Dry boat ramps, exposed rocks at Lake Powell reveal the cost of Colorado River drought

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GLEN CANYON NATIONAL RECREATION AREA — A small bucket loader scraped Wahweap Bay's expanding strip of red mud and gravel, its operator smoothing the shoreline where concrete workers were busy chasing a lake in retreat.

To the left, where the bay had long offered kayakers and water skiers a loop around Lone Rock, the monumental slab now rose from dust flats instead of from flat water. To the right, in the channel that leads to Glen Canyon Dam and the Colorado River's sunken bed, formerly submerged islands and peninsulas mapped out a warming climate's continuing transformation of one of America's great water stores and pleasure grounds.

A desert flooded by impounded waters in the last century has visibly reasserted itself in this one.

On this February day, the earth movers and concrete workers prepared to harden the latest extension where this spring fun seekers will queue up on Lake Powell's boat ramp.

That’s ramp, not ramps, on a reservoir that stretches about 180 miles upriver into Utah and usually offers boaters a choice of at least eight put-ins.

Two decades of aridification and spiraling water demands already had exposed more than 120 feet of Glen Canyon Dam concrete before the last year sapped another 45 feet. That plunge caused the National Park Service to press the concrete crew into action so at least one access for speedboats and houseboats would remain as the season warms to life in March. It's doing so at a once-submerged and long-forgotten ramp, the only one with immediate access to the shore.

But continued shrinkage would imperil much more than a boating season. From the hydropower plant at the dam to threatened fish species downstream in Grand Canyon to farms and other water users in seven states and Mexico, Lake Powell's decline now complicates life in the West.

“We’re viewing this as a crisis,” Glen Canyon Superintendent William Shott said.

Fall 2021 visitation declined precipitously with the water, he noted. He hoped the inconvenience and fears of ramp crowding would not turn away so many boaters and vacationers that houseboat service providers and other Page, Arizona, businesses will suffer this season. “These are my neighbors, right?”

'It's going to be a shock'

The river and its reservoir have experienced the Southwest’s driest multidecade “megadrought” in at least 1,200 years, according to a study led by UCLA researchers. Such aridification would likely take more than a single wet year to reverse, according to lead author Park Williams. That study follows a number of others in recent years showing that rising temperatures put more demand on the region’s water, worsening the effects of poor precipitation.

Second only to Lake Mead among American freshwater reservoirs, Lake Powell was brimming when the drought began around the turn of this century. Today it’s about a quarter full. The extent of last year’s plunge surprised park managers, and for about a month the businesses that clean, supply and launch houseboats for vacationers had nowhere to launch them.

At Glen Canyon, the park’s enabling legislation specifically mandates prioritization of lake recreation, and Shott is planning to restore some services across the reservoir, starting immediately with a $5 million investment to deepen and upgrade drinking water wells that are starting to dry up.

Nonetheless, many of the millions who visit may be surprised to see lines on the ramp, or new rocky terrain jutting up from the former depths.

“It’s going to be a shock,” Shott said.

Low water has stranded the dock at Rainbow Bridge, a neighboring rock formation and national monument that most visitors access by boats on Lake Powell. Boaters now must visit at their own risk, and park concessionaire Aramark won’t be able to conduct boat tours to Rainbow Bridge this summer.

Rainbow Bridge had attracted more than 100,000 visitors a year prior to the pandemic, but dropped below 4,000 in 2020 and 2021, according to Park Service records. A spokesman for Aramark did not respond to a question about how many of them participated in the boat tours, but said in an email that low water has "not impacted boating recreation or the overall experience at the lake" and that "Lake Powell is open for business."

Some who rely on the lake for their living are starting to imagine the close of business. The father-son team of McNabb Fishing Guide Service, the reservoir’s busiest sportfishing operation, fear their decades on the water may be waning.

