Low Water Levels at Lake Powell Put Officials on Alert

Low Water Levels at Lake Powell Put Officials on Alert

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Environment Specialist John Hollenhorst reportingThe National Park Service has closed another boat ramp at Lake Powell because of low water. The Stateline Ramp is one of several now closed on Utah's most popular lake.

And late Monday, the government issued a pessimistic runoff forecast, underlining the point that Lake Powell will soon be at its lowest level in more than 30 years.

Despite this fact, some effects of low water actually make the lake better for recreation. But lake managers are clearly worried about this summer.

Lake Powell, where have you gone?

Consider this vantage point where we stood just 18 months ago, and look at the difference now. This was the lake's upper end near Hite.

Several square miles of Lake Powell are now mud flats. Thirty miles or so of Colorado River Canyon leading into the lake are also choked with mud.

"This is very impressive in a frightening way," says geologist Gene Stevenson.

To those who love the lake, the Lake Powell looking-glass is still half full.

Boaters still have a lake nearly 200 miles long. It still holds half its water in storage for downriver users, even after years of drought.

"It is doing its job right now," says Max King with the National Park Service.

But the growing bathtub ring marks the vertical drop 85 feet in the last several years, and it's still going down a foot or more a week.

That means new scenery is coming into view: slot canyons, pinnacles and hoodoos and brand new beaches.

"There's a lot more beaches lakewide than there used to be when the water was higher," King says.

But problems abound. What if a boat hits a mud shoal at high speed? Here, some beach toilets have become nearly useless as the receding lake moved the beach nearly a mile away.

"It's a worry because then we'll have people using the beach as their toilet facility," says facility manager Eric Smith.

The boat ramp at Hite is out of business hundreds of yards from water. A temporary alternative ramp is a muddy mess.

"Officially I guess you could say it is closed, yes. But we're not preventing anyone from launching or retrieving," says Kerry Haut with the Naitonal Park Service.

The main launch ramp at Bullfrog is nearly out of the water, except for an older, longer, but much narrower ramp hidden under the water.

Complicating the picture are the Lake Powell ferries. Their own ramps don't reach the water anymore so they're using the public boat ramp, taking up three of the nine launch lanes.

In the past, boaters have sometimes waited hours to launch boats on the busiest days.

If only three launch lanes are operating instead of all nine -- do the mathl. Does that mean people will be sitting in launch lines for five, six, seven hours at a time getting stressed out in the summer sun?

"It sounds really ugly to us and we're really concerned about the impact on the visitor at this time," Smith says.

As soon as the lake hits its predicted low in the next few weeks, the Park Service hopes to pour concrete to lengthen the ramps.

But it won't do any good unless the lake rises several feet to cover the ends of the lengthened ramps. No one knows if there will be enough spring runoff.

"The Colorado River is one of the most unpredictable flow rivers in the world," says Lonnie Gourley with the Glen Canyon Dam.

Some other problems: They're scrambling to buy more pumps because boat sewage has to be pumped so much further.

Off-road vehicles are damaging pristine side canyons that used to be cut off by the lake.

And then there's this: Yes, that's Yours Truly, stuck in the mud at what used to be Bullfrog North Beach. I mean REALLY stuck! Like superglue holding onto those boots.

An isolated problem, but a serious safety issue, especially for kids.

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