News reports and studies supportive of draining Lake Powell overlook a few details

sub title
News reports and studies supportive of draining Lake Powell overlook a few details
May 17, 2017


Calls to rethink the Colorado River's Iconic Dams Grow


“It’s an idea that was rebuked by some environmental groups and largely ignored by state and federal agencies that manage the water resources and dams.” – from the online news magazine News Deeply Water Deeply, in an article published May 15 (since updated) under the headline, “Calls to Rethink the Colorado River’s Iconic Dams Grow Louder,” which contends the movement to drain Lake Powell by “decommissioning” Glen Canyon Dam is growing stronger.

Sentimentally, the cause championing the demolition of Glen Canyon Dam – and, so, allowing the born-again might of the Colorado River to once again race wild and fierce – has passionate advocates.

It is embodied in a proposal by a small, Utah-based environmental non-profit known as the Glen Canyon Institute, which several years ago proposed draining Lake Powell (and, so, decommissioning Glen Canyon Dam), and using Lake Mead downstream of the Grand Canyon as the lower Colorado River system’s sole reservoir.

The proposal, known as “Fill Mead First,” assumes that climate change and reduced river flow will justify combining the two great reservoirs into one.

Alas, their rationale for jeopardizing the watery lifeline of 40 million people in the Southwest and California is thin.

The most recent “evidence” for the plan relies on a 2016 study that, by and large, concludes that the “Fill Mead First” campaign is a bad idea, at least for now.

In other words, advocates for draining Lake Powell now are claiming that a study presenting bad news about the practicality of their plan is, in fact, good news because researchers at least took the issue seriously enough to perform a study.

That is the take-away conclusion from a feature in News Deeply Water Deeply, an online, public-service-oriented news magazine funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Ceres, the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation, as well as other “socially responsible corporate enterprises,” according to the publication.

News Deeply analyzes water and other environmental issues in California, although the publication recently announced plans to expand its coverage to include all of the American West

Written by managing editor Tara Lohan, the May 15 report argues that the “Fill Mead First” movement may have been dismissed as naïve and unworkable at first, but now has gained traction because it had been given “serious scientific examination” by a Utah State University research group, the USU Center for Colorado River Studies.

“The scrutiny has catapulted ‘Fill Mead First’ back into Western water discourse and in doing so, it has revealed some key problems in the Colorado River Basin that can’t be ignored much longer,” wrote Lohan.

But while the center’s highly respected director, Jack Schmidt, expressed sympathy for the idea of a reborn Glen Canyon, the “surprising” lack of data about the impact of draining Lake Powell gave Schmidt and his researchers cause for pause:

“The magnitude of potential ecosystem changes caused by the (Fill Mead First) plan are so great and the water savings are so uncertain that implementation should await a new program of data collection and analysis designed to reduce uncertainty about the key process of evaporation and bank seepage," said Schmidt.

The USU center’s report found that impacts to the river’s aquatic and riparian ecosystem – including the existing population of endangered native species such as the humpback chub – could be “potentially significant.”

Schmidt told the science-news journal that such a project would require a detailed plan to avoid catastrophic changes to the Grand Canyon ecosystem downstream from the dam.

His group’s research also took issue with some of the “Fill Mead First” assumptions about water loss into the porous bedrock of Lake Powell. It likely is not nearly as much as they think.

There are other arguments for keeping Lake Powell, of course. Some of them acknowledged in the NDWD report

And while Lohan originally argued that the issue has been “largely ignored by state and federal agencies that manage the water resources and dams,” (the NDWD story recently has been updated) at least one of those agencies has written considerably on the subject.

In the first of a two-part series published Sept. 29, 2016, the Arizona Department of Water Resources’ Arizona Water News wrote in detail about the very public debate over Glen Canyon Dam that took place in Congress in 1997.

Unequivocally, the then-director of ADWR, Rita Pearson Maguire, said at that hearing:

“Draining Lake Powell cannot be seriously considered for many reasons. But the principal reason is because life as we know it here in the West would be impossible without Lake Powell Reservoir.”

 A week later, on Oct. 5, Arizona Water News addressed the scientific and hydrological consequences of life without Glen Canyon Dam.

Among other deleterious effects, Water Resources department experts, among many others, have concluded that drought-inspired shortfalls in Colorado River allocations would have occurred far sooner – perhaps by two decades – and with far greater intensity.

Data compiled by the federal Bureau of Reclamation – the agency that built and operates both Glen Canyon and Hoover dams – strongly indicate that Lake Mead would have gone completely dry years ago if not for Lake Powell’s storage-enabling compact releases.

On February 22 of this year, we reported on the research by Schmidt and his team from Utah State, noting the dearth of data backing up the “Fill Mead First” campaign.

As environmentalist Sinjin Eberle, communications director for American Rivers, notes in his very sympathetic take-down of the “Fill Mead First” plan, the most sensible goal for all advocates of the Colorado River should be to stabilize the very unstable system that exists today on behalf of the 40 million people who rely upon it.

“Then, and only then,” wrote Eberle, “might conservationists pursue the dream of restoring Glen Canyon.”

(Editor’s note: In an email discussion between Lohan and the Arizona Department of Water Resources, the author generously acknowledged that Colorado River agencies did not “ignore” the “Fill Mead First” plan so much as they “dismissed” it – a more accurate depiction, considering the wealth of data agencies have collected that bolster arguments against it.

The author since has updated her story to read:

“It’s an idea that was rebuked by some environmental groups and state water agencies, and dismissed by federal agencies that manage the water resources and dams.”