Current Controversy: Draining Lake Powell


One of the most hotly debated topics today concerns the draining of Lake Powell. As early as 1963, when the dam was built, David Brower argued, "Hoover, Parker, and Davis dams already exist and control the river adequately; they could probably continue to do so until Lake Mead is silted in completely, perhaps two hundred year from now" (Porter, 1963). Environmentalists argue that Glen Canyon Dam was originally built to control flooding and as it no longer serves that purpose, the lake should be drained. Many people are opposed to this idea, from congressmen to recreationists as Lake Powell serves the needs of boaters, fishers, etc. and the dam provides a steady source of hydropower.

The Argument for Draining Lake Powell

1.) Precious water is wasted, as several hundred thousand acre feet of water per year seeps into the sandstone, (Glen Canyon Institute) and almost a million acre feet of water evaporate from Lake Powell a year (Muro, 1997). A million acre-feet could meet the annual domestic needs of 4 million people and at today's prices are worth $435 million in the Salt Lake City area. Furthermore, as Lake Powell rises, fills with sediment, and spreads out across the landscape (it peaked at 88 percent of capacity last year) the losses will be even larger. There are regions, including Baja California and the Gulf of California, which would greatly benefit from the restoration of river flow. Draining Lake Powell means more water for the Colorado River states and Mexico, especially Colorado and Utah.

2.) The dam was designed primarily to store water for future development of the Upper Basin States but it only sends a minor diversion to Page and a little more to a nearby coal-fired power plant. The rest of the water (that is not lost to evaporation or seepage into the sandstone) goes to Lake Mead. Lake Mead's Hoover Dam could control the Colorado River without Lake Powell and could produce more power if Lake Powell's water were stored behind the Hoover Dam. This would save money, water, and wild habitat.

3.) Steve Hannon argues that the Glen Canyon Dam is not necessary as the water and power created by the dam are wasteful and "absurd." He argues that the electricity created by the Glen Canyon power plant is used to subsidize farmers trying to make unfarmable land farmable. Hannon also claims that much of the water is used for farmers to grow grass to feed their cows. He argues that if the beef cattle production in the 11 western states were entirely eliminated, the eastern states would easily be able to make up the difference, and there would probably be no increase in beef prices. He writes, "Just eliminate a small portion of those most absurdly wasteful uses of water and power and the economic need for Powell Reservoir vanishes" (Hannon, 1997).

4.) When the 1922 Colorado River Compact was enacted, the 7.5 million acre feet of water was not based on a correct estimate of the water flow on the river. The river has not produced the average 15 million acre feet of water annually that was predicted. (Hannon, 1997) If a contract is based on a mutual mistake of fact, then the agreement may be voided. Thus, as the reason to create the dam, to regulate the flow of the river, was based on an untrue fact, the Compact should be voided.

The Cons of Draining Lake Powell

1) Draining of Lake Powell would reduce the amount of hydropower generation (possibly by 30%) which would be particularly detrimental because the Glen Canyon Dam is a major generator of the Colorado River Storage Project, comprising 75-85% of total CRSP generation. The substitute for this energy loss would have to come from the burning of fossil fuel which would cause an increase in air pollution.

2) Additional legislation would be needed to negate the constraints of the 1968 Colorado River Basin Project Act. The Colorado River Compact, the Upper Colorado River Basin Compact, and the Mexican Water Treaty also may need to be re-negotiated.

3) There would be a substantial loss of revenues if the Lake were to be drained as the recreational uses of Lake Powell (white water, jet-skiing) bring in many visitors.

4) Non-native predator fish from Lake Powell could be a major concern to native fish species in the Grand Canyon

5) Unlike the Sierra Club contends, the dam isn't unsafe.

6) There would be a loss of downstream trout fishery.

7) The overall life span of the Lake Powell is at least 700 years. At the end of this period, Lake Powell will be completely full of sediment.

8) Colorado River Storage Project customers would experience a significant rate increase for electricity.

