Drought conditions described as being worse than the infamous Dust Bowl of the 1930s have forced Lake Powell to its lowest level in more than 30 years.
At the end of last week, the lake's water level was 117 feet below its fill line or at just 42 percent of capacity. Its surface elevation of 3,683 feet above sea level is the lowest it's been since 1970 when the gigantic reservoir, completed in 1966, was still filling.
"We get asked a lot, how does this drought compare with the Dust Bowl (of the 1930s) or the drought of the '50s and the '70s?" said Barry Wirth, Bureau of Reclamation spokesman in Salt Lake City. "The period of the year 2000 through 2004 is the driest five consecutive years since record-keeping began, making it drier than the Dust Bowl and drier than the '50s."
At the marinas on Lake Powell's shores, accommodating the demands of boaters has meant extending and improving boat ramps as the water has dropped. But public launch ramps at Antelope Marina in Arizona and Stateline on the Utah side are still too far above the water level to use.
The main ramp at Wahweap, also extended, remains usable.
Spring runoff is expected to raise the lake about 3 feet by Memorial Day, the last weekend in May. That would allow all of the ramps to be in service for that busy holiday weekend, said Char Obergh, spokeswoman for the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, which includes Lake Powell.
But what about the lake's other big weekend, Labor Day? By then the spring runoff will be long over, and Lake Powell will be continuing its downward trend.
The Park Service will have to focus on that later.
"Right now," Obergh said, "we're working with Memorial Day and expecting to have a large crowd, and feel certain we can accommodate them." Even though the lake is trending downward, Wirth said, "at this moment, we are not in a crisis."
The designers of Glen Canyon Dam and the reservoir had a "pretty clear idea" that a long drought could hit, he said. They planned for the reservoir to have enough carryover water for a drought. It has been able to fill the needs for the past five years. The lake's present usable capacity amounts to about 10.2 million acre-feet of water.
"Our preliminary calculations show that we can handle upwards of three more years of drought beyond 2004 before the situation becomes critical," Wirth added.
What if the drought continues beyond that?
Wirth said states that share Colorado River water are collaborating to explore possible solutions. If the drought extends another few years, "things will get tough, and the states recognize that."
That's not to say the dry weather pattern will continue that long. "The drought of the '50s was followed by two decades of somewhat below-average inflows," he said. "But it's also worth noting it's not uncommon to see a wet year in the middle of a multiyear drought."
In fact, one wet year and one average year were recorded during the otherwise dry 1950s.
"In spite of five years of drought, there still is a total of 31.8 million acre-feet of water storage in the Colorado River system, over seven states," he said.
Much of the value of Lake Powell to the Upper Colorado River Basin states Utah, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming is not in their direct use of Lake Powell water. Even though the lake is almost entirely in Utah, the storage is not used here.
Instead, the dam generates electricity, and the reservoir allows Upper Basin states to fulfil their legal requirement to the Lower Basin, the states of California, Nevada and Arizona. Lower Basin water is stored in Lake Mead for distribution.
Under a 1928 compact, the Lower Basin states are entitled to a certain proportion of Colorado River system water. If Lake Powell were not present to store it, in a severe drought, Colorado River water could be running past thirsty Utah farms destined for California agriculture, and Utahns would be unable to use it.
But because lakes Powell and Mead store Lower Basin water, Utahns still can capture water sources.
"For the sake of the whole basin, it's critical that they (Mead and Powell) operate in harmony," Wirth said.Not only is the region in an exceptional drought, he added, "but we have more demand on the system than we've ever had before."