Why Filling Lake Mead First is a bad idea - By Sinjin Eberle - Mountain Buzz

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Old 04-11-2017   #1
Andy H.'s Avatar
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Why Filling Lake Mead First is a bad idea - By Sinjin Eberle

Article by Sinjin Eberle of American Rivers discussing why Glen Canyon Dam shouldn't be removed anytime soon. Shout out to John Fleck for alerting me to this article.

The Fill Mead First logic reads like this — because Lake Powell is so expansive, covering roughly 250 square miles when full, with highly porous sandstone underlying the lake seemingly seeping millions of gallons of water every year, added to many tons of sediment coming down the river and settling on the bottom of the lake year after year after year; if Lake Powell were drained to a level where it was basically no longer a lake, bypassing Glen Canyon Dam, all that water could be collected in a single, larger pool, in Lake Mead. Lake Powell would shrink back to a figment of itself, like a shriveled earthworm lying on a hot sidewalk, with all its lake water living in Mead. Glen Canyon could then be allowed the process of reviving itself, returning to its majestic and spiritual glory. Billions of gallons of Colorado River water would be saved, and outdoor recreationalists young and old could suddenly bask in the renewed glow of a long-lost lover. This pair of vastly depleted lakes (Mead is not quite 40% full while Powell is holding barely half of its capacity) could be turned into one, topped out, more efficient reservoir.

The problem is, it’s too soon, and the science doesn’t work out. Not yet.
It's a pretty emotional issue for a lot of us, we all would love to raft the Grand in warm, muddy water, and of course save water. It has always seemed like a no-brainer that Glen Canyon Dam / Lake Powell should go. Recent research says the evaporation loss savings would be a wash, and seepage from Powell is minimal. Then there's the fact the Upper Basin States would need storage and once-coveted damsites on the San Juan, Yampa/Green, Upper Colorado, or Animas could be revived.

Hopefully this will inform the discussions we have here.


Nothing in the world is more yielding and gentle than water. Yet it has no equal for conquering the resistant and tough. The flexible can overcome the unbending; the soft can overcome the hard. - Lao Tse
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Old 04-12-2017   #2
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"For Every Complex Problem, There Is an Answer That Is Clear, Simple, and Wrong." H.L. Mencken
Simply undoing what was done will not solve the problem. It may solve one problem but it will manifest itself in a multitude of other issues and problems. That may have been the answer 61 yrs ago but not today.
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Old 04-12-2017   #3
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That article does pretty much make it look like we are fucked.
It would be really awesome to somehow decrease the need ( or want), for that much water allocation, but that does seem like a near impossible goal, considering current population explosion. A lot could be done to decrease water usage, but could it ever be done to that extent?
We can't always agree, but we can still be civil to each other.
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Old 04-12-2017   #4
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FYI - some substantial study has been done on diverting water from the Mississippi during annual high flow to the Colorado Basin, and the idea is making some resurgence. I am not arguing this is a good idea, just throwing it out there for people to be aware.
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Old 04-12-2017   #5
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The general consensus that my river friends and I have come to, is that we wish Glen Canyon dam had never been built, but now that it is here it should stay.

I'm no expert, but it seems to me that even if we started the draw down of the lake today, Glen Canyon would take more then a lifetime to come even close to being what it was before the lake. I doubt it would even be safe to run due to the silt beds and constantly changing conditions. I imagine similar, but larger silt banks to what is above Pearce Ferry and the creation of rapids similar to Pearce Ferry rapid.

I also imagine the amount of sediment in the river would increase dramatically and effect ecology in the Grand Canyon and Lake Mead. Just as the water will go into Lake Mead, so will the silt.

I also think there is a larger contingent of motorised recreational users i.e. power boats and house boats, that would be up in arms if they drained Lake Powell.

I wish it wasn't true, but I think leaving Lake Powell basically as it is, is the better route. This view of everything being allright again as soon as you drain it is a bit foolhardy and it seems like having the lake there isn't quite the ecological disaster it seems.
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Old 04-12-2017   #6
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Originally Posted by shappattack View Post
FYI - some substantial study has been done on diverting water from the Mississippi during annual high flow to the Colorado Basin, and the idea is making some resurgence. I am not arguing this is a good idea, just throwing it out there for people to be aware.
Isn't the Mississippi River Delta and surrounding estuary already imperiled? Wouldn't diverting more water from an already reduced system further harm a system that needs more water, not less? Everything I have read hints that medium to long term ecological and economical benefits are symbiotic to restore one of the most important and productive Delta's in North America.

