MEGADROUGHT IS RENEWING DEBATES ABOUT HOW TO MANAGE WATER IN THE ARID AMERICAN WEST ~ NPR

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December 14, 2021

NATHAN ROTTT

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The Western megadrought is revealing a famed desert landscape long drowned by a controversial dam. It’s raising questions about the future of this oasis, and water in the American West.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST: 

Parts of the West got much-needed rain and snow this week, but it comes as the region experiences one of its driest periods in a thousand years. The drought, amplified by climate change, is renewing debates about how to manage water in the arid West. NPR’s Nathan Rott takes a look at one debate playing out on the Utah-Arizona border over what some see as America’s lost national park.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: It’s a quiet day at the Bullfrog Marina on Lake Powell. No families coming or going from the hundreds of moored houseboats, no jet skis roaring between the steep, rust-colored rock walls. Just quiet.

ROSS DOMBROWSKI: It’s sad. It’s very sad.

ROTT: Ross Dombrowski owns one of those houseboats – not that he feels comfortable using it, with the lake’s waters currently at an all-time low. He says it’s too dangerous. There are new hazards everywhere.

DOMBROWSKI: Behind my houseboat, there used to be zero rock, and now it’s 30 feet tall.

ROTT: The rock is?

DOMBROWSKI: The rock is 30 feet tall, so that goes to show you how low we got.

ROTT: Water levels on Lake Powell, one of the largest reservoirs in the country, are down more than 150 feet from full pool, the term water managers use for filled. Rock spires, canyons, bridges and arches – the sorts of awe-inspiring formations you’d see at Grand Canyon or Arches National Park – are emerging from its turquoise waters, which is what we’re here to see. Only our guide isn’t exactly sad to see the reservoir drop.

ERIC BALKEN: I can’t believe there’s nobody here.

ROTT: Eric Balken is the director of the Glen Canyon Institute, a nonprofit that wants to see the area below the reservoir surface restored. It’s not exactly a popular opinion among Lake Powell’s faithful. The reservoir is one of the busiest tourist attractions in the country.

BALKEN: People are like, oh, this place is so beautiful. And, like, if you were to build a dam in the Grand Canyon like the bureau wanted to, you know, that would be a beautiful reservoir, too. And it would also be a crime against nature.

ROTT: A crime against nature. Balken thinks that’s what happened here at Glen Canyon. And he’s not alone in that sentiment. But to understand why, we’ve got to step away from the boat real quick and jump back in time with a little help from the bureau Balken just mentioned, the Bureau of Reclamation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The date was February 20, 1959. A place – a remote corner of a Navajo Indian reservation in northern Arizona.

ROTT: Back then, there was no Lake Powell, only a muddy Colorado river, cutting deep through an almost Martian landscape, a place novelist Edward Abbey once described as a portion of Earth’s original paradise.

KEN SLEIGHT: It was just an amazing place.

ROTT: Ken Sleight was a close friend of Abbey’s and a river runner on the Colorado. Now 92, he says Glen Canyon was home.

SLEIGHT: You come to love it even more than anything. But they ruined it all when they put the water in there.

ROTT: It took a decade of blasting…

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

ROTT: …Digging and pouring concrete to build the Glen Canyon Dam. The goal, similar to Hoover Dam and Lake Mead just down river, was to provide water storage along the Colorado and to generate electricity. The dam was finished in 1966. Glen Canyon was drowned. Then, two decades ago, scientists say the megadrought began. And in recent years, water levels really dropped.

BALKEN: Holy moly.

ROTT: Boating into a side canyon of the Colorado with Eric Balken, we approach one of the largest natural bridges in the world – a thick span of red sandstone over placid waters.

BALKEN: The last time this span was out, Neil Armstrong hadn’t walked on the moon yet.

ROTT: We putter in slowly. Reflected sunlight glimmers on the underside of the bridge like a kaleidoscope.

We are going to fit, right?

BALKEN: Yeah. Oh, my God.

ROTT: We make it through, navigating upstream past the bone-white tops of dead trees until the reservoir ends in a narrow canyon.

(SOUNDBITE OF STUMBLING AND LAUGHTER)

ROTT: We hit shore, anchor up and begin hiking.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

ROTT: Before the drought, this whole area was under water. A white bathtub ring stains the rock more than a hundred feet overhead.

BALKEN: Oh, my god, this is so cool. This is totally different than the last time I was here.

ROTT: Near the reservoir’s edge, the ground is kind of soupy.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS IN MUD)

ROTT: And there’s not much vegetation, just red rock. But as you move up canyon, a creek starts to take shape.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER RUNNING DOWNSTREAM)

ROTT: And the hike turns more into wading.

(SOUNDBITE OF WADING THROUGH WATER)

ROTT: Sprouting willows and cottonwoods, along with invasive species, line the shores about hip height. And songbirds trail against the canyon’s edge.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS SINGING)

ROTT: Amidst the occasional historical artifact.

BALKEN: Pull-tab beer can.

ROTT: Maybe a mile up the creek, the vegetation starts to grow so thick that wading turns into bushwhacking.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEGETATION RUSTLING)

BALKEN: I mean, we’re walking through, like, 15-foot-high willow bushes here.

ROTT: The point of this whole venture, what Balken wants us to see, is that Glen Canyon is recovering. The longer an area has been out of the water, the greater the recovery.

BALKEN: I just want to bring, like, every water manager and everybody that’s negotiating the future management of Lake Powell and Lake Mead. And I want them to come in and experience this and just know that when you’re talking about refilling Lake Powell Reservoir, potentially, you’re talking about re-drowning this place.

ROTT: Balken and the Glen Canyon Institute are advocating for a new approach called Fill Mead First. As in, the next time we get a big snow year, instead of filling up Lake Mead and Lake Powell equally – which has been the policy since Glen Canyon Dam’s construction – water managers should fill Mead first, flooding Glen Canyon and filling Lake Powell only if necessary. Hence, the unpopularity with some of Lake Powell’s half-billion-dollar tourism industry. But Balken says now is the time to talk about it.

BALKEN: This place is changing. And it deserves updated management.

ROTT: For a long time, Balken says he felt like Don Quixote, tilting at windmills.

BALKEN: People just said we were crazy. And, like, look at – it’s happening, you know?

ROTT: The reservoir is fading away. And with climate change, it’s hard to see a scenario where it’s full again.

Jack Schmidt is a watershed scientist at Utah State University.

JACK SCHMIDT: Everyone understands that we’re in a new normal.

ROTT: He says the whole debate about Glen Canyon is secondary to the bigger issue on the Colorado, which is that we’re overdrawing from a shrinking checking account.

SCHMIDT: It doesn’t matter whether water is stored in Powell, in Mead, 50/50. It doesn’t matter for solving the problem of the imbalance of the checking account. That problem can only be solved by reducing consumptive use.

ROTT: The seven states and Native American tribes that depend on the Colorado River are renegotiating its management now. And Schmidt isn’t sure that the Fill Mead First proposal will find its way to the bargaining table. But he agrees, it’s a good time to have the conversation.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

ROTT: Back in Bullfrog, up shore from the marina and floating houseboats, Mark Edwards and Steve Thompson are preparing for a day of bass fishing. And they’re also game to have that conversation. They love Lake Powell. And Edwards says he doesn’t think it’s practical to have it go away completely.

MARK EDWARDS: I’ve floated all these rivers in the West. I mean, I would have loved to have been down here before they put the lake in. And I would have fought against it. But it’s too late now.

ROTT: Too late to get rid of the dam, even if there’s not much water behind it.

Nathan Rott, NPR News, Glen Canyon.

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