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Somewhere between demand and supply is the ‘Thirst Gap’ that’s shrinking Lake Powell

A forest of dead cottonwood trees line a flowing creek in one of the side canyons near Lake Powell on July 6, 2022. The trees were submerged by the reservoir's water until recently.
Alex Hager
Dead cottonwoods, long buried under the still waters of Lake Powell, have reemerged as "ghost forests."

Even with plentiful run-off from snow-laden mountains, Lake Powell’s low water level is eerily stark. The once mighty reservoir spanning the Utah-Arizona border hit a record low in February. Even as the Colorado River that feeds it withers due to drought and increased demand, the seven squabbling states that tap the river — including Utah — have yet to strike a deal easing off the spigot.

Reporter Luke Runyon of public radio station KUNC spent the last five years reporting on the Colorado River. He said it’s impossible to escape the reality of the Lake Powell’s predicament.

“There's this hundred foot high or taller bathtub ring that encircles the whole reservoir and you can see it everywhere that you're boating through the reservoir,” he observed.

And the upper parts of Powell, “where the Colorado River comes into the reservoir” are in even worse shape.

“It's this land that's made of mud, because this is where all of the sediment that's in the river dropped out. It's this kind of spooky area that people that I was with described as Mordor in Lord of the Rings.”

Runyon’s new podcast "Thirst Gap: Learning to Live With Less On the Colorado River," tells tales of the eerie lake levels and differing views about what should be done with the river. The six-part series taps into the people and places struggling to deal with water shortages in the Southwest.

Tellingly, the episode on Lake Powell is called "The Big Empty." Runyon said the second biggest resvoir on the Colorado is one of the thorniest issues he’s come across in his reporting with differing views on what its fate should be.

He talked to environmentalists who believe the reservoir should be drained altogether, or allowed to dry up, so that Glen Canyon can be restored and a National Park created. And he chated with boaters who nervously watch their watery playground wane, like Sheri Facinelli, who has been going there since 1983 and was married on a Lake Powell houseboat over 20 years ago.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Pamela McCall: When you met Sheri Facinelli, she was — as you put it — clad in a bright bikini on her vintage Lake Powell houseboat. You tell us that the initial vacation vibe she gave off changed when she talked about the lake level.

Sheri Facinelli: It's been part of nature and it's been just what happens, because in some years it goes up 50 feet and some years it goes up, you know, a couple of years in a row and then it comes down. This is different. This is ... feeling like we really could stop Lake Powell as we know it.

Luke Runyon: Lake Powell was a very kind of controversial and touchy subject in the world of Western water. Some people like Sheri, they love this reservoir. And for others, it's this kind of symbol of excess when it comes to water in the Southwest. And so there [are] folks, like Eric Balken with the Glen Canyon Institute, who say we shouldn't be thinking of it as a storage tank anymore. We should be thinking of it as this place that has natural value, intrinsic value. He'd like to see Lake Powell's water moved downstream to Lake Mead so that Glen Canyon could be restored and people could visit what he says is this lost National Park. This idea used to be kind of like a fringe or taboo concept. But Lake Powell just hit a record low earlier this year. The river itself is kind of draining the reservoir — as long as our demands for water downstream stay as high as they are.

PM: Where's the debate headed?

LR: Everyone is realizing that there is not enough water to meet everyone's needs in the Southwest. How you go about relying on the river less — that's where a lot of the tense conversations happen, some of the finger pointing between the states, between different water users. That's really the moment that we're in right now on the Colorado River. Everyone is trying to figure out how we rely on this shared river less. And it's a really hard conversation and it's a hard thing to decide.

PM: Lake Powell is getting a boost from this year's snowmelt. What kind of impact is that likely to have on people's views?

LR: Right now, Lake Powell is at 3,524 feet above sea level. By the end of July, it's going to be at 3,590. That's a rise of about 66 feet. So, it's not an insignificant boost to Lake Powell, but it was at a record low just recently. And one good wet year is not a make or break for Lake Powell. It really takes sustained changes to make a difference.

PM: You've been covering the Colorado River and indeed its interconnection with Lake Powell for five years. How have the conversations you've been having with people about water shortages changed over that time period?

LR: I think people could see what was coming: that these sort of very difficult conversations about water use in the Southwest — that we were going to be having them eventually. I don't think anybody really anticipated how soon we would have to be confronting some of these challenges.

Pamela is KUER's All Things Considered Host.
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