Lake Powell woes could be felt locally
With dropping reservoir levels, calls may be made on upstream water rights

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 years.

"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 the water.

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 downstream.

"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 said.

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 said.

Regardless, Ostapuk 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 goes.

"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 call.

"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 dry.

"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."

Wanner speculated, "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."




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