A reprieve for Powell?
The reservoir is at its lowest level since filling up
The calamitous headlines have come fast and furious: Lake Powell’s water levels reach record low. The new low-water mark, the stories said, is emblematic of the Colorado River crisis and the dreaded dead pool — when Lake Powell gets so scraggly that its water can’t even make it through Glen Canyon Dam — is imminent.
I suggest taking this news with a grain of salt.
It’s true that the reservoir hasn’t been this low since 1968, five years after the Colorado River began backing up behind Glen Canyon Dam. It’s also true that the river on which some 40 million people depend is caught in what appears to be an irreversible decline. Dead pool is inevitable. But it’s not happening this year, because once that massive snowpack upstream from the reservoir starts melting, Lake Powell’s going to get a bit of a reprieve.
In fact, Lake Powell’s record low is actually a good sign — if looked at from a certain angle — because it indicates that water managers are confident enough in this year’s snowpack to release a bit more water from Lake Powell than they otherwise would. That has helped Lake Mead recover, slightly, with water levels climbing five feet since December.
And the snowpack is looking good. Very good. As of Feb. 28, snow levels in the Upper Colorado River Basin were well above average and tracking similarly to 2011, one of the most bountiful water years of the last two decades. That spring and summer saw rivers swelling up, overflowing their banks, and giving river runners a good — yet dangerous — time. Lake Powell’s level climbed 45 feet that year, in spite of larger than average releases from the dam.
It’s certainly too early to count on a repeat of the 2011 Colorado River runoff. Snowfall trends could flip. Early springtime temperatures could soar, as they did in 2021, which not only speeds up the runoff but also diminishes it by increasing evaporation. The parched ground could suck up some of the snowmelt, taking it away from the streams.
Yet there is still plenty of reason to be optimistic. Here’s one of them:
The Upper Dolores River watershed in southwestern Colorado, which has been especially hard hit by aridification and overallocation over the last couple decades, currently has 37% more snow than it typically does in early April, when snowpack normally peaks. The snowpack hasn’t been this good since 1993. That means if it stopped snowing now, there’d still be a healthy runoff into McPhee Reservoir, which would mean farmers would get their full share of water and the Lower Dolores might actually get enough water to be called a river.
And yet, aridification is not over. And even if snowfall trends do continue, officials must not backslide on efforts to cut water consumption. Nature has granted a reprieve — but only a temporary one.
This photo, posted on the History of Durango, Colorado, Facebook page recently, kind of blows me away. It shows the uranium mill as seen by someone standing atop one of the tailings piles (which were pushed up against the face of Smelter Mountain). I find it striking for a number of reasons, perhaps mainly because today nothing remains of this very large and extensive industrial complex. It’s now a dog park, scraped clean of all of this (though the water underneath remains contaminated). Also, Durango (in the background) looks so much different now.
The picture was probably taken in the 1950s, when the uranium mill was operating full bore (it shut down in 1963 after studies found it was contaminating downstream water and food supplies). At the time Durango was still an industrial place and commercial center for the extractive industries all around, from hardrock mining in the high country to oil and gas drilling in the San Juan Basin to, of course, the uranium milling. And if you look closely at the photo, you can see that: the smoky air coming from at least three visible smokestacks; the coal tipple at the railroad yard; the dirty-looking town.
We are buried in the furthest corner of NW Colorado. The drifts in the barnyard are so dramatic one almost needs crampons to navigate. And, where they’ve plowed it looks like a ski area parking lot. I remember Durango like this, you couldn’t see over the snowplow piles while driving down the highway.
I cant decide is this is “good” news of not considering my hatred of that damn dam.