Falling Lake Powell a challenge for boaters

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Lake Powell water level a challenge for boaters

By Ray Grass, Deseret News outdoor editor

     WAHWEAP, Ariz. — Back in November, things were looking good. Precipitation was 100 percent of normal for the Colorado River Basin, and it looked as if Lake Powell would rise again.


A woman rides a personal watercraft at Lake Powell in front of a canyon wall. The white ring shows the water level when the lake is full.
Ray Grass, Deseret News

     Two months later it became ominously evident Lake Powell would not rise this year, but would fall. Precipitation had fallen to about 35 percent of normal. Through April and May it is now down to 25 percent of normal.

     And, predictions are that without at least a normal winter in 2002-2003, by March of 2003, the lake level would be close to matching its all-time low — which is about 90 feet below the full mark.

     Currently, the lake level is near 3,644 feet above sea level. At 3,700, the lake is considered full, which means the lake is currently 56 feet from full pool and holding steady.

     The low runoff is expected to do no more than sustain the current level, and that sometime in June, because of demands for water, the level will begin to drop.

     "But the message here," says Barry Wirth, regional public affairs officer for the Bureau of Reclamation, which overseers of the water in Lake Powell, "is that this is a cyclic environment. We built the reservoir to hold up to five years of carry-over storage with no runoff. So, in that sense, the facility is performing beautifully.

     "What it will come down to is we will have 2 million acre feet coming in and 8.23 million going out. The difference is coming from our bank account of water in the reservoir. But, what's amazing to us is how quickly the reservoir can recover."

     Within two years of the record low, after two good winters, the level had recovered nearly 80 feet.

     Of concern at this point, of course, is water safety more than water quantity.
     Boaters are being warned to watch out for rock structures being uncovered by dropping lake levels.

     But, said Charlotte Obergh, management assistant for the National Park Service, "We're always urging boaters to be careful at whatever the lake level may be. What I tell people is that this lake does not have a level bottom. What they see on top, all the mesas, buttes and spires, is what they'll find under the surface. As the level rises or falls, rock structures are always being covered and uncovered. They have to be aware all the time, not just when the level is going down, but also when it's going up."

     "Some people actually think the lake is going dry. I have to remind people that up lake, in some of the bays, the lake is still more than 200 feet deep," added Wirth.

     On the positive side, the lowering levels are exposing more beachfront property for camping. Also, the lower levels open access to hiking many of the side canyons.

     There are even greater benefits for fish, primarily largemouth bass and crappie. The exposed shoreline will eventually grow vegetation, offered Wayne Gustaveson, lake fish biologist for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

     "Eventually, when the lake rises, this new vegetation will become new habitat for these fish. Without new habitat, their population won't be able to grow," he added.

     The lowering water level has not caused pollution problems and Obergh said she doesn't expect it will. Currently, crews are doing water quality tests on a routine basis at various sites around the lake.

     "The lake level has been going down for two years now, and we haven't seen any problems with beach closures," she said. "The requirement for boaters to have the means to contain solid human waste has certainly been a big help."

     Several years ago the NPS began requiring that any boat, and not just houseboats, but all boats, camping overnight on the shoreline have onboard a portable toilet. Those campers without one are advised to go into one of the marinas and buy one, and if they don't they can be cited.

     For now, the warnings being given are as they always are at this time of the year. And those are that lake visitors don't drink and drive a boat, that they are aware of the dangers of exposure to the sun and that they use common sense when swimming and/or boating . . . always keeping in mind that the lake is a garden of mesas, buttes and spires, both above and below the surface.
     

E-MAIL: grass@desnews.com
 

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