I have appreciated Rebecca Solnit ever since I stumbled onto an advanced reader copy of Wanderlust. Her writing taps into many of my passions. But I also think she waxes poetic on subjects that are increasingly complex and require extreme nuance. This is one of those times. More and more I see how the political exuberance of environmentalism isn't always an accurate portrayal of resource management. What works to rally a base isn't necessarily what is best for science-based decision making. I think the article Andy links highlights that dichotomy well.

I won't claim to know what is best for Glen Canyon as there are far too many diverse stakeholders to define one clear black and white solution. I will say though that environmental organizations are faced with a modern need to employ new strategies to maintain relevancy and success. The implications of the growing populist movement across the West (societal/cultural, not American geographic) have yet to be felt in the realm of resource management. The Administrative State that environmentalism so heavily relied on in past decades will not be the same in the coming years. If non-profit groups can't find a way to imbue "fly over" country with different sense of respect and collaboration than we will see a larger erosion of momentum and sustainability than is needed. The implications for river management and recreation are profound.
The need for collaboration is more relevant than ever. And that means digging into the untidy complexity of places like Lake Powell and the myriad of users that appreciate its existence or communities that rely on it to exist.
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Old 04-12-2017   #7
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I nominate restrac2000 for the position of Official Sage of the Buzz.

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Old 04-12-2017   #8
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That article doesn't make a lot of sense.

Evaporation: How can evaporation from a lake the size of Powell be "a wash" compared to a river the size of the Colorado?

Seepage: This argument seems logical.

Sediment: I would rather see that sediment accumulate in Meade than Glen Canyon. The longer the dam is there the worse the damage to Glen Canyon becomes.

Colorado River Compact: What does is matter if the water is stored in Powell vs. Meade? It all still passes the gauge at Lees Ferry. We know how much is sent downstream. Reservoirs don't change the amount of water flowing down a river they just change WHEN the water flows down the river. Does the compact state we have to send a certain amount of water per month? If so, I'm sure the compact could be changed to say we'll send a certain amount of water per year and let the lower states store it all in Mead.

Administrative: Just because we have 20 year operational plan for Glen Canyon doesn't mean we can't get rid of it.

Not very persuasive. And this is from someone who got married at Lake Powell. I love the place, but it's time for it to go.

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Old 04-12-2017   #9
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Per question about Colorado River Compact's relevance....

Doesn't Lake Powell water serve the storage needs of the Upper Basin states and Mead serve the Lower Basin states? If correct, then that is both a major political issue and infrastructure problem to overcome to serve residents of both areas. My county voted against participating in the Lake Powell pipeline but I guarantee minority water rights holders around us will not give up access without a major fight. There are some serious powers and populations that are stakeholders of Powell water (at least in theory).

Considering the compromises that were needed to create that 20 year extension I doubt anyone is willing to truly abandon Powell in that timeline. What am I missing?
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Old 04-12-2017   #10
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Per evaporation....i am not a hydrologist and can only glean a minority of the information from the Schmidt study cited but the linked article seems to summarize it well. Blutzki, your summary that its a wash between evaporation rates for Powell and the river itself is not consistent with the article's statement. They stated

But it's false, and the Schmidt study concludes that if there is essentially any presence of water in Lake Powell, that even as it is drained down the evaporation would be essentially the same. Since it is unlikely that Powell would ever be truly empty, moving most of its water to Mead would be a wash rather than a significant benefit."
This is all in tbe context of moving water to Mead. When you dive into the scientific study the "wash" is because of Mead's higher overall evaporation rate and the correlated increase in total evaporation with increasing Mead lake level. Its important to highlight the fact that the scientific paper admits a high level of uncertainty (statistical definition) in their findings but that is still better than anecdotes and guestimates from simplified theories. The scientific paper is worth reading as it openly deals with all of the nuance and uncertainty. These details matter and the Fill Mead First pitch isn't aligning cleanly with the best math and statistical analysis we have conducted.

All this said, like any good scientific paper, it calls for further study which could ammend their findings.
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