Recreation in danger as Lake Powell plunges to all-time low

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A thick white strip of newly exposed rock faces stretches above the heads of boaters at Lake Powell, creating a stark contrast to the famous red desert terrain as their ships weave their way through narrow canyons that were once under the water.

It’s a stark reminder of the falling water level in the huge reservoir on the Utah-Arizona border. Last year he was over 15 meters taller. Today, the popular houseboat vacation destination is at an all-time low amid a climate change-fueled mega-drought engulfing the western United States.

At Lake Powell, the tents are tucked away along shores that haven’t seen water in years. Brightly colored jet skis fly across the water, passing kayakers, water skiers and fishermen under a scorching desert sun. Closed boat ramps have forced some barges to leave the lake, leaving tourists and businesses to scramble. A ramp is so far above the water that people have to carry kayaks and paddleboards up a steep cliff to reach the surface.

Houseboat rental companies have had to cancel reservations until August – one of their most popular months – after the National Park Service, which manages the lake, banned people from launching ships in mid- July.

At the popular main launch point of Wahweap Bay, the bottom of the concrete ramp has been extended with steel pipes so that boats can still access the lake, but that solution will only last a week or two, said the park service.

“It’s really sad that they allow such a beautiful, beautiful place to fall apart,” said Bob Reed, who runs the Up Lake Adventures tour company.

Lake Powell is the second largest reservoir in the United States, just behind Nevada’s Lake Mead, which also stores water from the Colorado River. Both are declining faster than expected, a serious concern for a seven-state region that depends on the river to supply water to 40 million people and a $ 5 billion-a-year agricultural industry.

They are part of several large bodies of water in the western United States that have reached record lows this summer, including Great Salt Lake in Utah. Lake Oroville in California is expected to hit an all-time low by the end of August, with more than 1,500 reservoirs in the state 50% below what they should be this time of year.

In 1983, the water in Lake Powell exceeded its maximum level of 3,700 feet (1,127 meters) and nearly passed the Glen Canyon Dam. The lake faces a new set of challenges, reaching a record low of 3,553 feet (1,082 meters) last week.

Government officials had to start releasing water from upstream sources last month to prevent the lake’s level from dropping so low it would have threatened the hydropower supplied by the dam.

This comes as less snow flows into the Colorado River and its tributaries, and warm temperatures dry out the ground and cause more water to evaporate from the river as it passes through the plagued western United States. Drought. Studies have linked the region’s more than 20-year-old mega-drought to man-made climate change.

Fluctuating water levels have long been a staple of Lake Powell, but National Park Service officials say usual forecasts were unable to predict how bad 2021 would be.

The finger pointing began as boaters, local officials and the park department debate what to do now.

“The park department didn’t plan,” said area owner Bill Schneider. “If it gets to the point where we’re so low that you can’t launch boats and you can’t find a solution to launch boats, why would you want to come to Lake Powell? “

The 53-year-old bought a retirement home in Page, Ariz., After completing 25 years of military service in February. He wanted to return to Wahweap Bay where he spent most of his childhood and teenage years fishing, water skiing and doing odd jobs around the lake. But after seeing how the lake has been managed, Schneider says he’s starting to regret it.

Officials say they have solutions for families and boaters who sometimes plan years ahead to explore the glassy waters that stretch into narrow red rock canyons and the tourism industry that depends on it. .

Once the severity of the drought became evident, federal officials began looking for options to allow low-water boat access, said William Shott, superintendent of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. , where Lake Powell is located. Park Service has discovered an old ramp on Wahweap Bay that will be built to accommodate smaller barges and motorboats.

Shott says he hopes the $ 3 million ramp can be completed by Labor Day weekend. The project is funded by the Parks Department and the Lake Aramark concessionaire.

The agency and officials in the town of Page, which focuses on lake tourism, plan to open another old asphalt ramp to allow access for smaller boats while the larger one is updated.

Tom Materna, who has been visiting Lake Powell for 20 years, launched the 65-foot (20-meter) time-share family barge a few hours before the main ramp closed, but had to cut his vacation short as water levels have risen. dropped in mid-July.

“They said not to come out of the Wahweap ramp anymore, so we were happy to get out of it,” the Los Angeles resident said. “Then the next day, I think or two days later, they called us and told us that all the launch and retrieval barges had to be off the lake. “

Page Mayor Bill Diak said the loss of boat access to the lake could have devastating financial consequences for the town of 7,500.

He said local leaders were “slow” to deal with falling water levels and limited access to boats, but was working more closely with park officials and concessionaires on solutions.

“We could have been a little more proactive on the planning… but we are moving in the right direction now by working together,” said Diak.

He stressed that the impact of climate change must be taken into account, noting that the American West could face much more pressing problems than access to the lake if the drought continues for 20 years.

A silver lining, Shott says, is that the park service can build boat launching ramps that are serviceable even during years of record drought. More than $ 8 million in other low-flow projects are also underway.

“Even if we had a crystal ball and saw that the levels of these lakes were going to drop that low, we couldn’t have prevented it anyway,” Shott said. “Having said that, we are now taking advantage of the low water.”

Troy Sherman, co-owner of a business leasing eco-friendly anchors from houseboats, said the marina housing Beach Bags Anchors closed shortly after launching his business in the spring of 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. It relaunched this year but had to cancel 95% of its bookings in July when the ramps were closed to barges.

“Until there is really a ramp access again to put barges on, my business is kind of on hold,” Sherman said. “But we will totally persevere; that’s what you should do.


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