of 1922. In the case of
a downstream call, all junior water rights, whether agricultural or
municipal, would have to defer to the downstream.
"In a way, we think
we're removed but we're not," Wanner said. "We're on the Animas,
which leads to the San Juan, which dumps into Lake Powell. There
are quite a few water rights holders who would be called out. And
if it really came to a call on the river that lasted more than a
year, it'd be a big deal."
On the upside, Wanner
added that in the San Juan Basin, most of the large water rights
holders have priority dates that are senior to 1922. On the
municipal side, Jack Rogers, Durango public works director, said
that the City has investigated potential impacts on its drinking
water and is satisfied that it is on safe ground. "We think a call
on the city's water supply is very, very unlikely," he
remarked that the situation at Lake Powell is forcing people to
take a hard look at the realities of how water is used and where it
"Now that the drought is
hitting hard, people are realizing that the water they thought they
owned actually belongs to somebody else," he said.
All parties agreed that
the future of the drought is outside human hands. Steve Harris,
Southwest Colorado representative to the Colorado Water and Power
Authority, said that he isn't overly concerned about a downstream
"In my view, it's not
very likely," he said. "The drought won't continue forever, and
when it turns around, we'll have some wet years."
Wanner said that he
takes a grimmer view of Mother Nature's future offerings. "This
Lake Powell arrangement was based on some of the wettest years in
history," he said. "There's real concern that it's flawed. I heard
a recent report that stated that in the last 30 years, the climate
swings were much greater than in either of the prior two, 30-year
periods. That's pretty disturbing."
Whatever the weather
does, the entire water community is currently considering the
potential ramifications of an empty Lake Powell. There has been
discussion of limiting the amount of water made available to states
like Nevada and California. There is also the possibility that
transmountain diversions from the headwaters might be lightened,
and lawns and golf courses on Colorado's Front Range would go
"It's definitely on
everybody's radar screens," Harris said. "We're trying to sort out
how serious it is and what to do about it."
"It'll be a complex discussion, and it'll keep a lot of lawyers
happy for a lot of years."
For his part, Harris
said he would like to see a simpler solution. "It's going to be
very hard to get a handle on it," he said. "Hopefully, it will snow
this winter and we won't have to."