“It’s bittersweet, (because) we’re getting to see new areas” of the formerly submerged Glen Canyon, the younger guide, Paul McNabb, said. But, “I think it’s the beginning of the end.”

Guides Paul McNabb (right) and his dad Mike McNabb fish for striped bass on Feb. 2, 2022, in Antelope Canyon on Lake Powell, near Page.
Guides Paul McNabb (right) and his dad Mike McNabb fish for striped bass on Feb. 2, 2022, in Antelope Canyon on Lake Powell, near Page.

A different lake for boaters, anglers

As he prepares to go from guiding for his dad, Mike McNabb, to taking over the business, Paul McNabb thinks Powell’s continued draining could doom the striped bass fishery that attracts so many anglers. Along with smallmouth bass and the occasional walleye — their coveted “unicorns” or “steaks of the lake” — these introduced sportfish have enabled fast action for their clients in the 20 years since the elder McNabb retired from teaching physical and driver's education and went full-time into guiding.

At the current rate, Paul fears, the reservoir could vanish in this decade, leaving only the river that it first swallowed after dam construction in the 1960s. (Government water managers aren't predicting that, but such an eventuality would require costly alterations in or around the dam’s 300-foot concrete base to allow water to pass below the current intakes.)

Still, Paul intends to press on with guiding for as long as possible. He loves the work, he said, and meets fascinating people from around the world.

“Such a beautiful lake,” he said during an early-February boat ride south through the increasingly narrow narrows that connect the newly extended Stateline Auxiliary Ramp in Wahweap Bay to the channel above Glen Canyon Dam. From there, a swing to the northeast delivers boats into Lake Powell’s main artery. But the declining water already has drained some of the fun, he said.

Boats docked at Lake Powell on July 13, 1968.
Boats docked at Lake Powell on July 13, 1968.

It has choked off a former shortcut from Wahweap to the rest of Powell.

Both McNabbs recall a time in the high-water 1980s when it was possible to cast a rod from the balcony of a corner room at Wahweap Marina’s Lake Powell Resort. Now the lodge casts only shadows and views across a broad rocky beach.

In those days, Mike McNabb recalled, the Sierra Club and other environmentalists picketed the dam in what seemed a quixotic crusade to remove it and expose the canyons lost to the water in the 1960s.

“Well,” he said, “the tree huggers are getting their wish.”

States, feds work to protect water supplies

Some environmental organizations continue to push for the dam’s removal, or for a plan to draw down the reservoir in favor of filling the similarly drought-stricken Lake Mead instead. Save the Colorado, Living Rivers and the Center for Biological Diversity, for instance, have sued seeking to force the government to consider decommissioning Glen Canyon Dam or adopting the “Fill Mead First” plan.

“This action is about climate change, protection of the Colorado River and Grand Canyon National Park, and a dam that is near the end of its useful life,” the plaintiffs wrote in their lawsuit, now awaiting trial in U.S. District Court in Arizona.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is working with states to forestall further depletion of Lake Powell. Along with the states that rely on the dam’s releases to shore up supplies downstream in Lake Mead, the agency seeks to protect a buffer above what’s needed to keep producing hydropower. The goal is to keep the surface at least 3,525 feet above sea level. The water dropped to within 5 feet of that in February, though it generally rebounds with spring snowmelt.

Reclamation’s latest two-year projections, based on both snowmelt forecasts and required releases from the dam, show Lake Powell likely dropping below the buffer for a few months early next year. A worst-case projection suggests it could stay there for all of 2023 if the precipitation and runoff between now and then should measure among the driest 10% of years. Such a scenario could cost regional electric ratepayers millions.

To stall the decline, the agency plans to release more water from upstream dams such as Flaming Gorge on the Green River near the Utah-Wyoming line, and to hold back some of the flow through Grand Canyon until later in summer.

