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Rising tide changes life at Lake Powell

PAGE, Ariz.

At Lake Powell, the canyon-hemmed gem on the Utah-Arizona border, it's all about flakes.

The 186-mile-long, manmade pond serves as the country's second largest water tank, storing runoff from the Rockies until it's needed for pools and putting greens downstream. In wet years, the reservoir fills. In dry years, it drops.

Lately, it has dropped a lot. The West has been wheezing through a lingering drought, and the surface of this sapphire-blue jewel has dipped to levels not seen since Nixon was president. Now, it's flakes to the rescue.

Last winter, storm clouds dumped mounds of powder on Rocky Mountain West, giving skiers their best season in years. Eight of Colorado's 26 resorts reported all-time record snowfalls, and flurries were still whitening slopes as late as mid May. As the pack melts, much of the resulting runoff will surge down the Colorado River system until it reaches the concrete cork in the canyon known as Glen Canyon Dam.

Officials gauge water level by the surface's altitude above sea level. Brim full, Powell measures 3,700 feet, a mark not touched since 1986. It slipped below 3,556 three years ago, allowing boaters to see sights not seen since 1969. The lake rebounded a bit, but it was still sloshing 89 to 110 feet below full. This year promises a much loftier watermark.

"The latest projection has it rising to 3,636 in late July," says Barry Wirth of the Bureau of Reclamation. "It's the highest it will have been in quite a while, and that has people smiling."

Smoother sailing

Houseboaters may sport the biggest grins. The lake must exceed the 3,620 level for the Castle Rock Cut to open. At lower water, up-lake boaters launching from Wahweap Bay must traverse the original Colorado River channel through the Narrows. Here, wakes ricochet off walls making it feel like piloting a barge through a washing machine. The Castle Rock Cut allows more gentle passage around the north end of Antelope Island.

Not only does the Castle Rock Cut reduce the need for Dramamine, but it also whacks a dozen miles off uplake distances. With houseboats averaging 1 mile per gallon, the roundtrip fuel savings alone can cover a week's supply of beer.

The cut also chops the time it takes to get to Rainbow Bridge. At low water, the roundtrip tour to the world's largest natural span takes seven hours. With the Castle Rock Cut open, it takes only 5. Rising water also shortens the walk to the bridge from 2 miles to less than one, something hikers sweltering in 100-degree heat appreciate.

Rising water also opens up sights to see in side canyons. Boaters can motor farther from the main channel to reach spots not accessible by water for years. From there, hikers can more easily navigate above the "death zone," that portion of canyon bottoms subject to periodic immersion.

"We've been so far down, a lot of people don't even make it to the high-water mark when they hike," says Dave Panu of Hidden Canyon Kayaks. "Now, when you start exploring, you're closer to the original Glen Canyon with all the trees, birds and the wildlife."

The increasing lake also has a pleasantly lethal effect on invading tamarisk, tree-high invasive weeds that assault beaches and stream bottoms, sucking up water and pushing out native species. Attempts to eradicate them have met with failure but at least as the waters rise, forests of these canyon-clogging aliens are finally gurgling to an underwater doom.

Below the surface, the unwanted tamarisk actually become useful. Branches provide hiding habitat for the lake's fish, which include striped, largemouth and smallmouth bass as well as black crappie and walleye. Those same underwater critters also benefit from nutrients washed into the lake by the increased inflow. That means some of the fattest fish may be found around Hite Crossing at the lake's upstream end.

"The fishing is always better where a river enters the reservoir, so it's a very popular spot. The lake may look silty up there, but that line of silt is quite often the place to go," says Steve Ward of Lake Powell Resorts & Marinas.

Living with change

There are, of course, downsides to a rising lake. With water levels capable of popping up 24 inches in 24 hours, marinas constantly must be readjusted. The job requires carefully winching the cables that secure the floating platforms to the lake bottom and shore.

Higher water may also temporarily reduce beaches. Around this canyon country reservoir, sandy flats occur where rainwater washes sediment down from above. Those laid when the lake was low can become subsurface memories, but replacements will form when summer rains come.

Changes in water level also mean more opportunity for boating blunders. Features formerly above the surface may now be submerged and unmarked. Drivers used to low lake levels may suddenly find themselves ramming hull-ripping rocks where they least expect them.

"People need to be vigilant and keep their eyes open," explains Michelle Karraker from the National Park Service. "They need to remember that it's all canyon above the water, but it's all canyon underneath it as well."

On the positive side, increasing water means more surface area. Traffic can spread out more, so boaters will experience less congestion and fewer tight spots. Padre Bay, one of Lake Powell's most photographed locations, is larger and more scenic. Smaller bays are reopening, peninsulas are once again becoming islands.

"You may miss things that were there before, but you will find new things that you formerly couldn't get to," observes Steve Carothers, general manager of the Antelope Point Marina and Resort. "I'm going to have to go back and re-explore myself. It's been six years since we've been this high."

Dan Leeth is a freelance writer based in Aurora, Colo.

.IF YOU GO

Lake Powell

Page, gateway to Lake Powell, lies on U.S. 89 in northern Arizona. The nearest major airports are Las Vegas, 275 miles to the west, Phoenix, 280 miles to the south, Salt Lake City, 390 miles to the north, Albuquerque 395 miles to the east.

When to go: Lake Powell can be enjoyed throughout the year. Spring brings uncrowded conditions with blooming wildflowers and temperatures in the 70s. Summer is prime time when the lake buzzes with houseboats, motorboats and personal watercraft. Air temperatures can touch triple digits, and the water warms toward the 80s. Autumn days are generally warm and pleasant, and with kids back in school, fewer boaters compete for space. Winter is definitely the off-season, a time when the wake-free water mirrors the surrounding cliffs, bluffs and mesas. Days are generally sunny, but bring a jacket. Highs average in the 40s and 50s and nights often dip below freezing.

Boat rentals: Lake Powell Resorts (toll-free 1-800-528-6154, www.lakepowell.com) rents houseboats at the Wahweap Marina northwest of Page that range in size from the 46-foot Expedition, which sleeps 6 ($1,795-$2,995 per week) to the 75-foot Odyssey, which sleeps 12 ($12,124 per week). Powerboats can be rented for $400 to $695 per day.

Taxes, fuel, linens, energy surcharges, kayaks, personal watercraft and tow-along motorboats are generally extra.

Land accommodations: For those who want to sleep on solid ground, Page abounds with accommodations. Contact the Page Tourism Bureau (toll-free 1-888-261-7243, www.pagelakepowell
tourism.com) for a list of options.

For more information: To learn more about visiting the area, check with the Page Lake Powell Chamber of Commerce (toll-free 1-888-261-7243, www.pagelakepowellchamber.org). For information about visiting Arizona, contact the Arizona Office of Tourism (toll-free 1-866-275-5816, www.arizonaguide.com).

Dan Leeth

Rising tide changes life at Lake Powell 07/11/08 [Last modified: Sunday, July 20, 2008 1:28pm]

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