What’s up With the Flow?
Three weeks ago my colleagues and I rented a catamaran from the Bullfrog Marina on the reservoir that is Lake Powell. For two hours we motored down the lake, through motionless Colorado River water. The sky collided with the towering stone walls, which disappeared into the deep blue of the cold reservoir. I reclined in the back of the boat, watching Turkey Vultures soar overhead and zoning out to the drone of the motor.
Soon we turned up the “Escalante Arm” or, before the reservoir, the confluence of the Escalante and Colorado Rivers. The first side-canyon is Clear Creek. This was our first stop on the reservoir. Up Clear Creek a short ways we hit a near 90 degree bend. Around this bend, we killed the motor and drifted into a chamber at the end of the canyon. The sun blasted down from a tight slot above, illuminating a massive chamber. In the center of the terraced cliffs a gentle sliver of water fell 50 feet to a perfect sandy floor. Cathedral in the Desert. This amazing place has, for many years, been under the reservoir. With sustained water shortage in the Southwest, we have been given a second chance to enter the Cathedral.
But What About the Snowpack?
This winter, you may have noticed that many regions in the West have gotten significantly above average snowfall. This is good news for river runners, and cities that rely on the precious resource. It’s also good for many ecosystems in the diverse landscape that is the west; after all water IS life. While there will be more water running into the reservoirs than the last several years, this season will not quench the thirst of the drought that has become the new normal for the region. Lake Powell, and subsequently Lake Mead (the two largest reservoirs on the Colorado) are predicted to only have a “normal,” or slightly higher, runoff.
Where is the Water Going?
Understanding the upstream ecosystem both natural and human-built upstream is important in knowing what is happening with the runoff from this winter.
Some of the snow-melt that is going to a parched earth before it ever makes it to the river. The ground and plant life that relies on the water from the Rocky Mountains has been subject to the same hot years that we have. Because the soil and flora is so dry, it’s acting like a sponge and using more of the runoff than usual.
Secondly, while Powell depends on the Rocky Mountains for its water, Lake Mead depends on upstream flows from Lake Powell. So while the winter was stacking up water, Powell was continuing to deliver its legal allotment of water downstream. The cities that rely on Mead, as well as cities above Lake Powell, are using the Colorado River water for drinking water and agriculture at an alarming and unsustainable rate. Those places are also growing, using more water than they have in the past with few plans for water conservation. This mindset is slowly changing and will have to soon if cities and town in the West hope to survive.
A Changing Climate
One of the biggest pieces of the puzzle is that the Southwest is becoming hotter and drier as climate change effects the region. This means people and nature need to use more of a resource that we will likely have less of in the future. Even if we have bigger snow years like this one, a hot climate means more of that dry earth, as well as earlier runoffs, which are bad for reservoir storage.
While the prospects of a changing climate and an over-allocated Colorado River are disheartening, it can also give us inspiration for the future. Firstly, we are on the verge of learning new ways to work with the river to provide for people as well as the ecosystems that rely on it. This will mean utilizing innovative ways of conserving and using water and encouraging water-wise resilient communities that can live in the arid West.
Secondly, like our experience in Clear Creek, we as river runners and adventurers, are being given a second chance to see canyons that were long thought drowned under Lake Powell. Many miles of Cataract and Narrow Canyon, the San Juan and small side canyons in the Escalante have begun to restore from reservoir water and sediment. After having traveled to many of these places and seeing the canyons reemerge and come back to life gives me hope that we can find a way to sustain them and ourselves.
Jack Stauss moved to Salt Lake City in 2008 in pursuit of big mountains and wide open spaces. He has spent the last several years both enjoying and advocating for public lands and free flowing rivers. While he’s not typing on his keyboard, he will be backcountry skiing in the Wasatch or exploring Utah’s wild deserts. Read some of his environmental musings at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at @jackstauss on Instagram