Beyond this year, state and federal officials consider it critical to arrest Lake Powell's plunge so they can secure the region's water future. The reservoir is the key storage pool ensuring that the Upper Colorado River Basin states of Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico can deliver the water to which the Lower Basin users of Arizona, Nevada, California and Mexico are legally entitled. As both Lake Powell and Lake Mead have hit record lows, the Lower Basin has had to forgo some of its consumption, especially on central Arizona farms, while the Upper Basin has worked to produce a drought response plan.

When Interior Secretary Deb Haaland visited Phoenix in late February to announce federal funding for tribal water settlements, she also met with Arizona water managers and congressional delegates to discuss interstate negotiations for a new set of river operating guidelines due in 2026. At a news conference afterward, she touted billions of dollars in this year's infrastructure law that will aid regional water conservation, but acknowledged that the funding "can't make it rain."

"Our shared priority is to build resilient communities and protect our water supplies," Haaland said.

The new guidelines will replace a set adopted in 2007 and since amended, which laid the ground rules leading to the Lower Basin's reductions in use to preserve Lake Mead. They could clarify whether and how the Upper Basin will likewise cut back to prop up Lake Powell. The same spirit of collaboration that has taken hold in the lower river states must extend throughout the watershed, Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke said.

"The Upper Basin will come along with us," he said. "Sharing the benefits (of conservation) and the risks (of shortage) is the one thing I would like to accomplish."

Lake Powell's Wahweap Marina as seen on Feb. 3, 2022, near Page, Arizona. At the time, Lake Powell was at 26% of capacity, 168 feet below its full elevation of 3,700 feet above sea level.
Lake Powell's Wahweap Marina as seen on Feb. 3, 2022, near Page, Arizona. At the time, Lake Powell was at 26% of capacity, 168 feet below its full elevation of 3,700 feet above sea level.

Losing marinas to low water levels

Meantime, the local economy relies on continued access to the water.

Glen Canyon, combined with Rainbow Bridge, was the 25th most popular site administered by the National Park Service last year, attracting 3.1 million visitors. But that was down by more than 1 million from pre-pandemic levels, in a year when nationwide park visitation rebounded by 60 million and many parks notched record traffic.

As this year’s boating traffic rises with the temperatures and spring break vacations, seasoned visitors can expect big changes.

At Bullfrog, a Utah marina that in most years would hum with boaters and personal watercraft riders, the Park Service this month was preparing to temporarily extend a second motorized access point for the summer. It’s expected to open for motorized boats in May. For now, the too-short ramp there is a use-at-your-own-risk proposition, and Superintendent Shott said bass boats or other small craft may have access when boating season picks up in March. The agency is planning a longer-term fix that would move the ramp and push the marina farther into its bay.

The government also announced that it must close Dangling Rope Marina, an outpost that was the only refueling option in a 100-mile stretch from Wahweap and Antelope Point marinas in the south to Bullfrog in the north.

The Park Service is no longer able to deliver fuel to the tanks that supply both boats and generators at Dangling Rope, and agency personnel who typically bunk there have relocated to Wahweap for the year. Even boaters who don’t require refueling to head farther uplake will be deprived of a cherished pick-me-up at the concession stand: ice cream.

Lower levels could change fish populations

Downstream of Lake Powell, Grand Canyon National Park officials are nervous about how lower water flows may push non-native fish, such as the bass the McNabbs’ clients enjoy, through the dam’s hydroelectric turbines.

Bass are warm-water predators. The lake’s near-surface environment holds the water most warmed by the sun, and most preferred by bass. As the surface sinks near the dam’s intakes, bass could be more likely to flush through. That would put them into a stretch of river where a native fish, the humpback chub, has recovered sufficiently in recent years to be upgraded from an endangered species to a threatened one.

On the Colorado River in Utah, bass, walleye and others have gobbled young chubs. In the Grand Canyon, the dam that itself upended their ecology by dumping unnaturally cold water into the river has also provided a welcome barrier against these invaders.

