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John Hollenhorst reportingAfter years of low water, the National Park Service is considering digging a deeper channel for boats near Lake Powell's busiest marina. The proposal to deepen the "Castle Rock Cut" suggests that no one expects the lake to fill up anytime soon and raises questions about the long-term water supply of the Southwest.
Several years ago, Lake Powell dropped to about half full and stayed that way. Will it ever fill up again? Probably, some day. But its prospects and the future water supply for the region have turned much more pessimistic in recent years.
When Lake Powell is half full, it costs many boaters hours of extra time and many gallons of extra fuel. In high water, boaters can go directly from Wahweap Marina to the main lake. In low water, that shortcut closes. Boaters are forced to detour 12 miles.
The proposal is to restore the short-cut by deepening the so-called "Castle Rock Cut." The excavation might be a half-mile long.
Dwayne Cassidy, with the Lake Powell Tourism Board, said, "I know that it's going to be a significant enhancement to the visitor experience."
With the lake now seemingly stabilized at half full, the Park Service is studying the proposal.
Kevin Schneider, with the National Park Service, said, "Right now, the lake has been for the past few years, has been right at about the same level."
The money for the project might seem wasted if the lake goes up very much or down very much. So what is Lake Powell's long-term future?
Tom Ryan, a hydrologist with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, says, "There has been an evolution of thinking in the scientific world."
Ryan takes a mildly optimistic view. "Our models show that Lake Powell will fill. Our models in fact show that it will be full 15 percent of the years in the future," he said.
According to his estimation, it would be full one year out of six.
Lake Powell critic and environmental historian Wade Graham has a pessimistic spin. He says the lake will sometimes be essentially empty. "It's going to be below half full probably more than half the time. Occasionally floods will fill it, but they will draw it down much more quickly than ever in the past so that a situation of a full Lake Powell will be fleeting," he said.
New science has increased pessimism. Tree ring studies show that long, extreme droughts were common in the past.
"It's true, you do see droughts worse than what we've experienced the last eight years. You also still see wet periods," Ryan said.
Graham adds, "Drought is not going to be abnormal in the future; it's going to be the normal hydrology of the American southwest."
While nature provides less water, the states take more and more. Seven states divided up the Colorado River early in the last century. Everyone now agrees they had bad data from an unusually wet period.
"The compact was based on an optimistic viewpoint, overestimated the amount of water that's in the system," Ryan said.
And Graham says, "There will never be fewer demands for water from the Colorado River."
Add to all that the worry over global warming. The scientific studies are uncertain right now, but many scientists believe the Colorado River drainage will get even dryer in the future. So the trends do not look good for a full Lake Powell.