Another Dam Site

Spring, 2023 Update

Since I wrote this in June, 2022, the western United States has seen a lot of precipitation. The “atmospheric river” dumped weeks of rain on the northwest. (I was hunkered down on the Oregon coast during most of it.) Snowpack in the California mountains is more than double normal levels. Wyoming has near-record amounts of snow in the higher elevations, with some concern that rapid melt and rain could cause a repeat of last June’s Yellowstone flooding. the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is predicting that levels of Wyoming’s two major lakes, Bighorn and Boysen will exceed 30-year averages, and Lake Powell levels could increase by 100 feet or more.

While one winter of heavy precipitation will not solve the problems of low pool in Powell and Mead, it will certainly help. We shall see what the summer holds.

Another night on the Colorado. (Technically it is Lake Powell until it flows through the Glen Canyon Dam and then it becomes the Colorado again.) Then it goes on its way through the Grand Canyon, Hoover Dam, Davis Dam and Parker Dam before disappearing somewhere in the Arizona sand.

Lake Powell stretches from the Arizona border northeast for nearly 180 miles into Utah. Lake levels change dramatically year to year, depending on the winter snows in the Rockies  the amount of water taken by upstream users, and contract obligations to downstream water users. On this day, the level is  a bit below average at 166 feet below “full pool”.  That is the maximum design water level for the dam. It took 17 years for the lake to fill.

Lake Powell is a major recreation destination for boaters of all types. There are some really large houseboats on the lake. Since the lake fills numerous canyons and backwaters, I suspect you could spend a month exploring the lake by boat.

By the bathtub ring on the rock, I would be parked 20 feet below water if the lake was at full pool.

Glen Canyon is another hot, dry desolate place, but the green water against the sandstone cliffs is spectacular. The high-water “bathtub ring” is obvious. Downstream from the dam, the Colorado flows peacefully along, bringing green to its banks.

The Glen Canyon Dam powered up about 1964. Of the Colorado River dams, it is not the largest, does not make the most power, but I think I saw in the visitor center that it has the most concrete – enough to pave a road from Glen Canyon to the tip of South America.

Next to the Dam is Page, Arizona, a town created for the dam workers. Although people are building impressive (retirement) homes, it still looks like a “company town”.

However, the Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell have been controversial from the beginning of the planning. There is no argument that it flooded countless archeological and sacred native American sites. But whether or not it was a “bad idea” is the debate. Both Powell and Mead are near the lowest levels since the dams were built. Environmental groups argue that because of climate change both lakes will never fill, and have a major initiative underway to drain Lake Powel and allow the water to accumulate in lake Mead. I could not find any data on the ever increasing amounts of water drawn off for upstream irrigation in Wyoming, Colorado and Utah. The city of Los Angeles by contract can take 4.4 million acre-feet per year, although in the summer of 2022 residents (excluding the “entitled elite” have stepped up to the challenge of reducing water usage.

Lake Powell is now at 25% of capacity, and if water levels drop another 40′ or so, it can no longer generate electricity. Other hydroelectric dams on the Colorado face the same problem.

However, rationing of water drawn for the Colorado is coming. There are proposals to pay farmers for not irrigating crops that vary from $300 to $1,500 per acre-foot of water saved. Nearly 80% of the Colorado River water is used for agriculture. As agricultural acreage is taken out of use, food prices can only go up.

What I have discovered:

  • The Colorado River capacity estimate of 16.4 million annual acre-feet made by Arthur Powell Davis in 1922 was a flagrant overestimate — and he knew it. Current estimates place the capacity at ~14 million acre-feet
  • California, although it has the smallest amount of land in the Colorado Lower Basin, received the largest allotment of 4.4 million acre feet.
  • While environmentalists want to attribute the falling water levels to climate change, in truth the major cause is agricultural irrigation and blatant overuse by major California cities.

So I am not smart enough to go much further. For most of us (unless you live in western Kansas), drought is not high in our awareness, but maybe I have peaked your interest to dig into this and form an opinion of your own!


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