Drought helps build case to drain lakes


It took 17 years to fill Lake Powell after the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam. But Powell's water level has been steadily dropping for the past 16 years due to an extended drought and overuse of the Colorado River. Today, the lake holds just 57 percent of its capacity. Its dam produces 60 percent of the electricity it was designed to produce as a result of the reduced water pressure.

Downstream 360 miles, Lake Mead is also feeling the effects of drought and overuse. Mead is just 37 percent full, which is a real problem the for the 20 million people who rely on it for drinking water and irrigation.

But a small advocacy organization in Salt Lake City is pushing a radical idea that could help fill Mead.

"The idea of filling Lake Mead first and draining Lake Powell is more realistic than ever," said Eric Balken, who is the executive director of the Glen Canyon Institute.

Draining Lake Powell has been a goal of some environmental groups ever since Glen Canyon Dam was built in 1963. But the fact that neither Powell nor Mead is full today, or likely to get filled anytime soon, if ever, is giving the idea new life.

The "Fill Mead First" plan is based, in part, on the idea that Powell loses a significant amount of water through drainage in the porous sandstone soil, as well as evaporation. Allowing the water to flow downstream into Mead would reduce evaporation as the surface area of water on two lakes would become one. Mead is also located in a different geological area, which does not leak water.

"So the fact of the matter is that we have a system that cannot even support one reservoir, let alone two," said Balken.

Lakes Powell and Mead are not the only reservoirs that are experiencing dry times. San Carlos Lake in central Arizona is sitting at just 3 percent of its capacity. It's only been full three times in the nearly 90 years it's been in existence. Coolidge Dam, which was built to keep the waters of the San Carlos in check, is growing cactus and cracks. Its hydroelectric generating turbines went silent long ago.

Roosevelt Lake, located northeast of Phoenix, is also dealing with the effects of drought. It sits at 42 percent of capacity. But unlike the reservoirs to the north, Roosevelt and smaller lakes that lie downstream offer a glimmer of hope for Powell.

"The amount of water that we produce is pretty equal to our demand," said Tim Skarupa, who is a senior hydrologist with Salt River Project. SRP manages Roosevelt, Canyon Lake, Bartlett Lake and the other reservoirs that are so popular with Valley boaters and casters.

These smaller lakes are kept at more than 90 percent full. SRP officials say the key to keeping the lakes full is reducing the demand.

Copyright 2016 KPHO (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.

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