As warm water drops toward the intakes, Grand Canyon National Park communications chief Jan Balsom said, “it could become a giant conduit for non-natives.” Preventing that would require either keeping the water level near where it is now, she said, or bypassing the turbines and releasing colder water from lower tunnels. The latter would be costly, she acknowledged, while the former will be difficult so long as the dams that feed the Colorado upstream of Powell are also struggling to retain water during drought.

The same calculus complicates the park’s hopes for inducing occasional dam-fed floods to restore Grand Canyon’s flood-adapted ecosystem, Balsom said. “There’s a lot in play, and you’re doing it with buckets of water that are a quarter full.”

Shott said he’s working with others on Glen Canyon Dam’s interagency management team to find solutions, which could include releasing some colder water from deeper or perhaps even placing bubblers or sound barriers above the dam to ward off approaching bass. To Colorado River native species, he said, “They’re a monster of a fish.”

Construction work continues on the extension of Stateline Auxiliary Launch Ramp on Feb. 3, 2022, in Wahweap Bay, near Page.
Construction work continues on the extension of Stateline Auxiliary Launch Ramp on Feb. 3, 2022, in Wahweap Bay, near Page.

Shorelines, canyons emerge from the depths

One of the concrete workers extending the Stateline Auxiliary Ramp in February described waiting two or three hours when he launched his boat last year. He said he expects more of the same when he returns for his Utah family’s annual week on the lake this year. He wished the government would “quit selling the water to California,” a joking simplification of a federally administered system that grants the river’s largest share to the watershed’s largest state.

At the ramp, kayaker Tom Geiger prepared to launch for a winter day’s paddle in search of waterfowl to photograph. For his purposes, low water was no problem. “As far as I’m concerned,” he said, “it’s just the way it is with reservoirs.”

Tom Geiger, of Page, pulls his kayak ashore at the Stateline Auxiliary Ramp -- Lake Powell's only ramp currently open to motorized boats -- in early February. Although another ramp, at Antelope Point, remains an option for kayakers, he said, he avoids it because the rugged descent at from concrete to water is hard on his back.
Tom Geiger, of Page, pulls his kayak ashore at the Stateline Auxiliary Ramp -- Lake Powell's only ramp currently open to motorized boats -- in early February. Although another ramp, at Antelope Point, remains an option for kayakers, he said, he avoids it because the rugged descent at from concrete to water is hard on his back.

Geiger, a former Grand Canyon National Park facilities manager who retired to Page, finds that shifting waters lead to new discoveries. He and friends have found abandoned and formerly sunken boats. At a now-dry rock that was a longtime diving platform for swimmers, he has found GoPro cameras and even some functioning smart watches.

More significant, for his routine outings, are the emerging red-rock slot canyons and caverns that reflect dancing light from the lake’s surface — a coveted treat especially in the winter.

“It almost looks like it’s on fire,” he said of one new destination.

Receding water has likewise opened new territory for hiking when boaters beach their craft. Geiger expects to check out some of them this year. Shott said there's growing interest among Glen Canyon visitors to capitalize on the park's waterways as passages to these "new" terrestrial playgrounds.

Other canyons, which attract boaters who want to remain afloat while gazing upward at their rock faces, are now drying up. That includes one that Geiger enjoyed in years past, a secluded former waterfowl haven up Wahweap Creek. Still, he said he doesn't worry.

"What can you do anyway?" he said. "I don't see that (Lake Powell) is going to go away."

Construction work continues on the extension of Stateline Auxiliary Launch Ramp on Feb. 3, 2022, in Wahweap Bay, near Page.
Construction work continues on the extension of Stateline Auxiliary Launch Ramp on Feb. 3, 2022, in Wahweap Bay, near Page.

'No one expected this crisis'

Paul McNabb, the fishing guide, isn’t so sure. Neither is he sure that the Park Service acted quickly enough to preserve more access points, given that Powell has been on a mostly downward trajectory for two decades.

