Glen Canyon – Tough Decisions surround a Colorado River Flashpoint

Since its creation, through today, Glen Canyon Dam has had its supporters and adversaries. Our newest episode of the We Are Rivers podcast dives into issues, opinions, and controversy surrounding Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell.

Lake Powell bathtub rings. | Sinjin Eberle

Join us this week on our podcast, We Are Rivers as we discuss the issues, opinions, and concerns surrounding Glen Canyon Dam, Lake Powell, and the concept of Fill Mead First in Episode 5: Glen Canyon – Tough Decisions surround a Colorado River Flashpoint.

Fifteen miles upstream from Lee’s Ferry, Glen Canyon Dam halts the Colorado River. Over 50 years ago, before the last bucket of concrete hardened in the 714-ft tall Glen Canyon Dam, Glen Canyon, whose magnificence was said to rival the Grand Canyon was just upstream. As Lake Powell filled, becoming the second largest reservoir in the United States, Glen Canyon was drowned under hundreds of feet of water. Since its creation, all the way through the present, Glen Canyon Dam has had its supporters and adversaries.

There are a variety of issues, opinions, and concerns surrounding Glen Canyon Dam, and whether this dam that has created many controversies over its 50 years of existence should be removed, or at least bypassed. In Episode Five, we hear from a trio of voices on the issue of Glen Canyon Dam, New York Times Bestselling Author Kevin Fedarko, Glen Canyon Institute President Eric Balken, and American Rivers’ Intermountain West Communication Director Sinjin Eberle.

In this episode, we seek to understand the dam’s purpose, its impact on the Upper and Lower Basin water management, and the concept of restoring a world currently under water.

Water levels in both Lake Powell and Lake Mead are low. Bathtubs rings paint the sandstone of both reservoirs demonstrating just how far the lake levels have dropped in the last 15 years. To reduce the impacts of both Lake Powell and Mead reaching critical levels, a number of proposals have been suggested, including an idea that’s received a fair bit of media attention in the last few years, Fill Mead First.

Fill Mead First suggests that drawing down Lake Powell and sending most of its water downstream to be stored in Lake Mead would conserve more water than if the two reservoirs stand alone, because reduced surface area means less evaporation. Fill Mead First does not advocate removing the dam, but instead restoring a somewhat free flowing river by re-opening the diversion tunnels around the dam, and drawing the reservoir down to a low level, called “dead pool.” The water formerly contained in Lake Powell would make its way through the Grand Canyon, to be stored in Lake Mead, raising the surface elevation of the largest reservoir in the United States.

Glen Canyon Dam | Photo: Sinjin Eberle

While there are advocates for the Fill Mead First position, draining Lake Powell would have huge, political ramifications. And some believe, the benefits of such a plan are simply not significant enough, at this time, to merit stern consideration. The Upper and Lower Basins are just beginning to cooperate more effectively to reduce risk to future Colorado River water supplies through drought contingency planning. These relationships and collaborations are critical to the overall health of the river and the seven states, two countries, and 37 million people that depend on water in the Colorado River Basin.

It is critical that we reduce water supply risk in the Upper and Lower Basin systems first before draining Lake Powell. And, much more study is needed to confirm whether such a plan would be viable in the first place. Jack Schmidt, a professor at Utah State University, characterizes the potential water savings like this:

The likely water savings to be gained by shifting most water storage to Lake Mead are relatively small in relation to other anticipated changes in runoff in the watershed, especially those associated with climate change. Not only are the savings relatively small, but the uncertainty in the estimated savings is large. Thus, it is not good public policy to implement the Fill Mead First plan at this time. At some future time, however, the potential savings in shifting the primary location of water storage to Lake Mead may be viewed as large. It is critical that the federal government initiate new studies of evaporation loss and ground-water seepage at Lake Powell to resolve these uncertainties so that future decisions about reservoir management can be made with much less uncertainty.

We Are Rivers podcast dives into issues, opinions, and controversy surrounding Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell.Click To Tweet

At this time, Lake Powell serves an important role in the balance of the basin, particularly from the perspective of the Upper Basin. In addition to hydropower generation (which a portion of proceeds fund of a number of conservation programs), the Upper basin depends on Lake Powell for water storage to provide security for mandatory deliveries from the Upper Basin to the Lower, especially in drought years. Additionally, the establishment of a demand management program, a key component to drought contingency planning, which compensates water users to voluntarily reduce water use and store the saved water to reduce risk is dependent on Lake Powell. Without Lake Powell in place, in the event of a prolonged drought or supply imbalance in the Upper Basin, the impacts across the Colorado Basin could be dramatic.

Lake Powell | Photo: Sinjin Eberle
Lake Powell | Photo: Sinjin Eberle

It is critical to focus on ensuring that the water demands across the entire Colorado Basin are systematically balanced. In other words, water authorities and interests (such as farmers, municipalities, and tribes) who use Colorado River water, all must continue to work towards collaborative mechanisms that increase water conservation before the contentious debates on Fill Mead First are initiated.

While the viewpoints surrounding Glen Canyon are vast, and often heated, the most important thing when discussing the dam is to maintain open and respectful dialogue to all viewpoints, even fundamentally different ones. Join us as we dive into the complexities surrounding Glen Canyon Dam in Episode 5 of We Are Rivers.

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