Key Opponents

1. Bureau of Reclamation

2. Western Area Power Administration


4. Utah Chapter--Sierra Club. According to chapter leader Ann Wechshler, the chapter was "not consulted" regarding the Sierra Club's vote to drain the reservoir (Wharton 2). The Utah chapter "does not support the draining," and the issue, in fact, was never on their agenda (Wharton 2). In her estimation, the Utah chapter has "an obligation to keep the memory of Glen Canyon alive and never to allow that kind of boondoggle to happen again. But Glen Canyon is gone. Maybe in the future we can talk about dismantling dams on the Colorado. Right now, there is not the local support for doing that" (Wharton 2).

5. Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah. On March 5, 1998, Rep. Chris Cannon led 25 members of Congress to protect Lake Powell by introducing a "Sense of Congress" resolution stating that "no change was justified or necessary in the water level of the 252-square-mile lake along the Utah-Arizona border" (Rocky Mountain News).

6. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R_Colorado and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. During the hearing of the West's house members following the Sierra Club's vote to drain Lake Powell, Sen. Campbell as well as Western Representatives and most witnesses "took turns calling the proposal ‘certifiably nutty' and other choice comments" (Marston 1). Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch has called the idea of draining Lake Powell "loony" (Wharton: 1997, 2).

7. Melvin Bautista, Member of the Navajo Nation. Bautista stated that "the Sierra Club proposal would wreck disaster upon the economic and social welfare of the Navajo Nation. It would also detrimentally and fundamentally alter a water preservation, delivery, and supply system crafted by many decades of planning and social compromise for the sake of a myopic, selfish, impractical, environmental deal" (Young 1).

8. Rep. John Shadegg, R-Arizona. Congressman Shadegg was "particularly critical that the [Sierra] Club's Board had neither solicited its membership on such a broad public position nor developed any scientific basis for reaching the conclusion to support their action" (Young 2). He also mentioned the Utah chapter's opposition.

9. Rep. John Doolittle, R_California. Following the hearing, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Water and Power, Congressman Doolittle declared, "standing on the shore of the lake, or gliding quietly over the surface of the water deep in one of the many canyons, or flying over the majestic reach of Lake Powell, you have an opportunity to experience a unique natural resource. I, for one, would not support any step to destroy this beautiful gem that has meant so much to so many people" (Young 2). Furthermore, he asserts that "Lake Powell fulfills the diverse needs of millions of Americans. Let us make the best use of this magnificent resource. It is a decision we can live with" (Young 2).

10. Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah . Following the hearing, Chairman of the Subcommittee on National Parks and Public Lands maintained, "it was important to hold this hearing so that the American people can understand just how extreme this proposal is and how it would impact millions of people due to water shortages, higher electricity prices, lost recreation opportunities and severe environmental problems" (Young 2).

11. Bruce Babbitt, Secretary of the Interior. In an interview in the July 1997 issue of National Geographic, Babbitt said that Lake Powell is "essential to the economies of the Upper Basin States," and so, to drain Lake Powell would be "‘unrealistic'" (Wharton 2).

12. Ted Stewart, Executive Director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources. Stewart warned that "draining Lake Powell could force Utah's governor to turn off water to Salt Lake City during periods of drought" (Wharton 2). Stewart calls the drain campaign a "‘foolish idea'" (Wharton 2).

Current Status of the Debate

Along with the Sierra Club, other groups involved with the discussion to drain Lake Powell are the Glen Canyon Institute and the Earth Island Institute. The Glen Canyon Institute hosted a workshop on October 13-14, 1998 to discuss the draining of Lake Powell. Their argument rests on five different aspects of the dam: biological, water quality, physical, economic, and spiritual characteristics. In order to drain the lake, the Institute must initiate a federal action to restore the Canyon as the dam is a federal facility (http:\\ They are undertaking efforts to develop a Citizens Environmental Assessment, CEA, in order to show the government that there is public concern about the dam. The hope is that the government will initiate an environmental impact statement on the proposal to drain the dam in response to the CEA. At the moment, the Institute is raising funds for the CEA as many tests: sedimentation, hydrology, water quality, economics, hydropower, biology and recreation, will be used to argue the merit of draining the lake. Only public support will convince the government that the dam is a problem and so it is the public that will ultimately be responsible for the draining of Lake Powell.

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