The Colorado River is getting closer to tanking. Can we free ourselves from the long arc of depletion?

My mom on a houseboat and my dad reveling in the “glory days” of Lake Powell, May 1981.

“They would come to the river to see a reflection of their own liberated minds, running free and easy…In the midst of what had once been regarded as the bleakest scarcity they would find abundance.” —Donald Worster, Rivers of Empire

Lake Powell, our nation’s second-largest reservoir, dropped 40 feet in just the last year to a new record low, triggering an unprecedented set of emergency actions. The changes underway at Powell provide a striking illustration of how a new era of aridification in the West is pushing a river management culture steeped in assumptions of the past to the brink. It’s been a few years since I’ve visited Lake Powell, so two weeks ago I went back to see how it’s changed with my own eyes.

I have great memories of fishing with my dad and grandpa at Lake Powell north of the Arizona-Utah border, and of camping with my family at Lone Rock Beach on the lake’s Utah side. My dad would tell me proudly that Lake Powell had more shoreline than the entire U.S. West Coast.

In a recent Colorado River meeting, someone described the 1980s as Powell’s “glory days.” My parents honeymooned in a houseboat on Lake Powell in 1981. Two years later, there was so much spring runoff that plywood was all that kept the Colorado River from breaching Glen Canyon Dam, which created the lake.

During my parent’s honeymoon trip, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere averaged 340 parts per million. Today, continued reliance on fossil fuels is pushing concentrations beyond 415 ppm. More carbon means warmer temperatures, which change the entire hydrologic cycle — drier soils, plants consuming more water, more evaporation, less snow, different runoff timing — and ultimately less water that flows downstream.

With rights to Colorado River water adding up to at least 17.5 million acre-feet a year, far surpassing average annual flows of only about 12.4 million acre-feet in recent decades, the “glory days” of Lake Powell were always going to be temporary. Climate change just brought about a new era, the days of “the bleakest scarcity,” much sooner than many anticipated.

“We need acts of restoration, not only for polluted waters and degraded lands, but also for our relationship to the world.” —Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass

A web of entangled issues looms large for the Colorado River. The Bureau of Reclamation operates Powell in a coordinated way with Lake Mead, which stores Colorado River water for Arizona, California, Nevada, and Mexico. Lower elevations in Powell generally mean less water released into Mead, through the Grand Canyon. Flows through the Grand Canyon depend on dam releases that consider many factors. For example, due to a number of considerations including pressure from the power industry, last fall the federal government halted a high flow experiment that would have restored beaches and sandbars in the Grand Canyon, critical for native species, protecting cultural sites, and river recreation.

Glen Canyon Dam produces less power as Powell shrinks. When Powell falls to 3,490 feet, no power can be produced and, at about the same lake level, an intake that serves water to the city of Page and the LeChee Chapter of Navajo Nation becomes unusable. In addition, there are major questions about how the dam would even deliver water downstream as water could not flow through the dam’s turbines but would instead need to flow through the dam’s outlet tubes, which were not engineered for constant use. We don’t know how long those outlets would last if they were operated continuously.

Longtime river advocate Jennifer Pitt of Audubon recently described the scenario of no water flowing through the Grand Canyon and hundreds of miles below Lake Mead as an “ecological disaster in the making…exceeding the 20th century devastation of the Colorado River Delta.”

Following two years of near average snowpack in the Upper Basin, but well below average runoff into Powell, the lake was projected to drop within about 10 feet of the 3,490 mark by next spring. In response to this extreme risk, federal water managers are expected to take the unprecedented step of reducing water released from Lake Powell into Mead by nearly 500,000 acre-feet. The Upper Basin States also recently approved another emergency action to release an additional half million acre feet from Flaming Gorge in Wyoming, which will drop that reservoir by 15 feet, to help prop up Powell.

These emergency actions are completely necessary to help mitigate extreme risk this year. But they don’t solve long term problems. They shuffle a limited amount of water around in the system to buy time.

