Not only is Lake Powell’s water level plummeting because of drought, its total capacity is shrinking, too, causing the lake to swell with an extra 300,000 or 400,000 cubic feet of water every year.
The new capacity — currently only 1.5 million cubic feet — can’t be drained to accommodate more water from Lake Powell. And it’s not just Powell that’s at issue. The lake above it, Lake Powell Dam, is at risk, as well.
All are threatened by the fact that when the Great Depression hit, people began draining the Great Salt Lake. But that draining meant the evaporation of the lake’s salt water, creating a vacuum that sucked up everything in its path.
Utah’s population skyrocketed. A state that once boasted nearly 730,000 people is now around 1.5 million, the highest ever. And that growth has meant less space for the environment, more cars on the road, more water usage.
“What is being lost to drought is being lost to the lake,” said John Swain, director of conservation at the Utah Division of Forestry and Wildlife. “All the other agencies have to keep the public informed and accountable, and that is happening. But that’s not the role of state government.”
Utah Department of Water Quality
The state’s water agencies have been working with Lake Powell to create a plan for how to keep Lake Powell and Powell Dam safe while the water level plummets in dry years.
The state began working on a long-term plan in January, and the Water Quality Commission unanimously approved the new plan in February. But it won’t be ready till next summer — in other words, when Lake Powell is at its lowest level in 30 years.
Lake Powell, which can only be pumped out if more water is on hand from the Colorado River, is at its lowest point since the early 20th century. The new plan calls for pumping in a maximum of 50 million gallons of water from Lake Powell every day and storing it in an expensive reservoir in southern Utah. The plan also calls for building and installing more pipelines and equipment to handle the additional water.
Lake Powell is used by more than 100,000 people a year, many of them from out of state. Its average daily use of about 2 billion gallons is used to cover the state’s power needs. But it receives millions of gallons of water into its reservoir from out-of-state farmers