“People used to come here because of the big, wide launch ramps and it was so easy to get access to the water,” he said. Now, he expects, there will be a wait even if only two or three boaters try to launch at once. He avoids this by keeping his boat moored at a dock.

His dad, Mike McNabb, still uses the ramp. He launches at 4 or 5 in the morning to avoid the crowds, but still has a wait when taking out after a half day with clients. He’s considering paying for a boat slip to skip the line. This summer, he said, “It’s going to be a nightmare.”

Grounded buoys sit on the shore at Wahweap Bay on Feb. 3, 2022, near Page. Lake Powell was at 26% of capacity, 168 feet below its full elevation of 3,700 feet above sea level at the time.
Grounded buoys sit on the shore at Wahweap Bay on Feb. 3, 2022, near Page. Lake Powell was at 26% of capacity, 168 feet below its full elevation of 3,700 feet above sea level at the time.

The elder guide feels caught between two unrelenting realities that he can’t do anything to change. One is continued growth and demand in a region where millions of people and a massive farm economy already use the water that Glen Canyon Dam must deliver downstream each year. The other is the rarely reliable snowpack that melts in the Rockies to replenish the reservoir.

“I watch the weather every night to see if it’s snowing over there,” he said from the bow of his son’s boat, “and it did last night.”

Behind him, sandstone walls rose in the mouth of Antelope Canyon, a favorite destination where a widening band of dried-out quagga mussel shells tracks the water’s retreat.

The snowfall in that early-February storm had helped winter snowpack in the Upper Colorado River Basin to a good start, around 130% of normal for the date, he noted.

“We need 200%,” he said.

By Valentine’s Day, dry weather had plunged snowpack above most tributary streams back below normal.

The Park Service believed it had more time to prepare for the current water level, Shott said. A year ago in January, runoff projections based on healthy snowpack in the Rockies suggested the reservoir would be 45 feet higher this winter. A combination of factors including parched soils and vegetation that soaked up much of that snowmelt led to a worse year than predicted.

“No one expected this crisis,” he said, at least for this boating season.

A report released by Utah State University's Center for Colorado River Studies this month showed that projections by the Bureau of Reclamation through last fall typically overestimated how much water would flow to Lake Powell. That's because the projections relied on outdated expectations that considered the wetter 30 years from 1981 through 2010 as representing the river's normal pattern.

Last fall the bureau updated its projections to reflect streamflow records from 1991-2020, likely reducing the bias toward wetter conditions. Still, the authors contend, the projections will likely continue to be too optimistic because that period also includes a wetter cycle from the 1990s than has occurred in the years since 2000.

Looking ahead, Shott said he focuses on improvements that will still help boaters enjoy the lake if it continues to shrink. The goal is to build ramps and marinas that will function at elevation 3,525 feet, the same level that water managers hope to retain to keep the hydropower turbines churning. While the Bureau of Reclamation is working to prevent it, there’s no guarantee the drought won’t push the water lower.

The former concrete Stateline Ramp is now dry, but the retreating water exposed an adjacent asphalt ramp that apparently was built before the reservoir filled and then was submerged by 1967. That gave the Park Service a viable auxiliary ramp to upgrade to concrete, as it has been doing at a cost of about $2.2 million, Shott said. If necessary, that ramp can launch boats even if the water sinks another 40 feet, or possibly farther with another extension.

Restoring access in areas with steep canyon ramps, including at Antelope Point, would require regrading to make them steeper. Shott is searching for federal funds that could cover that, a new Bullfrog Marina, and more. Though the agency hasn’t settled on plans for those yet, they’re likely to be considerably more expensive than the Stateline Auxiliary Ramp.

“We need advocates,” Shott said.

Follow Brandon Loomis on Twitter: @brandonloomis.

Environmental coverage on azcentral.com and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Long drought on the Colorado River shows in shrinking Lake Powell