Extreme risk will resurface again as soon as next spring. At a Colorado River conference in December 2021, climate scientist Brad Udall advised that “incrementalism is unlikely to prepare us” for aridification. At the same conference, former Assistant Secretary of Interior Anne Castle concluded that we “need a psychological shift in what we can ask of the Colorado River.”

Climate change has drastically reduced the ability of incremental actions to keep depletion at bay for much time. We must move beyond patterns of only reacting, and also get seriously creative with long-term planning to reduce water use at scale with reality and find proactive solutions.

Left: The elevation of Lake Powell has dropped so much that the Antelope Point Boat ramp no longer reaches the lake far below, April 2022. Right: Fishing with my grandpa near the boat ramp, July 1988.

Making a psychological shift in what we can ask of the Colorado River requires confronting big questions with open minds and working together to find answers. Arizona Republic columnist Joanna Allhands recently raised one big question on a key underlying river management assumption: “If 7.5 million acre-feet  the annual amount guaranteed to each basin in the Colorado River compact  is no longer realistic, what is?” She then appropriately noted the consequence of ignoring such questions: “If we don’t answer questions like this soon, there won’t be a Lake Powell (or a Lake Mead) to save.”

“Unless we scrutinize the long arc of depletion, we become a medium by which it is transferred to the future.” —Lucas Bessire, Running Out

What we see happening at Lake Powell is another unmistakable signal that it is past time to change the underlying assumptions that are baked into river management. Many of these assumptions are rooted in water supply expectations that were never realistic and legacy expansionism. Many assumptions also exclude environmental values and the basin’s Indigenous peoples and sovereign Tribes, many of whom have long struggled for full recognition of their unique water rights. Such assumptions have provided the foundation for the evolving system of rules that govern the use and management of the Colorado River.

That evolving system of rules reflects our relationship to water and specifically the Colorado River. If we relate to water only as a resource, a commodity, or fuel for expansion and profit, then we should expect our own collective rules to drive systems to scarcity and depletion. This self-generated scarcity on the demand side helps explain many of the longstanding overuse issues in the basin. Now, the addition of scarcity on the supply side, driven by our continued reliance on fossil fuels, is squeezing the river even tighter.

Despite the scarcity that now surrounds us, can we envision becoming a medium by which we transfer abundance — instead of depletion — to the future? What about how we relate to water and to each other would need to change? Perhaps some will label such questions as naive. Still, I choose to explore such questions versus accepting that we are permanently locked into a cycle of depletion, a cycle of our own making.

Writer Jonathan Thompson recently summarized the challenge we face as one that “can’t be tackled with machines or technology or billions of dollars. The only way out of it is with restraint, but it may be too late for that.” I don’t believe it’s too late, but time is of the essence to work through hard issues and come up with a long-term plan.

Rather than starting discussions about such a plan with constraints grounded in entrenched, static assumptions of the past, we could instead choose to take a step in a different direction, toward breaking the cycle of depletion, by starting with our values and a vision where water security is ensured for all 40 million people living in this basin.

Lone Rock on Lake Powell in May 1988 during a family camping trip (left) and April 2022 (right).

Two weeks ago, I could drive far past my family’s old campsite on Lone Rock Beach into what used to be Lake Powell, which is looking more and more like the Glen Canyon that was lost as Lake Powell was created. While being careful to avoid pockets of quicksand, I walked around the old lakebed thinking about how the next generation will relate to the changing landscapes the Colorado Plateau, places that have pulled on me my entire life. I have no doubt that future generations will find meaning and abundance in this changing landscape.

A plan for collective restraint on a massive scale will need to be hashed out sooner rather than later if we are to avoid a major river and water supply collapse. Perhaps with a good faith process, we can together start to reimagine what collective abundance could mean in this rapidly changing landscape. Much about ourselves, our relationships and our way of thinking will need to change along the way.

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One Comment

  1. Maggie Frazier
    Posted April 29, 2022 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    I read recently that Californians would have to “limit their watering (lawns,cars etc) to once a week! Could it be that it might possibly be necessary to NOT water lawns, wash cars etc? I guess the idea of all those water features in Vegas also kind of rings a bell. The saying: Waste not, want not” comes to mind.