Is Lake Powell doomed?

Photo by Bob Hembree
A bustling Page, AZ - Nov. 1, 2019

The Hohokam were "masters of the desert," according to archeologist Emil Haur. The lost Arizona civilization had the most extensive, most elaborate irrigation system in North America. Their villages dotted the Phoenix Basin along the Gila and Salt Rivers. Traces of them extend from Sonora, Mexico, to Flagstaff, Arizona. They endured 1,500-years and vanished 90 years before Spanish explorers arrived.

Hohokam, the name given by archeologists, is from the Piman language. It means "all used up" or "exhausted."

There are speculations on the fate of the Hohokam.  Their prosperity led to larger populations, along with more demand for water. And there were droughts. Water shortages also lead to political upheaval; governments fail, civilizations fall, and people disperse to more suitable lands.

Mark Twain said, "History doesn't repeat itself, but It often rhymes."

Page, Arizona was built to service the growth of large cities. The small town, located by the Colorado River, is a hub for power and water. Page once relied on Navajo Generating Station; now it's gone. It now relies heavily on Lake Powell for tourism. How long that will last is open to speculation. With uncertain weather patterns, out-of-control population growth, and fights over water rights, it gets complicated. At some point in time, Lake Powell, like Navajo Generating Station, will have served its usefulness.

Arguments for and against Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell's creation existed in the beginning and continue today. Environmental changes, global warming, and nature's volatility all work together and have little regard for our best-laid plans.

On Feb. 22, 2021, Lake Powell was 127.24 feet below 'Full Pool' or, by content, about 38% full. Based on water level elevations, these measurements do not account for years of sediment (clay, silt, and sand) accumulation—the millions of metric tons on the bottom. Geologist James L. Powell said, "The Colorado delivers enough sediment to Lake Powell to fill 1,400 ship cargo containers each day." In other words, Lake Powell is shrinking toward the middle from top and bottom. The lake is down over 30 feet from one year ago, and estimates suggest it could drop another 50 feet by 2026.

The Bureau of Reclamation estimated the lifespan of Glen Canyon Dam at 500–700 years. Other estimates aren't as optimistic, including some as low as 50 years. The lower estimates claim increased demand, longer, hotter droughts, and more volatile storms will speed up Lake Powell's decline.

According to a 2018 report published by The Colorado River Research Group, "In reservoirs designed to provide multi‐year carryover storage, declines are expected in dry years, and recovery is expected in wet years. In the case of the Colorado, wet years occurred about 50% of the time in the 20th century, but since 2000 have occurred only 25% of the time." The report's apt title is "It's Hard to Fill a Bathtub When the Drain is Wide Open: The Case of Lake Powell."

Southern California, the fast-growing Phoenix, Tucson, and Las Vegas metropolitan areas all have a stake in Lake Powell and its sister, Lake Mead. In reality, the two reservoirs are part of one system that supplies water to farms, ranches, and over 40 million people.

The predicament throws new light on the idea of growth as progress. Perhaps we're all Hohokam.