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Recreation at risk as Lake Powell dips to historic low

PAGE, Ariz. — A thick, white band of newly exposed rock face stretches high above boaters’ heads at Lake Powell, creating a sharp contrast against the famous red desert terrain as their vessels weave through tight canyons that were once underwater.

It’s a stark reminder of how far the water level has fallen at the massive reservoir on the Utah-Arizona border. Just last year, it was more than 50 feet (15 meters) higher. Now, the level at the popular destination for houseboat vacations is at a historic low amid a climate change-fueled megadrought engulfing the U.S. West.

At Lake Powell, tents are tucked along shorelines that haven’t seen water for years. Bright-colored jet skis fly across the water, passing kayakers, water skiers, and fishermen under a blistering desert sun. Closed boat ramps have forced some houseboats off the lake, leaving tourists and businesses scrambling. One ramp is so far above the water, people have to carry kayaks and stand-up paddleboards down a steep cliff face to reach the surface.

Houseboat-rental companies have had to cancel their bookings through August — one of their most popular months — after the National Park Service, which manages the lake, barred people from launching the vessels in mid-July. At the popular main launch point on Wahweap Bay, the bottom of the concrete ramp has been extended with steel pipes so boats can still get on the lake, but that solution will only last another week or two, the park service said. “Unfortunately, they’re allowing such a beautiful, beautiful place to fall apart,” said Bob Reed, who runs touring company Up Lake Adventures.

Lake Powell is the second-largest reservoir in the United States, right behind Nevada’s Lake Mead, which stores water from the Colorado River. Both are shrinking faster than expected, a dire concern for a seven-state region that relies on the river to supply water to 40 million people and a $5 billion-a-year agricultural industry.

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